On December 25, Anthony Quinn Warner detonated an RV full of explosives in downtown Nashville, killing himself and injuring several others in the process. Two weeks earlier, thousands of Proud Boys – a violent white supremacist hate group – attended the “Jericho Rally” in Washington DC. There, right-wing speakers supported the overturning of the 2020 presidential election results, leading to violence in the streets following the event. A few weeks earlier, a Biden-Harris campaign bus was ambushed by a caravan of trucks driven by Trump supporters, and nearly ran off a highway. Only a few months earlier, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two people and injured a third after answering a conservative militia group’s thinly-veiled call to assault peaceful protestors.
If Warner’s motives turn out to have been political, then all of these are incidents of domestic terrorism. As commonly defined, terrorism involves the committing or threat of violence to pursue a political agenda. Yet, most of these incidents have been promoted or defended by major conservative political figures. Florida State Rep. Anthoni Sabatini called for Rittenhouse to be elected to Congress and outgoing President Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio expressed enthusiastic approval for the Biden-Harris bus ambush. Retired General (and convicted criminal) Michael Flynn encouraged the violent crowds at the Jericho Rally to “not allow” the results of the 2020 election to stand.
Politicians who laud these acts see a potent return on investment in terms of a large segment of the voting public comfortable with white supremacy and authoritarian nationalism. It’s a platform on which Donald Trump campaigned during a summer full of abuses of power. If the body count resulting from these hostile policies proved no impediment to securing the allegiance of over 70 million voters, then the packaging of violence as “patriotism” might send a message to these voters that their interests remain a priority among those in elected office or the public eye.
However, what too often goes unnoticed that each of these political nods of approval were offered in lockstep with appeals to familiar Christian religious tropes and interests. Sabatini has pushed for public schools to begin teaching “Bible literacy” from a conservative Protestant religious perspective. Trump explicitly campaigned on the message that his opponents would “hurt the Bible” and “hurt God”; Rubio’s Twitter feed intersperses his policy views with his now-infamous Bible tweets. At the Jericho Rally, both the Bible and the name of Jesus Christ were invoked multiple times by speakers in anticipation of the unsurprising acts of violence perpetrated by the Proud Boy attendees following the closure of the event.
These theological flirtations are part of a conservative culture that promotes white Christian nationalism, the view that fuses Christianity and whiteness into a single category that fundamentally defines national identity, policy, and values. The social extent of this concept – and the commitment to it – can be seen in multiple directions within American society, from annual complaints about a non-existent “war on Christmas” to the close ties between Trump administration officials and the Museum of the Bible (a white Christian nationalist institution) to the apocalyptic prayer offered by evangelical pastor John Hagee at the inaugural ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Scholars of religion have addressed this phenomenon extensively over the last several years as part of an accelerated breakdown in the ostensible distinction between church and state, which indicates a societal shift toward fascism.
Nevertheless, commentators have been hesitant to see the connection between the theologizing of American statecraft and acts of domestic terrorism, even as studies confirm that authoritarian white supremacist groups pose the greatest risk for terrorist violence. Of course, many terrorists do not claim religious motivation, and for many, terrorism is so patently violent and destructive that it necessarily falls outside the boundaries of any religion. In 2014, President Barack Obama advocated this view in addressing the idea of religious terrorism by claiming that “no religion condones the killing of innocents.” From this perspective, terrorism can never really be religious, and a terrorist who identifies their act as a matter of religious devotion is making a false claim.
This view, however, is wrong. While upstanding, average believers would not commit terroristic acts, radicalized religious fanatics often rationalize their atrocities through warped religious views. Virtually every religion in human history has managed to condone killing innocent people by “otherizing” them as infidels, apostates or tribal enemies. The biblical tradition is full of such examples. One thinks, for instance, of the slaughter of the first-born children throughout
Egypt in the book of Exodus, or the call for the murder of Babylonian children in Psalm 137 as vengeance for the exile that Babylon imposed on ancient Jews, or the tradition of herem – a form of genocide – legislated in various books of the Bible. To be sure, the Bible contains humane and moral teachings that counter this tradition, but this is because religions are never ideologically monolithic. They are replete with contradictions, and this feature cannot be sanitized away.
The religion scholar Rene Girard theorized years ago that most religions also engage in the act of scapegoating: transforming an innocent person or group into symbol of monstrous danger or threat, which subsequently licenses violence against them. Girard’s theory stems from a passage in the Bible regarding a scapegoat ritual, but a look at post-biblical religious cultures is revealing. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant Christianity, conceived of Jews as scapegoats, and openly called for them to be physically harmed, their holy books burnt, and their synagogues destroyed. The impulse for religious scapegoating continues around the world in different ways. The persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Islamic State’s brutality against the Yazidis are recent examples, all conducted by abhorrent actors who nonetheless acted within, not beyond, the parameters of their religious traditions.
Today, echoes of this resonate in more subtle ways here in the United States. In October 2019, former Attorney General William Barr delivered a speech at Notre Dame Law School where he proclaimed that the integrity of the republic was imperiled by secularism. The implication is that the United States is not a secular country where people are free to practice (or not practice) religion, but that it is an inherently religious country whose population is under attack by anti-religious agents. In May of the same year, outgoing Vice President Mike Pence spoke to students graduating from Liberty University, warning them of the dangers of “the secular left” and the temptation they will face to “bow down to the idols of the popular culture.”
Pence’s full comments make explicit that Christian faith is the fundamental and essential feature of American identity that is under constant threat from a secular “popular culture.” The popular culture Pence has in mind is one characterized by tolerance for cultural and religious diversity, science, facts, critical thinking, economic opportunity, and, significantly, a push against white supremacy. All of these facets undermine the hegemony of “real” Americans (i.e., white and Christian). Pence’s address identifies this culture as an illicit idol, a demon-god that will try to tempt the faithful – in not so many words, Pence equates secular popular culture with The Devil. Since Christian tradition conceives of all of history literally as a war between The Devil and God waged on a human landscape, it is a minimal jump from verbally scapegoating secular popular culture to actually engaging in a violent purge of forces representing this ostensible threat.
In my view this is a cornerstone of Trumpism, which is a political/religious ethos that has persistently characterized acts of misogyny and violence (political, religious, sexual, etc.) as a virtue. It is here where we can see the connection to domestic terrorism in two distinct ways.
First, the continuous closed-circuit of Trumpist propaganda on right-wing news outlets and social media has radicalized millions of Americans to view anything beyond that closed-circuit as a lie and a threat to national integrity. Reinforcing this with white Christian nationalist talking points, theology, and appeals to scripture will invariably lead to some people carrying out violent acts as a declaration of religious and nationalistic fidelity.
This may be a matter of religious fanaticism, but fanaticism grows out of more mainstream movements and communities. Concepts entertained in the mainstream are amplified as they are transmitted along the line to groups sitting closer to the fringes. Attacks on secularism in speeches by political figures like Barr, Pence, Trump, Pompeo and others can metastasize into liturgies of violence and finally take shape as acts of ritual purgation among people in more fringe groups like QAnon. Their members have already engaged in documented cases of domestic terrorism. These acts are declarations of pious zeal reflecting an extremist concept of patriotism and Christian faith, but one possessing points of contact with the more mainstream opposition to secularism.
The second way Trumpism connects to terrorism is when a group carries out a terrorist act that is not a matter of religious fanaticism but benefits those who trade in that ideology. The violence threatened and enacted by the Proud Boys is not especially steeped in Christian theology; neither were the murderous actions of Kyle Rittenhouse or the ambush of the Biden-Harris bus in Texas. But these actors and their acts have been “claimed” by political opportunists as vehicles to affirm their Trumpist credentials. Senator Rubio’s tweeting of random Bible verses, as an example, might mean little on its own. However, alongside his public approval for the actions of these radical groups, these tweets become affirmations of power and authority imbued with the threat of violence. They also serve to sanctify those brutal acts under the aegis of biblical authority, an egregious insult to people of Christian faith and conscience who reject white Christian nationalism and the political violence that reinforces it.
Currently, the terrorism of Proud Boys, QAnon, and other groups is convenient for those politicians who have chosen to advance a theology of blunt force trauma masquerading as patriotism. Yet as University of Connecticut professor of philosophy Lewis Gordon notes, fascist violence invariably turns inward, as new scapegoats must constantly be identified in order to maintain the myth of nationalist purity and grievance against threats. As such, there will invariably come a breaking point when the agenda of these agitators and Trumpist politicians no longer align. By that time, lives will be lost, institutions will be demolished, and vicious cruelty will run rampant and unrestrained as actors appeal more desperately to the threat of violence to maintain political leverage.
This is already beginning to happen among those carrying the power of high elected office. It is no accident that as Congress convenes on January 6th to count the electoral votes confirming the Biden presidency, Trump has called for his supporters to convene in a rally entitled “The Wild Protest” to reject the peaceful transition of power. Legions of Proud Boys plan to descend on Washington D.C. for this protest, and people in the Beltway are already filled with dread over the damage that may result. And just over this past weekend, Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert stated in an interview that with a court ruling against attempts to subvert the counting of electoral votes on Jan 6th, a protest will “have to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM [the Black Lives Matter movement].”
Gohmert’s statement is an uninflected call for terrorist action, using the common Trumpist scapegoating liturgy (“Antifa, BLM”) as a justification. But the inward turn has also begun among ordinary devotees to Trumpism. Recent posts on the right-wing social media site Parler have increasingly featured accusations lodged even at Trump loyalists like Pence and death threats directed at conservative members of the Supreme Court.
A malignant narcissist with nothing left to lose, Trump has a desire for retribution upon a political system that rejected him. But politicians steeped in an enduring Trumpist ideology who seek to remain on Capitol Hill may ultimately find themselves as targets of the forces they helped unleash even as they espouse their abiding Christian nationalist faith. And on that day, the only pious words they might be able to speak or tweet will be “heaven help us.”