In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, I naively believed that the violent attempt to overturn the 2020 election outcome would serve as a breaking point for the nation and the Republican Party. Despite the party’s anti-democratic slide, including so many embracing the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, I thought the collective horror of the day — felt across the political spectrum — would awaken everyone to the danger that former President Donald Trump and his enablers posed to our democracy.
Of course, we now know that isn’t what happened. In the two years since Jan. 6, election denialism has maintained its grip on a large share of Republican politicians. Just this week, a segment of congressional Republicans who embrace Trump’s lie of a stolen election have prevented their party’s caucus from electing a House speaker, despite multiple rounds of voting.
On this second anniversary of the attack on the Capitol that left five people dead, we must counteract efforts to downplay and obscure what happened that day. In the past year, we’ve gained a clearer picture of Jan. 6 and all that led to it thanks to the continued reporting by journalists, court proceedings for individuals who attacked the Capitol, and most importantly the House committee that investigated Jan. 6. In late December, the committee released its summary and final report which concluded:
“In the Committee’s hearings, we presented evidence of what ultimately became a multi-part plan to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. That evidence has led to an overriding and straight forward conclusion: the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump, who many others followed. None of the events of January 6th would have happened without him.”
The committee also officially referred Trump to the Justice Department for possible prosecution for several federal crimes, including inciting insurrection, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of an act of Congress, marking the first time in U.S. history Congress has referred a former president for criminal prosecution.
The end of the committee’s work and the criminal referral leaves me with a key question that I think we all should wrestle with: What does it mean for Trump and his accomplices and enablers to be held accountable for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection? And what does accountability look like for so many others who may not have broken any laws, but have amplified the Big Lie for their own political benefit, despite the clear danger these lies pose to our democracy? On the legal side, the Justice Department must now answer that question as it pertains to the former president. On the political side, some accountability arguably happened in last November’s midterm elections, with election deniers losing races for important statewide offices in key swing states across the country.
Yet in addition to legal and political ramifications, Jan. 6 also demands moral and spiritual accountability. The insurrection further revealed the danger posed by violent right-wing extremism and white nationalism, including groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, whose involvement in the Jan. 6 attacks the House committee meticulously documented. Many of these groups go hand-in-hand with white Christian nationalism, a central and galvanizing force behind Jan. 6 that has not received nearly enough scrutiny. As Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) and lead organizer of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign, said in her testimony before Congress, Christian nationalism played a key role in “uniting the rioters and justifying the violence.”
“It was disorienting to see the seat of American democracy under attack by people brandishing Christian imagery and language while perpetuating violence. Christian crosses and religious iconography were ubiquitous throughout the mob” she said. “The rioters built impromptu gallows and signed them with phrases like ‘Amen,’ ‘God Bless the USA,’ and ‘In God We Trust.’ One attacker said a Christian prayer from the Senate dais, asking for God’s blessing on their actions.”
While forgiveness is undeniably central to Christianity, our actions, including our sins, still have consequences. Repentance requires acknowledging wrongdoing, seeking to repair the harm that has been done and then turning in a new direction. In the context of our bruised democratic system, turning in a new direction will require more robust changes to our voting and electoral system that will disincentivize an “us-versus-them” and vitriolic form of politics, further protect the sacred right to vote, and depolarize our politics. While the passage of the Electoral Reform Act before the end of the year represented an important victory and first step, much deeper and broader reforms are desperately needed, including everything from restoring the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act to pursuing ranked choice voting and ending gerrymandered districts that so often favor the most extreme and partisan candidates, and much more.
However, even these electoral fixes will be insufficient. In her must-read report, “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy,” democracy and security expert Rachel Kleinfeld writes that “since the end of the Cold War, most democratic failure globally has been caused by elected governments using legal methods, such as gerrymandering and technical rule changes, to derail democracy…and America’s democratic decline has accelerated despite record numbers of people, minorities, and swing voters voting.” Kleinfeld offers a compelling blueprint to support and save democracy that includes the need to “enable responsible conservatives to vote for democracy and to build a broad-based, multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action.”
On a moral and spiritual front, we also must do more than condemn the violent extremism and Christian nationalism we witnessed on Jan. 6. While condemnation is important, 40 percent of our fellow U.S. voters believe that the 2020 election was stolen and many hold varying degrees of Christian nationalist views — views which some researchers have found to be a factor associated with support for political violence.
So, in addition to saying what we denounce, we also need to boldly articulate an alternative vision that will help us better disciple our siblings in Christ away from white Christian nationalism and help us build a much bigger and broader pro-democracy movement. I still believe that the Beloved Community, the moral vision that animated the civil rights movement, can provide a unifying moral vision that will help us transcend ideological and partisan divisions and enable us to tap into shared civic and religious values to transform our polarized politics. In the process, we must resist the temptation to conflate social conservatism with anti-democratic, violent extremism and refuse to demonize or dehumanize people who are being influenced by these ideologies. How we rise to this challenge will have a profound impact on the church and the future of our democracy. The lessons we learn from Jan. 6 thus represent a critical choice for our nation and for Christians: Will we be silent or complacent in the face of ongoing dangers to our democracy that Jan. 6 revealed? Or will we work boldly together to build a much bigger pro-democracy movement that can help us achieve an inclusive, just, and multiracial democracy?