Updated: Jan 14, 2021
As a scholar of religions who has extensively researched Christian Nationalism and violent extremism, I was wholly unsurprised at the deadly events that unfolded at the nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021. I am angered, I am saddened, but I am not surprised. In fact, I think many of you who have followed the news closely were also unsurprised, given that Trump supporters among the radical right (two groups that, notably, should not be lumped together automatically), have telegraphed for months that they would rather engage in violence than accept an election result that went against Trump. They even made t-shirts.
Still, as a nation we are reeling from the events and searching for the correct response. Many steps are necessary for our safety and integrity—holding the rioters responsible criminally, holding the instigators, all the way up to President Trump, responsible legally, revisiting security measures—but we have not yet begun to talk deeply and thoughtfully about the roots of the problem. However, without grasping why this extremist ideology has taken hold with so many, we will never be able to successfully stem the cycle of the continuing rise of the radical right and this kind of violence, even after Trump is no longer President.
In my book Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset (Routledge, 2016), I distilled my research on hundreds of examples of radical apocalypticism, a worldview that cuts across religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, New Age religions) and some ideologies (eco-activism, anarchism, to name a few). The violence from January 6, wrought by many different groups, included the violent Christianist version of radical apocalypticism, which has as little to do with mainstream Christianity as does violent Islamist extremism with Islam, and which is distinctive for its level of embracing the ideology of white supremacy.
While a full analysis of the insurrection requires a different format and more time, a few important points that I learned in my research are worth mentioning now as they seem to be lost in the current responses to the insurrection. These are points everyone should understand, so that our responses do not worsen an already dangerous situation.
1) Religious and ideological extremism feeds on a sense of oppression and grievance. Those on the radical right perceive themselves to be persecuted, even if they objectively belong to groups who enjoy privilege. Their sense of oppression drives their anger and desire for vindication. I have seen already multiple published opinion pieces bemoaning both the desire of the radical right “to be heard” as well as statements on social media that seem to wish for a more violent police response of the sort that Black and Brown people would have received. (To be clear, I agree that had 30,000 BLM supporters or 30,000 Muslims attacked the Capitol they would have been met with far more force. However, wishing such force on the white rioters supporting Trump does not solve the problem of violent police overreach!).
However, if we do not want to stoke more participation in the radical right, this is what we must grasp. The ideology of the radical right is embraced by those who feel disempowered and aggrieved, so there is a simple feedback loop: mocking them or attacking them makes them feel more aggrieved, which only reinforces their premises and draws more to their cause. The starting point of their mindset (and this goes for the various male empowerment groups as well on the radical right), is that their way of life is under assault, the rest of the nation is against them and their principles, and the government is out to get them and to disempower them. Again: the kind of mockery that is rampant right now on social media against the rioters may feel good for a moment to the rest of us, but it only strengthens the worldview of those on the radical right and it will cause their movement to grow and/or for those involved to become more radicalized.
Add to this that the ideology of most of the groups anticipates a coming civil war, a race war, and you can easily see that the more governmentally sponsored violence and social mockery that we may heap upon them, the more we fan the flames of their movement. Every person who dies in their movement in this cause is a martyr. The most dangerous of the groups aim to start this civil war, which is why a confederate flag in the Capitol is chilling on every level.
2) Discredited information and outlandish conspiracy theories empower them. I found in my research that when a group believes it has access to revealed information (i.e. revelation) and most people outside of the group reject this knowledge, the insider group feels more powerful, because only they have access to the secrets (in their view, that is). Therefore, the more outlandish the theory and the more that mainstream society says that the theory is false, the more a group doubles down on believing it. Even beyond the online RPG like charm of QAnon, it is this access to being part of a special group that knows secrets which gives the ridiculous, completely fake movement its intoxicating quality. A Satan worshipping, Democratic, pedophilic cabal traffics children and controls government and business? The fact that QAnon’s central claims are patently outlandish is part of the allure for its followers, who must discover the shocking secrets by piecing together “breadcrumbs” that must be decoded across the internet. The fact that most people reject the information is part of what makes the movement addictive to those who participate in it.
Over fifty lawsuits that claimed election fraud were overturned for lack of evidence, often by a Trump appointed judge, yet we still saw a mob attack the Capitol because they believed Trump’s claim that the election was fraudulent. It is the nature of conspiracy theories that the more others reject a claim, the more tightly some people will cling to it. The widespread rejection of Trump’s claim is construed as proof of the conspiracy.
3) They will not give up and move on. Yes, public shaming on social media and elsewhere will change the minds of a few fringe members who didn’t really know what they were getting into, who went to protest in D.C. based on false information they have been fed continuously for months (actually, for years). However, the hard core believers, those who cannot be convinced that the election was fair, will only double down as a result of their cognitive dissonance. (And since people got on a bus or plane and booked a hotel room and showed up, everyone there is probably a pretty fervent believer). They have invested so much of their self identity, time, and resources into believing that Trump has won the election that no evidence to the contrary will get them to change their minds—not even when Biden becomes President on January 20. They will come up with a way to make the false idea that Trump is the fairly elected President appear to be true, even after Biden is certified as the next President. They will do this by believing that our entire government and presidency is false, and this will spur them on to fight and to believe that Trump (or perhaps someone with his name) can be President again.
A similar phenomenon happens in apocalyptic groups that predict a date for the end of the world. Social science studies tells us that when the eagerly anticipated endtime doesn’t occur, rather than giving up and going home, this is the point when the group typically goes full-tilt into its missionizing phase (see L. Festinger, The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, 1956). With each new convert, the group’s initial belief system is affirmed, and they develop a rationale for the apparent disconfirmation of the endtime. We can see this occurring already with January 20: the swearing in of Biden is illegitimate, or it is all part of “the plan” by Trump or by Q.
4) Some of them will become more violent, especially after President Trump is removed from office, and they will do so out of a sense of conviction. Many of the responses I have been seeing in the media involve disbelief at the behavior of the mob on January 6, with commentators shaking their heads and saying “they must be crazy.” Yet studies show that terrorists are not usually mentally ill, rather, they are people who have been taught that violence is acceptable in service of a higher goal. Their starting premises about the world are false, as they have false information (about the election, about the government, about their enemies), but once those false assumptions are accepted, their behavior is entirely predictable. They are already circulating posters for the “Million Martyr March” and “Million Militia March” on January 20 in D.C.
If people accept a theology that violence is warranted, good, and redemptive and necessary for what they see as a higher good, then otherwise normal, dedicated people will commit violence to attain what they deem to be right. The radical right and Trump himself have treated violence as necessary, praiseworthy, and patriotic. At this point, we risk a serious rise in domestic terrorism, and the National Guard needs to be prepared for January 20.
5) Some who commit violence will do so not just for their ideals, but also out of a sense of belonging. Establishing an Us vs. Them identity and dehumanizing/demonizing the outsiders is a basic tactic of violent radical apocalyptic groups.
President Trump incited the violence at the Capitol by telling a group of furious protestors, which included obvious armed members of white nationalist groups, that they should “walk down to the Capitol,” adding “You will never take back our country with weakness.” Playing to the mob, Donald Trump Jr. had threatened Republican members of Congress who did not ally with them by yelling, “We’re coming for you!” After hours of violence ensued, which Trump reportedly happily watched on television, he was forced to reluctantly speak to the rioters to send them home, and he began by repeating his false claims, saying “This was a fraudulent election . . . .”
What I wish to emphasize is that what he said next was calculated to justify violence and reinscribe an Us vs. Them identity, the hallmark of his entire Presidency. Trump first excused the mob’s violence by blaming it on others, “. . . but we can’t play into the hands of these people.” He next reinforced an Us vs. Them identity by drawing the lines around his supporters, including the violent ones: “We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special.” Immediately thereafter he drew the lines around the outsiders and demonized them: “You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil.” Then he placed himself on the inside once more, “I know how you feel.”
That the Christianist radical right calls its opponents evil is not mere flourish. They mean it literally, which is why a rioter’s sign saying “Pelosi is Satan” isn’t comical, it’s a cause for concern. Demonizing our enemies means they are irredeemable. Demonizing and dehumanizing the “Other” is a tactic of violent groups, since those aligned with cosmic evil deserve nothing less than destruction. This is clear from another rioter’s sign that read “Jer. 4:7,” evoking this quote from Jeremiah: “The lion is come up from his thicket, and the destroyer of the Gentiles is on his way; he is gone forth from his place to make thy land desolate; and thy cities shall be laid waste, without an inhabitant.” That is a sign to be worried about. That is a sign that says that the one carrying it does not care who gets killed from the other side.
As the following excerpt shows, many radical right groups have been influenced by some variant of racist Christian Identity teaching, which maintains that violence is necessary to instigate a national civil war (usually a race war), which will bring about Armageddon. That’s why we saw the confederate flag (symbol of a nation that would have maintained the institution of slavery) next to signs saying “Jesus 2020” (apocalyptic appeals to Jesus’ coming), next to a scaffold with a noose (the threat of judgment and violence). In the ideology of such groups, punishing the wicked with violence is in service to God’s will.
For all of these reasons, we must step carefully and thoughtfully in our response as a nation to this attempted coup, which originated from the top all the way down, or we will continue to see the violence grow. The way forward involves a cultural reckoning, peacebuilding, and societal transformation, which I address in the last chapter of my book. I offer the excerpts below to explain some aspects of the violent movement that we saw on January 6, because understanding the mindset of the movement is but the first step to solving the problem.
Excerpts from Chapter 6, “The Lord God is a Man of War”: Christian Identity Teaching and Radical Apocalyptic Terrorism, in Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism.
“. . . two distinctive beliefs separate Christian Identity preaching from other denominations, including Fundamentalism, with which it is sometimes inappropriately lumped because of the other similarities. First, as [Michael] Barkun has astutely noted, Christian Identity strongly rejects the Christian Fundamentalist doctrine of a rapture or rescue of Christians before the time of tribulation. While various Identity groups differ in their accounts of what will precisely occur in the endtime, Barkun writes, “Identity’s hostility to the [theology of the] rapture is unwavering and cuts across organizational lines” (Barkun 2007, 103–106).
Second, as its name suggests, Christian Identity teaching involves a central revelation about the true identity of the righteous and the wicked. The revelation is a racial one, namely that “the White, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and kindred people [are] God’s true, literal Children of Israel” (KIM 2014). Since they also believe that these are the last days and that only the white race inherits the blessings of the biblical covenants promised to Israel, the pressure is on. They believe they must keep the white race pure, separate from the world, and empowered to win the battles that will ensue in the time of tribulation. This expectation accounts for their rejection of the rapture doctrine, since Christians need to be around to fight their enemies in the endtime. Thus, it is pre-millenialist with a violent Active Eschatology [a doctrine I discuss in which a group believes its actions trigger the endtime or Jesus’ return]. This racial revelation is easily woven into an anti-Semitic, apocalyptic worldview of reality that leans heavily towards radical apocalypticism; in fact they often believe that the Antichrist is Jewish. By contrast, many Fundamentalists have a positive attitude towards Jews and acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew. They hold out hope that a remnant of Jews will convert in the last days (Rom. 9:11).
Christian Identity as radical apocalypticism
The Identity preacher Pastor Comparet, among others, locates the central revelation about race in an interpretation of the Garden of Eden story (Gen. 2:3) that believes there are two “seedlines.” One seedline refers to those descended from Adam, a white man but not necessarily the first human, whose progeny make up the Christian white nations. Thus, in these sermons “Adam” is equivalent to “white man.” Identity adherents believe that the white nations are the true Israel and, though dispersed, they create the only civil governments based on biblical Law. The other seedline stems from the devil’s literal offspring or seed that was conceived when he mated with Eve and she gave birth to Cain. Cain’s descendents, that is, Satan’s descendants, are the Jews, who naturally hate and oppose the true Israel, the white race. [ . . . . ]
The “seedline” teaching fulfills the sixth reality proposition in our formula of radical apocalypticism [ a formula that I cover in chapter 3], Othering/Concretization of Evil. Jews are considered to be biologically Evil, demonic, and inferior to the white race, which they oppose. This depiction of the Jews is the central point in Identity teaching from which all other propositions of the radical apocalyptic worldview emanate, including:
[An element from my formula,] A secret about the nature of this world: The ordinary, mundane world is broken and unduly influenced by Evil of some kind, locked in a struggle with ultimate Good.
To adherents of Christian Identity teaching, there is a cosmic struggle going on between the races, especially between whites of European descent and the Jews. While the whites are Good, the Jews are the children of the Devil, “the Satanic Anti-Christ forces of this world” (KIM 2014). Kingdom Identity Ministries’ website symbolizes these “children of Satan” with a caricature of a big-nosed, curly-haired head of a Jew atop a Serpent’s body bedecked with stars of David, with a tail culminating in a larger star of David (“Seedline and Race,” KIM 2014). Clearly, the image is meant to convey that Jews are the embodiment of the Serpent Satan. The “secret about the world” thus entails a secret about the past derivation of the races.
[An element from my formula,] A secret about the state of the righteous: The righteous are oppressed, while the wicked flourish, although appearances may be to the contrary.
[An element from my formula,] A secret about another higher or future world . . . and a secret about the future: A time is coming when God’s kingdom will reign and defeat the rule of evil on the earth.
This revelation about primordial “history” and racial identity informs Identity’s interpretation of their present plight. Like many other radical apocalypticists, adherents of Christian Identity teaching feel persecuted and weak in the world as it is now. The doctrinal statement of Kingdom Identity Ministries states that the children of Satan are a “curse to the true Israel” and that there is a natural hatred between the white race and the children of Satan (“Doctrinal Statement,” KIM 2014). Race mixing is viewed as Satan’s plan to destroy the white race. The feeling of disempowerment is palpable. Some versions of Identity teaching display a paranoid fear that the white race will end if Christians do not take up adequate arms in the time of eschatological tribulation.
The KKK’s public positions consistently relate a similar strong feeling of persecution and oppression, envisioning that a race war is being perpetrated against white people. The National Director of The Knights, Pastor Thomas Robb, writes:
There is a race war against whites. But our people – my white brothers and sisters – will stay committed to a non-violent resolution ... [consisting] of solidarity in white communities around the world. The hatred for our children and their future is growing and is being fueled every single day.
Such language of a world-wide war fills the doctrinal statements and motivational speeches of the KKK and similar groups of the Christian racist Right, including the Aryan Nations, Aryan Brotherhood, and the Christian Defense League.
In some groups on the racist Right, this sense of persecution can expand into elaborate conspiracy theories. Theories about secret, powerful, Jewish conspiracies abound amongst those on the racist Right, sometimes finding their way into fairly mainstream culture. [ . . . .]
[The Protocols of the Elders of Zion] and other conspiracy-laden texts feed the deep paranoia of the racist Right, including the racist Christian Right. Group solidarity is achieved through active “Othering” or creating a sense that the out-group is so distinctively different from the in-group that the two have nothing whatsoever in common. While Identity adherents view many groups with suspicion, including Catholics, Illuminati, Freemason, and non-white persons of color, Jews hold a special place of prominence as the targets of hate. Jews are portrayed as sub-human, the children of Satan, another species or collaborators with space aliens.
While speculations about UFOology and space aliens smack of the fantastic, alien conspiracy stories permeate the racist Right. They appeared in the thought of Timothy McVeigh, who believed that Jews and alien beings were working together with the federal government. In fact, McVeigh trespassed at Area 51, site of the supposed federal government cover-up of an alien spaceship landing. With a gun and a camera, he attempted to document the presence of UFOs and take a stand against governmental regulations (Michel and Herbeck 2001, 155–157). On death row, he was obsessed with the film Contact, which is about a scientist who connects with alien life (Barkun 2003, ix; Michel and Herbeck 2001, 156; Linder n.d.). As Michael Barkun has carefully shown, beliefs in UFOlogy, alien abduction, and government/Jewish conspiracy interweave throughout the beliefs of the racist Right in America, including groups both affiliated with and unassociated with Christianity Identity teaching. [. . . .]
This kind of esoteric, generally discredited “knowledge” appeals to those who hold the fourth reality proposition in the formula of radical apocalypticism, Authoritative Revelation/Interpretation. Identity preachers often claim to receive or understand a special revelation that other Christians do not. For instance, the Kingdom Identity Ministries website is one of the largest sources of Christian Identity teaching in America. It distributes an online Bible course called the “American Institute of Theology,” the total collection of writings by Comparet, and texts associated with Swift’s Church of Jesus Christ-Christian (KKK). While the website states that they are not in complete agreement with every point by these other authors, it assures the audience that the materials will provide “enlightenment through which the Holy Spirit will bring the reader or listener into knowledge of the truth with wisdom and understanding” (KIM 2014). Essentially, the church maintains that even if a small mistake in theology creeps in here or there, it is the authoritative conduit to the truth. Other Christian Identity venues display similar confidence in their revelations, which they believe are known only to a few. Barkun points out that “stigmatized knowledge” has tremendous appeal for those on the racist Right. This includes “forgotten knowledge,” such as the origins of the races, “rejected knowledge,” such as the role of space aliens, and “suppressed knowledge,” such as that involved in the conspiracies of the ZOG, the so-called Zionist Organized Government.
Given the presupposition that a nefarious set of enemies are plotting a global takeover leading to the demise of humans, some Christian Identity groups could quite easily become radicalized. Some seek political change through electing like-minded officials. For instance, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, well acquainted with Identity teaching, successfully won the Republican nomination for the House of Representations in Louisiana in 1989 (Barkun 2003, 210–212). [. . . .]
A group maintaining Christian Identity teachings is likely to be violent if it also believes in the two remaining reality propositions in our formula of radical apocalypticism:
Active Eschatology: Our actions are key to ushering in the new stage of the coming Good world. I, as a righteous person, can trigger the end of the Evil age through my actions, especially through eliminating Evil on earth.
Members of the Christian Identity movement are consoled by the conviction that their present state of oppression will end when they are finally able to fight in the eschatological Tribulation. This will trigger God’s Judgment and spell “the ultimate end of this evil race [Jews] whose hands bear the blood of our Savior (Matt. 27:25).” Unlike Fundamentalist Christians who look forward to the rapture, the Christian Identity members welcome the time of Tribulation “like no other” because it is their chance to right the wrong direction of the world. This is not passive eschatology, because they do not believe that God is completing this by Himself. Rather, Identity teaches that its armies are indispensable to God’s success. This is a violent, active eschatology.
With such an important “end” in mind, the “means” will likely be violent if an Identity group holds a theology of Redemptive Violence/Revenge. This can take the form of self-martyrdom or the killing of others. Identity terrorism has favored the latter, embracing idea that “Our vengeance is God’s vengeance.” [. . . .]
When [Timothy] McVeigh killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, he did so as a radical apocalyptic terrorist who believed the innocent victims he killed were necessary collateral damage. He believed he was fighting a vast conspiratorial war waged by the government and evil Jews in the ZOG, or Zionist Organized Government. Fantasy informed his reality. He imagined himself fighting the Empire’s Stormtroopers as well as their clerical workers in order to bring down the Evil Empire, as in one of his favorite films, Star Wars. He also drew on historical revisionism, believing that he was starting the Second American Revolution, a divine pursuit (Noble 1998, 135; Michel and Herbeck, 2001, 224–228).
McVeigh saw the evidence for the government’s aggression and evil as manifested in at least three incidents that have resonated throughout the radical Right. The first incident was the 1983 killing of Posse Comitatus member Gordon Kahl, who had earlier murdered two federal marshals in North Dakota (Barkun 2003, 265–266). The other two events are referred to mythologically by their place names: Ruby Ridge and Waco. McVeigh was so invested in the siege at Waco that he visited during the standoff and stayed for days, handing out anti-federal government materials. He purposely timed his bombing for the anniversary of the fire at Waco, on April 19.
The Weaver family at Ruby Ridge followed the Christian Identity teaching in which McVeigh was steeped, but the community at Waco did not share the theology. Overall, in my assessment, both the Weavers and the Branch Davidians were fervently committed apocalypticists, but not yet radical apocalypticists who posed a threat, like McVeigh or the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord.
In part, I am writing this book to help avoid another needless tragedy like Ruby Ridge or Waco. Understanding the dynamics of the radical apocalyptic worldview that informs such situations can help prevent unintentional escalations of conflict. A genuine apocalypticist, like Vicki Weaver or David Koresh, will never be talked into backing down through threats, violence, and intimidation, which only exaggerate feelings of persecution and deepen the commitment to possibly die as a martyr.
Excerpt from Chapter 9, Creating Peace in an Apocalyptic Moment
Author’s Note: [While this section addresses how to reduce violent religious terrorism, many of these points also relate to the kind of cultural transformation required in the United States to stem the appeal of the ideology of the radical right].
A comprehensive cultural counter-terrorism strategy
[ . . . . ]. An effective long-term counter-terrorism effort to promote peace will require a change in approach. The old paradigm has been stretched to its limits (Kuhn 1962). We need a broad-based network that includes govern- mental agencies, NGOs, grass-roots organizations, and faith-based humanitarian programs working together and with local partners to address the contexts of discontent in which terrorism finds its appeal. The public in the US and allied countries need to be aware that outreach is not just ethical concern for people in far-away places, but also a pragmatic action to protect people “at home.” Such “cultural counter-terrorism” eliminates the appeal and explanatory power of terrorist ideology.
This direction requires the creative reorganization of current resources. For instance, Arthur Lundahl proposes creating a wholly transparent “White Center” that would marshal intelligence resources for human- itarian issues. It would utilize the digital mapping resources of the National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the supercomputers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the epidemiologists at the National Center for Medial Intelligence (NCMI) to predict humanitarian crises, direct rescue efforts in national disasters, predict environmental catastrophes and predict the spread of disease (Bamford 2015).
In the remainder of this chapter, I present a few examples of other organizations that are rethinking the approach to terrorism and peace. This sampling is only meant to be illustrative of the creative, new approaches taking place amongst hundreds of thousands of innovative academic centers, NGOs, grass-roots organizations and faith-based humanitarian programs. None of these efforts alone can solve the problem, but together they could form a potent comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that focuses on preventing radicalization. [ . . . . ]
Numerous such programs operating simultaneously and strategically could stem the long-term rise of radicalism. An incomplete list includes programs that: promote greater dialogue within religions; promote intra-religious dialogue; create policies that promote humanitarian support for developing moderate, democratic societies (including in the form of Muslim democracies); facilitate grass-roots friendships amongst individuals in different religious communities through shared activities and projects; address problems of hunger, social inequality, disease, [unemployment] and displacement; and provide education for displaced children. It is also vital to address phobias of the “Other” through intra-group dialogue and education. Consider the long-term effects if all public school children in America, Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia learned just a few positive things about each of the world’s major religious traditions, as do the Jewish and Palestinian children at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem.
This broad, slow, systemic approach to terrorism is quite different than the “War on Terror.” It recognizes that all the collective tiny steps of governmental agencies, NGOs, and faith-based organizations to promote the physical, psychological, material, cultural, and ecological well-being of peoples add up to a long-term counter-terrorism strategy. Especially by thinking of children’s welfare first, cultural counter-terrorism works by weakening the explanatory power of the radical apocalyptic worldview that posits an evil “them” against an embattled “us.” This is accomplished through eliminating the roots of discontent and by reimagining inclusive relationships amongst nations and peoples. Nations are really just imagined communities, since none of us have met everyone else in our nation (Anderson 2006). More children across the world need to feel that they are a part of a global community that supports them.
Finally, no model of inclusion can be successful in a political climate that is bitterly divided. In the US, we must heal the embarrassing partisan differences that have become extreme. We need to foster respectful debate and discussion so that we can begin to live up to our own values and ideals. Instead of Republicans and Democrats fighting one another, we should unite against our common enemies: the suffering of children, societal injustice, and radical apocalyptic extremism. Can we converse respectfully if we understand what is at stake?”
- By Frances Flannery, Ph.D.; Co-Founder, BioEarth. January 8, 2021.
For more on this topic watch Root.ED Conversations Ep. 6: Understanding Insurrection on Jan 6 2021