Like most Americans, we at the American Academy of Religion were horrified by the events of January 6, 2021. We condemn the violence brought to the halls of the US Capitol in the strongest possible way. As details of the insurrection have emerged over the ensuing days—the threats of death to elected officials, the religious symbolism deployed by many, the commitments to white nationalism seen in the iconography and media posts, as well as the vicious conspiracy theories that have proliferated on the internet—we affirm even more the urgent need for critical reflection on the role of religion, race, and nationalism in our public discourse. For too long, observers have attributed the types of vitriolic and mean-spirited politics of the past several years to economic anxiety felt among the white working class, but as the data has borne out, economic anxiety is not at the forefront of this movement. Something far more sinister is at its root.
As scholars of religion, we understand that the intersection of race, religion, and nationalism has led to heinous atrocities that we have witnessed worldwide. Sadly, the United States is no exception. As scholars, we take seriously the need to analyze the role of religion not only as a positive force in the world, but also as a potential source of great harm. Religious affection, like few other commitments, can lead people to reject widely accepted norms and logics. At times this is good, for example when one selflessly sacrifices one’s last for a neighbor in need. At other times, it can become the foundation for horrifying acts, like when entire groups of people are attacked and vilified because they hold differing beliefs. The persistence of white Christian nationalism in the United States—an ideology that privileges the lives and concerns of white Christian Americans above all others in policy and practice—is one such grievous ill. Having justified American imperialism and the near extermination of Native Americans, codified slavery, solidified Jim Crow practices, and turned a blind eye to the sufferings of black and brown people (particularly through the criminal justice system) in the 21st century, we have all now seen that white Christian nationalism has not died. It is a threat to each of us, regardless of race, nation, or creed. It undermines our capacity for democracy and the potential for human flourishing.
As a guild, we are committed to the public understanding of religion and hold fast to our values—among them, diversity, inclusion, critical examination, and respect. We recognize that the weeks leading up to the certification of the 2020 US presidential election showed for many the hope of a multi-cultural democracy as voters went to the polls in record numbers to elect new legislators. We were honored to have one of our own, a pastor and scholar of religion, the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, elected to the Senate from the state of Georgia, the first African American to hold the office. And we look forward to the promise of inclusion represented in the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first African American and Indian American Vice President. At this critical moment in our history, we call on those in our communities to continue to promote the peaceful transfer of power. We call on those in the community of religion scholars to continue to write, educate, and make known the work of religious studies and the importance of critical religious dialogue to a healthy collective existence.