Religion is a force that fosters fanaticism

What’s the difference between the insurrectionist’s prayer and the national prayer breakfast? Nothing.

It’s an unfortunately under-reported fact that our recent attempted insurrection had a strong unifying force: White Christian Nationalism. You didn’t see many atheists or Muslims or Jews storming the capitol, and you didn’t hear a lot of non-Christian rhetoric stirring up the mob. The organizations that promote the overthrow of the government are groups like the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers, the Groypers, etc., all fanatically Christian…or at least, eager to adopt a Christian facade to rationalize their violence.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Seidel highlighted what he called the preponderance of “openly militant” rhetoric that conflated religion and violence. He pointed to William McCall Calhoun Jr., a Georgia lawyer who reportedly claimed on social media that he was among those who “kicked in Nancy Pelosi’s office door” on Jan. 6. (Calhoun later claimed in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he did not personally enter any office.)

“God is on Trump’s side. God is not on the Democrats’ side,” Calhoun allegedly wrote in a social media post. “And if patriots have to kill 60 million of these communists, it is God’s will. Think ethnic cleansing but it’s anti-communist cleansing.”

In the report, Seidel recounts a conversation with New Yorker journalist Luke Mogelson, who recorded widely shared footage of insurrectionists attacking the U.S. Capitol and praying in the Senate chamber.

“The Christianity was one of the surprises to me in covering this stuff, and it has been hugely underestimated,” Mogelson told Seidel. “That Christian nationalism you talk about is the driving force and also the unifying force of these disparate players. It’s really Christianity that ties it all together.”

How can it be a surprise? This combination of Christianity and fascism has been openly on display for at least the last century. Here are a few ancient history quotes (ancient only because this is America, we forget the past as soon as it is behind us):

Eugene Debs in 1918:

No wonder Jackson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” He had the Wall Street gentry in mind or their prototypes, at least; for in every age it has been the tyrant, who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both. (Shouts of “Good, good” from the crowd) (applause).

Lonnie Jackson, 1923:

“The Ku Klux Klan comes wrapped in the American flag, as it were, advocating the American principles openly, with a Bible in its hand, and the very next day they are passing their neighbors with a mask over their faces. My conception of the fundamental principles of Americanism is that a man should have nothing to be ashamed of.”

A letter to the Kingsport, Tennessee Times:

The contention of my articles will be that, if and when fascism comes over America, it will be on the Kingsport plan—iron hand encased in a silk glove:

For God and Country!
Freedom and democracy!
Pure Anglo-Saxonism!
Liberty and the constitution!

—catchwords which will thwart the actual and real rights of the citizenry . . .

And this familiar quote:

In his book, “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), Sinclair Lewis wrote, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying the cross.”

I repeat, how can this be a surprise? They are talking about a report written by a committee which included Kathryn Stewart, who has a new book, The Power Worshippers, which is specifically about the rise of religious nationalism.

Christian nationalism is a political ideology that ties the ideas of America to specific cultural and religious identities. It’s an anti-democratic ideology because it says the foundation of legitimate government is not our Constitution, our democratic system of governance or our imperfect history of absorbing different people from all over the world into pluralistic society — but rather, our government is tied to specific cultural and religious identities. It’s also a device for mobilizing and often manipulating large segments of the American public.

Man, I wish we had an active atheist movement that wasn’t tainted by authoritarianism and bigotry. I also wish we didn’t have such deep economic rifts that allowed Christian billionaires to astroturf our media and various organizations with fascist assholes like Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    In his book, “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), Sinclair Lewis wrote, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying the cross.”

    No he didn’t.

  2. says

    Man, I wish we had an active atheist movement that wasn’t tainted by authoritarianism and bigotry.

    Sadly, this is a human thing. Virtually any social movement that becomes large enough to be noticeable is tainted by authoritarianism and bigotry. It doesn’t even require hijacking by outside interests… just having people in charge. Even robot overlords would do this, because they’d be build by humans.

    I have no idea if putting spiders in charge of the atheist movement would be better, although having eight great red eyes staring down from the podium at some too-early-for-coffee “steering-committee meeting” would be far less frightening than, say, Sam Harris. Shall we run an experiment?

  3. yknot says

    “Man, I wish we had an active atheist movement that wasn’t tainted by authoritarianism and bigotry.” – PZM

    “If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.”
    If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.” – proverbs

    It’s a matter of priorities. There are non-atheists who oppose authoritarians and/or bigots, at least according to them. There are atheists who are authoritarians and/or bigots, at least according to you. In an imperfect world, you have to choose among mixed nuts. If you don’t, then you’re guaranteed to go hungry, and have fewer allies to help you fight for what you think is most important.

  4. PaulBC says

    yknot@6 “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” was the one I learned. Maybe the take-away is that PZ and like-minded atheists will have to do their own footwork.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    No wonder Jackson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

    (Samuel) Johnson said that – not Andrew or Jesse or Michael or Janet.

    Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, replied a century-and-a-half later:

    With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

  6. vucodlak says

    The most important part of white Christian nationalism is the white nationalism. Yes, WCN utilize the language of Christianity to make themselves feel and sound (to other white Christian nationalists) righteous, but you could lift the Christianity out and replace it with just about anything. All that’s necessary is some kind of common framework into which they can plug their bigotries.

    If you scooped religion out of US history, I really don’t see that anything much would change for better or worse. We’d still be a nation built on slavery and genocide, because the United States couldn’t be what it is today without those things. The language that the powerful use to divide and conquer would be a little different, but that’s about all.

    I’m not saying that WCN nationalists aren’t real Christians, or that Christianity doesn’t have atrocities to answer for, or anything like that. I’m just saying that the “Christian” part of white Christian nationalist is mostly cosmetic, and that nationalist and white supremacist ideologies are sufficient on their own to foster the violent fanaticism that threatens to drag us into another civil war.

  7. says

    vucodlak: I mostly agree with you, but religious thinking — independent of the specifics of any religious belief — does play a significant role in solidifying irrational beliefs and silencing any attempt to criticize or question said beliefs. Once you believe that your prejudices are the eternal and incontrovertible Word of God, then it’s even harder to change your mind on anything than it was before.

  8. unclefrogy says

    you point out something that I have noticed before. there is a difference between people who devote themselves to “finding god” and the majority of people professing religion. There seems to be difference that is hard to define. For most religion is a social cultural thing more then a desire to understand the eternal and our personal mortality.
    I fear not the monk in his cave with his begging bowl as much as the true believer in the pew dressed in his sunday best listening to his preacher telling him what he should do.

  9. says

    “God is on Trump’s side. God is not on the Democrats’ side,”
    Talk about saying the quiet part loud. Trump is apparently the entire Republican party now. Trump is a toxic poison that is killing the GOP, but if left uncontrolled it will kill the rest of the country too.

  10. maat says

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” (Weinberg)
    Christianity, it seems, was invented by St Paul as a result of a fall. Without realising it, they are admitting that Christianity is actually the product of a sick man’s hallucination.
    I often wondered what Christianity would have looked like, had he broken his neck and died. But then… surely plenty more fanatics around who would come up with a similar disastrous idea!

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    maat @17: Weinberg also wrote

    given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than ant-Semitism.,7340,L-3404128,00.html

    It’s not just religion that can make good people do (or turn a blind eye to) evil things. It’s any ideology.

  12. John Morales says


    It’s not just religion that can make good people do (or turn a blind eye to) evil things.

    Fine. So, you hold that religion that can make good people do (or turn a blind eye to) evil things.

    Me too.

    Also: St Javelin

  13. maat says

    Rob Grigjanis @18:
    True, Weinberg did say that.
    And true, pernicious ideologies are not exclusively religious.
    It does not invalidate the above.
    Why would leaders wanting to convince people to go to war always find it useful to say “God wills it” or “God is on our side”?
    To justify wars (‘holy’ wars!), St Bernard promised people that, if they went out and massacred infidels, God will forgive all their sins and reward them; for killing them was not ‘homicide’ but ‘evilcide’… This is how, and how easily, it works.

  14. John Morales says


    So can atheism.

    A very arguable proposition. Want to have an argument?

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    maat @21: What Weinberg wrote implies that without religion, good people will not do evil things. That’s bullshit.

    From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered more than a million people. During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of priests, monks and nuns were killed.

    Yes, religion has been used as an excuse to kill. Point is, if we don’t have religion, we’ll find other excuses.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    John, there is no argument to be had. My bolding;

    Turón, one of the locales of anticlerical violence, a coal-mining town in the Asturias Province, was a hub of anti-government and anticlerical agitation.[30] The De La Salle Brothers, who ran a school there, angered the leftists who ran Turón, because of their exercise of religion and their flouting of the constitutional prohibition on religious instruction. On October 5, 1934, the agents of the local rebel government invaded the order’s residence on the pretext that they had concealed weapons. A Passionist priest, Father Inocencio, now Saint Innocencio of Mary Immaculate, who had arrived the evening of October 4 was about to say Mass for the brothers. He and the brothers were taken and held without trial and summarily shot in the middle of the night in the cemetery.

  17. John Morales says

    Yes, Rob. The motive was political, not atheistic. Basically, the Church had become identified with the fascist, rightist regime.

    From your own link:

    A process of political polarisation had already characterized the Second Spanish Republic; party divisions became increasingly embittered and whether an individual continued practicing Roman Catholicism was seen as a sign of partisan loyalty. Electorally, the Church had identified itself with the conservative parties, which had set themselves against the far-left.

    Try again?

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    John, priests, nuns and monks are not “the Church”. They’re people. The motive wasn’t atheistic? Did you read the bolded part?

    Holy shit, SC, are you excusing the murder of priests, monks and nuns?

  19. John Morales says

    To be fair, I really thought you’d go to the Soviet Union first, Rob.

    Again: ideology, politics. Atheism was a second-order effect, not a cause.

    Also, you apparently did not read this (which, BTW, precedes and therefore sustains later claims in the article): “an individual continued practicing Roman Catholicism was seen as a sign of partisan loyalty”. Hard to be a priest, nun or monks without practising the religion.

    But it’s a good example of the post title, only thing is that the fanaticism was also fostered on those who identified the Church with the enemy.

    (A divisive thing, is religion)

  20. says

    Rob, the Church in Spain has historically been an aspect and vector of rightwing power. It’s difficult to describe the extent of this and the effect it’s had on people’s lives. It’s political. They helped run prisons and indoctrinated kids under Franco, they helped torture gay people, they forced women to stay with abusive husbands, they forced people to go to mass, they demonized the left, they were involved with the “Valley of the Fallen,” they stole babies from people on the left and gave them to Francoists,… Obviously, this didn’t spring into being after the Civil War.

    Ah – there’s a 2016 Journal of Contemporary History article by Giuliana Chamedes, “The Vatican, Nazi-Fascism, and the Making of Transnational Anti-communism in the 1930s.” Haven’t yet read it.

  21. Tethys says

    Would Isabella ever have commissioned Cristobo Colon to sail off to the new world and start colonizing without the backing of the Pope?
    Would the trans-Atlantic slave trade ever have been a thing without that same church equating melanin with the mark of Cain? (See Isadore of Seville, who goes on at great length about this in regard to both Jewish and African people)
    How about Charlemagne and his body count?
    The Crusades?

    The entire history of Christianity via the Catholic Church is blood soaked politics, racism, and conversion at sword point.

  22. tuatara says

    My personal fav is the doctrine of discovery. It is the primary reason I dislike xians. The fact that almost none of them are aware of their own history is another reason.

    The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. Foundational elements of the Doctrine of Discovery can be found in a series of papal bulls, or decrees, beginning in the 1100s, which included sanctions, enforcements, authorizations, explusions, admonishments, excommunications, denunciations, and expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church. Two papal bulls, in particular, stand out: (1) Pope Nicholas V issued “Romanus Pontifex” in 1455, granting the Portuguese a monopoly of trade with Africa and authorizing the enslavement of local people; (2) Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493 to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority, and has been applied in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.

    My ancestors were slaughtered wholesale for having the audacity to defend their lives and territories in the face of this supposedly legalised theft of their lives and territories.

    I take great comfort in the knowledge that at death all xians are disappointed.

  23. John Morales says

    Would the trans-Atlantic slave trade ever have been a thing without that same church equating melanin with the mark of Cain?

    Exactly. cf.

    The [Pope Nicholas V] bull of 1452 was addressed to Afonso V and conceded Portugal’s right to attack, conquer and subjugate Saracens and pagans.[11]

    We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.