The New York Times ran a cover story today detailing a moment during the insurrection in which seven strangers worked together to attack Capitol Police officers. The profile on the insurrectionists, which the paper of record still refers to as Americans involved in a “riot,” as opposed to an attempted coup, is part of a continued softball response to the growing threat of domestic terror.
The aim of the piece is to capture these insurrectionists as “seemingly average citizens,” to quote the paper, who were “duped by a political lie.” The piece uses language to describe them as “the most ordinary–a slice of the Trump faithful.” Rather than saying they come from a part of America where racism and xenophobia run rampant, the piece states these terrorists came from “places where people tend to fear the replacement of their ethnic and cultural dominance by immigrants.” In describing these individuals in the language of their relatives or friends–the “perfect neighbor, devout churchgoer, attentive father, good guy,” etc., the Times does an incredible disservice to reality.
The whole article reads as an apologist piece for terrorists. Can you imagine if the 9/11 hijackers had been covered in this way, repeatedly given the benefit of the doubt? Maybe, you could argue, they deserved as much. We all hope to be humanized, to receive empathy, despite our greatest sins. The difference here is that the United States went to extremes to hold accountable the 9/11 plotters, whereas those who tried to overthrow our government nine months ago are receiving light taps on the wrist.
There are other major differences, of course, between these two types of terrorists, but for both, faith is often a major motivator, is repeatedly referenced by major media outlets, yet to serve entirely different purposes, namely that Christianity is good, and Islam, bad.
In highlighting their faith, in particular, you get the sense that throughout this piece, the authors are scratching their heads going, “Gee, how the heck did these churchgoing folk ever choose violence as a path?” They even write of one insurrectionist, Clayton Ray Mullins, that “Mr. Mullins is not known as a political activist or even a man of strong opinion, other than that Jesus Christ is his lord and savior.”
Because he has no social media, Mullins (along with others in the article) are described as someone swept up in the fray of the moment, caught up in a kind of mob mentality. The authors repeatedly give deference to several insurrectionists, publishing what they “would later say”–that they were merely trying to help a poor police officer, dragging him away; or that they were just there to “provide aid” to those injured, despite video evidence to the contrary.
Apparently, the journalists at The New York Times are unfamiliar with how radical U.S. Christianity has become, especially in the throes of the southern states (Mr. Mullins hails from Kentucky). Mullins’ church, the Little Obion Baptist Church [website out of date] in Wingo, Kentucky–the Times neglects to mention–is part of an independent Baptist movement that regards the King James Bible as the only authoritative translation of the text.
These kinds of churches are not only traditionalists and literalists in their approach to Biblical hermeneutics; they are also deeply authoritarian in their understanding of God as a king and militant ruler over humankind, and they apply that understanding of their religion to their understanding of their government as well.
It’s important to note when a theology is fully authoritarian, because it’s much easier to drive a person toward a fascist politic if he already holds a fascist theology, and this particular Christian movement is deeply anti-democratic (note on the outdated website the placement of the American flag, which is a firmly theological statement in a day and age when there’s much debate surrounding whether national flags should be in churches at all).
Worse, one of the church’s former pastors, whom the Times claims Mr. Mullins was responsible for recruiting, preaches in a sermon about the importance of nice, kind Christians being firm and harsh when it comes to their faith, casting the modern faithful as “persecuted” like the early Christians. At play is an ‘us vs. them’ divisive theology, as well: a form of scapegoating those who “persecute” today’s Christians. It’s not that hard to make the case for violence when you already believe the in-group–like-minded Christians–are under attack by the out-group.
There’s a way in which these theologies have made it easy to blur the lines between religion and politics. In the past I’ve been critical when people blame religion, particularly Islam, for violence, largely because the vast majority of religious followers are, indeed, non-violent people, and though terrorists claim religious reasons for their actions, these groups often must rely on obscure, outdated medieval texts intertwined with modern political statements to form their worldview. You could argue the right-wing problem we’ve seen unfolding within Islam in which a small portion of followers have been politicized toward violent action in the wake of Western bombings of their homeland, isn’t all that dissimilar to what we’re seeing happening to Christianity in the U.S.
Once “seemingly average citizens,” today’s Christians–especially in rural America–are poorer, brutalized by an opioid epidemic, overwhelmed by an infodemic and misinformation, and their own children are at-risk of being gunned down just by going to school. Worse, all of the “solutions” they have to these issues only seem to make all of the issues worse, and they’ve been spoon-fed, as part of their religious and political media consumption, the belief that it’s someone else’s fault, namely those who disagree with their political and religious milieu. Even though progressives in the U.S. have been just as brutalized, easily much more so, the tendency is that liberals concentrate their anger up the ladder while conservatives have disdain for their neighbors.
In highlighting these realities, I don’t mean to imply that mob mentality is not a real thing. Anyone can be caught up in the moment, it’s true, when crowds gather and violence ensues. The point I’m trying to make here is that much of today’s Christian experience makes some U.S. citizens who at one time might have been “good, churchgoing folk,” the way The New York Times would like to cast them, nevertheless ripe for fascism, more easily pulled into the mob, because it’s baked-in to every aspect of the religious experience. It’s a Christianity that would be unrecognizable to the early followers of the “Way,” how first-century “Christians” describe themselves. But it’s a Christianity that functions more like an al-Qaeda training camp than we may be willing to admit.
We need honest, accountable reporting, and often that means journalists have the responsibility to look in the mirror of our own society, as critical of those who look and worship as we do as we are of those who don’t. The head-scratching “how could they” journalism doesn’t cut it. I shudder to imagine–in six months, in a year, in two years–reading an article by The New York Times, or another major, respected outlet that asks, of an even more deadly attempt to overthrow our government, maybe a successful one, “How could this have happened here?” when it’s happening right before your eyes, if you’re willing to look, if you’re willing to report on it, or if we’re willing to read it.