For an ever-so-brief moment Dec. 13, a congressional hearing on the rise of anti-democratic extremism morphed into a Sunday school lesson as Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, fielded questions on the history of Baptists and religious freedom.
The short theological session began when Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, asked Tyler why BJC decided to actively oppose white Christian nationalism.
“The problem of white Christian nationalism exactly fits with our mission of defending and extending religious freedom for all people,” Tyler responded. “And that’s because Christian nationalism strikes at the heart of the foundational ideas of what religious freedom means and how it’s protected in this country, and that is with the institution of separation of church and state.”
Raskin immediately followed with another question: “Everybody knows about (Thomas) Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, but why have the Baptists always been such strong champions of religious freedom and pluralism and toleration?”
Tyler didn’t miss a beat. “It really goes back to the beginning of the Baptist movement in the early 17th century and Thomas Helwys, who wrote the first defense of universal religious freedom in the English language and was imprisoned by King James I for his advocacy,” she replied. “It continued with Roger Williams, who founded the first Baptist church in America.”
Tyler added that the spirit of those and other early Baptists continues to inspire those engaged in today’s struggle for religious freedom beset by Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
“What unites these early Baptist advocates with modern-day advocates like me and others at Baptist Joint Committee is our theological commitment to soul freedom and our living out of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves,” she said. “We protect the religious freedom of our neighbors as we protect our own religious freedom, and we do it in our constitutional democracy by defending the First Amendment.”
Tyler’s comments came toward the end of the subcommittee’s two-hour hearing, “Confronting White Supremacy (Part VII): The Evolution of Anti-Democratic Extremist Groups and the Ongoing Threat to Democracy,” which was livestreamed on YouTube.
Joining Tyler were other experts whose testimony ranged from the role of social media in racial and political violence, the expansion of armed militias and the tactics used by anti-democratic forces to intimidate local governments, school boards and LGBTQ individuals and groups.
Tyler zeroed in on Christian nationalism and white supremacy in her opening testimony and explained that BJC launched Christians against Christian Nationalism in 2019 to oppose the threats to religious freedom and democracy.
“Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to fuse American and Christian identities.”
“Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to fuse American and Christian identities. It suggests that ‘real’ Americans are Christians and that ‘true’ Christians hold a particular set of political beliefs.”
But the Christianity presented by the movement is more of an “ethno-identity” than a religion, she said. “Opposition to Christian nationalism is not opposition to Christianity, and a growing number of Christians feel a religious imperative to stand against Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism uses the language, symbols and imagery of Christianity — in fact, it may look and sound like Christianity to the casual observer. However, closer examination reveals that it uses the veneer of Christianity to point not to Jesus the Christ but to a political figure, party or ideology.”
Tyler further explained that Christian nationalism gives cover to, and overlaps with, white supremacy by placing the highest value on white, native-born Christians.
It also masquerades as patriotism, but it is anything but that, she warned. “Patriotism is a healthy love of country. Christian nationalism is an allegiance to country that demands supremacy over all other allegiances.”
The ideology doesn’t even get U.S. history right, she said. “Christian nationalism relies on a cherry-picked and misleading version of American history in order to thrive. The Christian nation myth must downplay or ignore the role of indigenous communities, Black Americans, immigrant populations, religious minorities, secular Americans, and all others who undercut the false narrative that the U.S. is special because it was founded by and for white Christians.”
Christian nationalism undermines the Constitution, especially its prohibition against religious tests to hold public office, Tyler told the subcommittee.
“As a Baptist, I became a leader in the fight against Christian nationalism because of my increasing alarm about the violence it has inspired at our country’s houses of worship: Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2018; and Chabad of Poway near San Diego, Calif., in 2019.”
“Violent white supremacy is the most serious domestic terror threat facing our people.”
In opening the hearing, Raskin described the anti-democratic movement as an enemy of civil rights and voting rights. “Violent white supremacy is the most serious domestic terror threat facing our people.”
The movement has continued despite 900 prosecutions stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attempt to overthrow the U.S. government and can be witnessed in incidents like the October assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and attempts to intimidate local school boards, LGBTQ events and other threatening outbursts, he said. “Those threats have not subsided. They are still very much with us today.”
Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina and the ranking subcommittee member, joined other conservatives on the panel in emphasizing that left-wing extremists can be just as dangerous as those getting most of the attention: “Hateful ideas come from the far right and the far left.”
But Mace added that democracy must be protected. “The only alternative to constitutional democracy is authoritarianism, or fascism or anarchy. Part of the American experiment is the ability to debate ideas without fear of attacks, and (that debate) should never be met with violence or censorship,” she said.
Witness Eric Ward, executive vice president of Race Forward and senior adviser for the Western States Center, agreed with Raskin that the insurrection did not end with the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill. Instead, it spread across the nation with local government officials, election workers, law enforcement, health care professionals and others “bearing the brunt of intimidation and acts of violence.”
He added that the movement’s various actors are united by their belief in the Great Replacement Theory, which claims Jews and people of color are trying to marginalize and eliminate whites.
Extremists also are inspired by social media, said Orel Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories that take root in public discourse typically emerge from “deadly blueprints” that include extremists’ social media strategies, he said, adding that virtual spaces are “the life blood of extremism.”
Ideas spread online often translate into physical acts, including violence, with domestic terrorists frequently livestreaming their attacks for supporters and other viewers, he said.
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