Opinion by Michael Gerson
The practical effects of the fascist occupation of the U.S. Capitol building were quickly undone. The symbols it left behind are indelible.
A Confederate flag waved in triumph in the halls of a building never taken by Jefferson Davis. Guns drawn to protect the floor of the House of Representatives from violent attack. A cloddish barbarian in the presiding officer’s chair. The desecration of democracy under the banner “Jesus Saves.”
This post-apocalyptic vision of chaos and national humiliation was the direct and intended consequence of a president’s incitement. It was made possible by quislings such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who turned a ceremony of continuity into a rallying cry for hatred and treason. In the aftermath, Republican legislators who still don’t support President Trump’s immediate removal from office by constitutional means are guilty of continuing complicity.
All this leaves President-elect Joe Biden in a difficult position. Prudence would advise two weeks of patience and then an upbeat attempt to turn the national page. Justice would dictate arresting, trying and imprisoning President Trump for sedition at the soonest possible moment.
As of now, I am in the justice camp. The only way to restore boundaries of law and decency is to enforce them.
The coming weeks will see a gradually arriving reckoning. Political leaders who sought access and influence over the past four years through a political alliance with insurrectionists and domestic terrorists are responsible for unleashing insurrectionists and domestic terrorists. This is true of some Federalist Society conservatives, who cared only about judicial appointments. It is true of some economic conservatives, focused only on tax and regulatory policy. And it is true, above all, of Trump evangelicals, who sought to recover lost social influence through the cynical embrace of corrupt power.
I come back to this group repeatedly, not only because I share an evangelical background and resent those who dishonor it, but because the overwhelming support of evangelicals is the single largest reason that Trump possesses power in the first place. It was their malignant approach to politics that forced our country into its current nightmare. As white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, misogynists, anarchists, criminals and terrorists took hold of the Republican Party, many evangelicals blessed it under the banner “Jesus Saves.”
Jesus had something to say about political deals with the devil: “Get behind me, Satan!” My point is less theological: The political and religious costs of a tight evangelical alliance with violent bigots and crackpots were easily foreseen. I and many others foresaw and foresaw until our fingers ached at the keyboard. Yet Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and the others either shut their eyes or shared in Trumpian hatreds. “There has never been anyone,” said Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”
“We didn’t vote for him to be our pastor or our husband,” explained Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America. “We voted for him to be our bodyguard.” But what if the bodyguard you hired turns out to be a brutish, bigoted, narcissistic, authoritarian thug who wants to burn down any democratic institution he can’t control? Perhaps the moral character of political bodyguards actually matters. Perhaps evangelicals should not be hiring bodyguards in the first place, but rather supporting moral leaders who seek the common good.
The damage is now done. And it is not my purpose to pick through the ruins of destroyed reputations. It is tempting to call unforgivable the equation of Christian truth with malice, cruelty, deception, bigotry and sedition. But that statement is itself contradicted by Christian truth, which places no one beyond forgiveness and affirms that everyone needs grace in different ways. There is a perfectly good set of Christian tools to deal with situations such as these: remorse, repentance, forgiveness, reformation.
The collapse of one disastrous form of Christian social engagement should be an opportunity for the emergence of a more faithful one. And here there are plenty of potent, hopeful Christian principles lying around unused by most evangelicals: A consistent and comprehensive concern for the weak and vulnerable in our society, including the poor, immigrants and refugees. A passion for racial reconciliation and criminal justice reform, rooted in the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity. A deep commitment to public and global health, reflecting the priorities of Christ’s healing ministry. An embrace of political civility as a civilizing norm. A commitment to the liberty of other people’s religions, not just our own. An insistence on public honesty and a belief in the transforming power of unarmed truth.
What would America be like if these had been the priorities of evangelical Christians over the past four years — or over the past four decades? It would mean something very different, in that world, to raise the banner “Jesus Saves.”