I’m going to be honest. I can’t shake the sadness. I can’t shake the anger. We have to be clear about what happened in Washington D.C. on January 6th. A violent Christian insurrection invaded and occupied the Capitol.
Why do I say this was a Christian insurrection? Because so very many of the protesters told us they were Christian, as loudly and clearly as they could. The Atlantic’s invaluable religion reporter, Emma Green, compiled considerable evidence of the Christian presence in her excellent report. I saw much of it with my own eyes. There was a giant wooden cross outside the Capitol. “Jesus saves” signs and other Christian signs were sprinkled through the crowd. I watched a man carry a Christian flag into an evacuated legislative chamber.
I could go on and on. My colleague Audrey Fahlberg was present at the riot, and she told me that Christian music was blaring from the loudspeakers late in the afternoon of the takeover. And don’t forget, this attack occurred days after the so-called Jericho March, an event explicitly filled with Christian-nationalist rhetoric so unhinged that I warned on December 13 that it embodied “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”
Are you still not convinced that it’s fair to call this a Christian insurrection? I would bet that most of my readers would instantly label the exact same event Islamic terrorism if Islamic symbols filled the crowd, if Islamic music played in the loudspeakers, and if members of the crowd shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they charged the Capitol.
If that happened conservative Christians would erupt in volcanic anger. We’d turn to the Muslim community and cry out, “Do something about this!” How do I know we’d respond in that manner? Because that’s what we’ve done, year after year, before and after 9/11. And while there were many times when Christians painted the Muslim world with an overly-broad bigoted brush, it is true that violent insurrections do not spring forth from healthy communities.
That’s true abroad, and it’s true at home. During this summer’s riots, I wrote multiple posts detailing the extraordinary difficulty in quelling urban unrest once violence starts. Sometimes the unhealthy community is suffering from the effects of systemic injustice. Sometimes it’s dominated by outrageous and unreasonable grievances. Sometimes it’s infested with unhealthy fears and grotesque ambitions. Often there’s a combination of all these factors in play. But the violence always has a cause.
This is the time when some readers will respond, “Now’s your chance, David, tell the world the legitimate grievances of the Christian church! Tell the left why people are so angry!” No. Sorry.
Think of it like this. Riots weren’t justified when police knelt on a man’s neck while his life drained away in Minneapolis. Riots weren’t justified when police killed an innocent woman in a botched, reckless raid in Louisville. Riots weren’t justified when a black man was executed in broad daylight by wannabe vigilantes in Georgia.
If that’s true (and it is), then don’t think for one second it’s appropriate for Christians to air their grievances when the right-wing Christian riot was motivated by terrible lies. If a riot isn’t justified when agents of the state actually kill innocent black men and women, it really isn’t justified when you falsely believe wild election conspiracy theories or when you falsely believe a cabal of cannibal pedophiles control Washington and Hollywood.
Marching for a lie is bad enough. Rioting for a lie is an atrocity.
So the answer is simple, right? Law enforcement should arrest the perpetrators, victims of conspiracies should sue for slander, and Christian leaders should endeavor to aggressively confront conspiracies and condemn violence. Then we can heal.
Well, no. I’m afraid our challenge is much more difficult. Have you spent any time in conversation with those who fully believe the stolen election narratives, or with people who are committed to QAnon or Q-like conspiracies? It’s a terrible persuasive challenge. Your very resistance to their delusion is evidence of your corruption.
The problem is that all too many Christians are in the grips of two sets of lies. We’ll call them the enabling lies and the activating lies. And unless you deal with the enabling lies, the activating lies will constantly pollute the body politic and continue to spawn violent unrest.
What’s the difference between the two kinds of lies? The enabling lie is the lie that makes you fertile ground for the activating lie that actually motivates a person to charge a thin blue line at the Capitol or take a rifle to a pizza parlor.
Here’s another enabling lie: The fate of the church is at stake if Joe Biden wins.
And here’s yet another: The left hates you (this sentence sometimes concludes with the phrase “and wants you dead.”)
I could go on, but the enabling lies that have rocketed through the church for years share important characteristics. They not only dramatically exaggerate the stakes of our political and legal disputes, they dramatically exaggerate the perfidy of your opponents. Moreover, when the stakes are deemed to be that high, the moral limitations on your response start to fall away.
After all, when people believe our national destiny hangs in the balance, they often respond accordingly. Or, as I said in a December 4 newsletter warning about potential violence, “if you argue that the very existence of the country is at stake, don’t be surprised if people start to act as if the very existence of the country is at stake.”
Why do so many people fall for these enabling lies? In my book, which warns Americans that our divisions are so great that they could fracture the nation, I noted that catastrophic partisan narratives are often supported by actual events (such as a violent incident or an act of unlawful censorship). These facts, however, are then wrongly used to make sweeping conclusions about tens of millions of ideological opponents.
The fact that a Bernie Sanders supporter tried to execute multiple GOP congressmen at a baseball field does not prove the sweeping statement that “the left hates you” or that it “wants you dead.” Do you think, for example, the Christian attack on the Capitol is now proof that your average Baptist is willing to kill to keep Trump in power? No. It is not.
We are, however, constantly in the business of taking exceptional behavior from our political opponents and trying to argue that the exceptional is emblematic. It proves what “they” are “really like.” It’s an extremely comfortable mode of thinking. It repeatedly reinforces our priors.
It’s also lucrative and beneficial for a certain class of pundit, activist, and politician. There are two classes of people who are most pernicious—the actual liars and their timid allies. The actual liar is the person who’s constantly, intentionally whipping up his or her audience for personal gain. He relentlessly escalates the rhetoric even when he knows he’s spreading or enabling falsehoods. Donald Trump is the archetype of the actual liar.
If you want to know why so many Republicans are now furious at Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz after the Capitol attack? Because they know that both Hawley and Cruz have no excuse for pressing the election objection. They know that Hawley’s raised fist to the crowd before the attack was self-aggrandizing and provocative.
But the actual liars would flounder if not for their timid conservative allies. Here’s a quick way to identify the timid. Pull up a public voice on Twitter, on Facebook, or on their publication’s web archive. If it is exclusively or nearly-exclusively dominated by anti-left content, then they’re not telling you the whole truth. They may not defend misconduct on the right (so their conscience is somewhat clear), but they won’t call it out either. After all, there are libs to own.
Oh, and here’s one more tell that someone’s a liar or a timid ally: if they tell you that critics of Trump dislike him simply because of “mean tweets” or “bad manners” or “sharp elbows.” After all that’s transpired, it’s hard to believe they speak in good faith.
I get why people are timid. I get why even those who are deeply troubled by Trump still focus their fire on the other tribe. Telling the truth to your own tribe can be personally devastating and even physically dangerous. After all, if your friends and neighbors believe one of the enabling lies, then you’re a traitor. You become a threat to the nation or the church.
My friend Russell Moore stated the problem well in a powerful essay for The Gospel Coalition:
I cannot tell you how many people will say one thing in private, and something completely different in public. I am not referring to prudence in not airing everything publicly that is meant to be private. I mean instead saying the exact opposite in public what they will say in private.
For some people, it’s what C. S. Lewis warned us about—the desire for the “Inner Ring.” But for many more people it’s the fear of mobs. People are not afraid of mobs overrunning their houses the way they have overrun the Capitol. But they are fearful of dealing with those who do believe in these endless conspiracy theories or who make distinctions between sheep and goats not on the basis of theology, or even political ideology, but in levels of enthusiasm for personalities associated with such ideologies. Many are just exhausted, knowing that every word from their mouth will lead to psychological warfare.
But if you train your fire exclusively (or nearly exclusively) on the left or on those terrible Never-Trump traitors you’re safe. Then you’re a hero. Then you’re bold. And when you get blowback from your enemy, it’s only proof of your courage.
And so the enabling lies spread. They poison hearts. They poison minds. They fill you with rage and hate, until along comes the activating lie, the dangerous falsehood that pushes a person towards true radicalism. How does a person come to the conclusion that cannibal pedophiles dominate Hollywood? Or that a vast conspiracy of politicians, lawyers, journalists, and tech executives (including conservative politicians, lawyers, and journalists) brazenly stole a presidential election?
You believe that when you know your enemy is evil. You believe that when you know they will destroy the country. In that context, fact-checks and rebuttals aren’t just wrong, they’re naïve. All too often, when you’re arguing with the person who believes the activating lie—the falsehood that immediately motivated them to take to the street—then you’ve already lost.
If the church plays whack-a-mole against Q and Stop the Steal while it tolerates and spreads enabling lies, expect to see the insurrection continue. Expect to see it grow. After all, “they” hate us. “They” will destroy the country. “They” will stop at nothing to see the church fall.
Rebutting enabling lies does not mean whitewashing the opposition. It does not mean surrendering your values or failing to resist destructive ideas. It does mean discerning the difference between a problem and a crisis, between an aberration and an example. And it means possessing the humility to admit when you’re wrong. It means understanding that no emergency is ever too great to stop loving your enemies and blessing those who persecute you.
And the rebuttal has to come from within. The New York Times isn’t going to break this fever. Vox won’t change many right-wing minds. But courageous Christians who love Christ and His church have a chance.
We have to lead with honesty and understanding. When you’re in your partisan bubble, the enabling lie is seductive. I’ve fallen for it. In years past, I even spread it. I’ll close with these words from an essay I wrote in response to 2019’s attacks on so-called “David Frenchism.”
Many years ago, before I deployed to an actual war, I gave a speech at a conservative gathering in which I actually said these words: “I believe the two greatest threats to the United States are university leftists at home and jihadists abroad.” Looking back, I’m ashamed I said it. It was fundamentally wrong, as I quickly learned during my deployment. In the course of almost a year in Diyala Province, Iraq, I saw the most dreadful things, sights that haunt me today. Eastern Diyala under al-Qaeda’s thumb was one of the deadliest places on Earth. And as much as I disagree with university radicals, I lived a happy life in law school in deep-blue Cambridge, Mass. My son was born in deep-blue Ithaca, N.Y. I served as president of FIRE while living comfortably on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s so-called “gayborhood.”
My political opponents are my fellow citizens. When I wore the uniform of my country, I was willing to die for them. Why would I think I’m at war with them now? I disagree with the Left and much of the populist Right, vigorously. If and when any of my political opponents seek to undermine our fundamental freedoms, I’ll be there to pick a legal, political, and cultural fight with them. I won’t yield. I won’t stop. I won’t be weak. But I also won’t turn my back on the truths of scripture. I won’t stop seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. There is no political “emergency” that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.
It took a war abroad for me to absorb this perspective and imprint it into my heart. And as a deeply flawed man, I often fail to live up to the pledge above. But I see things more clearly now, and I’m honestly ashamed that I didn’t see things more clearly before. I hope and pray it doesn’t take a war at home for Christians to gain the eyes to see and ears to hear the truths that rebut our enabling lies.
One last thing …
In troubled times an old hymn can be a balm for the soul. This version of “Be Thou My Vision” from Shane & Shane is just fantastic. Enjoy: