Culture

Christianity as Ideology: The Cautionary Tale of the Jericho March

Supporters of President Trump take part in a rally to protest the results of the election, in Washington, D.C., December 12, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
We should pray that the dangerous mindset of this ‘stop the steal’ gathering remains marginal on the right.

A toxic ideological cocktail of grievance, paranoia, and self-exculpatory rage was on display at the “Jericho March,” a protest staged at the end of last week in Washington, D.C., by the president’s most devoted Evangelical Christian supporters. Their aim was to “stop the steal” of the presidential election, to prepare patriots for battle against a “One-World Government,” and to sell pillows at a 25 percent discount.

Watching the proceedings unfold on YouTube, I found it wasn’t always easy to tell where these three objectives ranked in order of priority for the organizers.

In fact, there was a strange impression given throughout the event that attendees believe Christianity is, in some sense, consubstantial with American nationalism. It was as if a new and improved Holy Trinity of “Father, Son, and Uncle Sam” had taken the place of the old and outmoded Nicene version. When Eric Metaxas, the partisan radio host and emcee for the event, first stepped on stage, he wasn’t greeted with psalm-singing or with hymns of praise to the Holy Redeemer, but with chants of “USA! USA!”

In short, the Jericho rally was a worrying example of how Christianity can be twisted and drafted into the service of a political ideology.

But ideology is not actually compatible with Christianity. Ideology goes hand in hand with politics and nationhood because its purpose is to abstract from the particular lives of individuals certain general rules or truths about human behavior that can then be used to organize society. For this reason, ideology excludes the unique and unrepeatable personality of each human, what we usually call our “self.”

This flattening-out of people into manipulable abstractions is necessary if we’re to have a political order at all. Politicians in the federal government, for example, govern over 300 million people. They can’t hope to have a personal relationship with each and every American individually or to legislate according to the unique predilections of our personal lives. They have to search for concerns we share with others and treat us as avatars of those concerns. We become, in the eyes of the state, members of a tax bracket, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, white, black, residents in a particular zip code. In all cases, our unique and individual personalities, as distinct from the things we share with other members of a political group, are excluded. Because of this, politics is, in a very real sense, inhuman. As the Greek theologian Christos Yannaras writes, “the substitution of politics for existence is the supreme betrayal of the subjective otherness of man.”

It’s possible for people to embrace this way of thinking to such a great extent that they become ideologically possessed. Individuals can so identify themselves with a political collective that they lose the unique human being that once existed underneath. Even worse, they can apply this same standard to others and so identify their opponents exclusively as evil stereotypes. The human fades away and the idea of the enemy is all that remains. This is what Yannaras means by “the substitution of politics for existence.” People are reduced to political actors, and reality is reduced to political combat. Every other stalk of what the poet Philip Larkin calls “the million-petaled flower of being here” is plucked off and discarded.

This cast of mind was, for a long time, the preserve of the Left, and it flourishes there still in the form of intersectional identity politics. But in recent times we’ve seen more and more of this mindset raise its ugly head on the right. What’s more, there are certain features of the conservative mentality that could allow it to take root and sprout up quicker and to deadlier effect than we might imagine. For evidence of this, look at the Jericho March itself.

The American Right has always been suspicious of what we might call “wickedness in high places.” This impulse goes back to the Founding itself, when the Patriots became convinced that a vast transcontinental conspiracy to rob them of their liberties was being orchestrated by a shadowy, distant elite: the British parliament. This Founding dialectic between the popular children of light and the elite children of darkness was built into the rhetoric of Jeffersonian democracy from the start. At its best, it functioned as a safeguard against government overreach. At its worst, it led to the excesses of the John Birch Society, McCarthyism, and, most recently, the voter-fraud truther movement.

When this kind of vigilance is combined with the ideological mindset, it quickly turns into conspiratorial paranoia. Since the purpose of ideology is to provide a comprehensive account of political life, data that don’t fit the ideological model can be reshaped by an appeal to conspiracy. Those on the left have done this for years. Every time events confound their ideological schematic, they explain it away by appealing to dark-money-fueled conspiracies perpetrated by billionaire robber-barons. Right-wing ideologues have now found a similar scapegoat in the form of the “deep state.” Here’s what Mike Flynn had to say at the Jericho March:

We cannot accept what we’re going through as right. We’re inside the walls of the deep state and there is evil and there is corruption. And there’s light and truth. And we’re going to get to the light and we’re going to get to the truth.

This is the way it has to be for ideologically possessed people. When one’s very sense of self is bound up with the success of an ideological program, the program cannot be allowed to fail. Which brings us to the most depraved and sordid aspect of this whole conspiratorial movement.

Not unlike the president himself, the leading lights of the Jericho March have said breathtakingly irresponsible things about the election that could very well lead to violence. The aforementioned Eric Metaxas, who has a radio show and a considerable following, described himself as “happy to die in this fight” and told his listeners that “we need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.” He also described everyone who isn’t on the “stop the steal” train like this:

Everybody who is not hopped up about this . . . you are the Germans that looked the other way when Hitler was preparing to do what he was preparing to do. Unfortunately, I don’t see how you can see it any other way.

Other speakers at the event called for the formation of a civilian militia, while Alex Jones, the noted Sandy Hook truther who speaks with a congenital snarling drawl, compared the moment we’re in right now to 1776.

We have to reckon with the nontrivial chance that someone out there will take these men seriously. When you reach for language like this while addressing an audience of politically enraged people, you’re courting the possibility of violence. After all, who doesn’t want to be the first one to take up arms against the Nazis, or to take up the mantle of liberty from George Washington?

This is the tragedy of the Jericho March. The irony of the Jericho March is that an ostensibly Christian proceeding in fact more nearly resembles the paganism it long ago vanquished. Writing about classical antiquity, Metropolitan John Zizioulas notes that

many writers have represented [Ancient] Greek thought as essentially “non-personal.” In its Platonic variation, everything concrete and “individual” is ultimately referred to the abstract idea which constitutes its ground and final justification.

This sounds a lot like the way modern ideologies work. In America today, individuals are ultimately referred to the abstract political idea that constitutes their ground and final justification in the social order. Zizioulas goes on to observe that in classical Rome, “identity — that vital component of the concept of man, that which makes one man differ from another, which makes him who he is — [was] guaranteed and provided by the state or by some organized whole.” As Christianity recedes as a cultural force in the West, we seem to be moving back toward this “non-personal” way of dealing with each other. But far from pushing back against this process of dehumanization, the Jericho March Christians are actually accelerating it by dividing good and evil along exclusively ideological lines.

To understand the gravity and the tragic irony of this, one really has to understand the world as it was when Christianity first appeared. As Zizioulas notes above, individual persons weren’t thought to exist in their own right in the ancient world. Everything and everyone was conceived of as a fragmented shard of the universe, which was ultimately one great impersonal unity. Men and women drifted in and out of existence as epiphenomena of an impersonal cosmic order. Christianity changed all of this by insisting that ultimate reality is itself personal: three unique and unrepeatable divine persons who exist in a communion of immediate relationship.

This is why Christianity, rightly understood, marks the end of ideology. It insists that the truest and most important aspects of our lives are not the ideas we concoct of one another in the abstract so as to have a functioning government. The unique person, understood only in the context of loving relationship and apart from any ideological status, is the real heart and hearthstone of human life. Consequently, the Christian faith turns out be essentially anti-political, because the state can’t treat people in this manner. It can only treat them as political actors. But this is how the Jericho March Christians seem to think of themselves and everyone else.

There’s much to say about the specific lies that have been told about the election by conspiracy theorists on the right, but many of my colleagues have capably debunked them more convincingly than I ever could. My main concern is the broader trajectory of Christianity in this country and the encroachment of political ideology onto its spiritual territory. If the ideology of the Jericho March has become truly widespread on the right, it could end up being a much more intractable and serious problem in the long term than anything surrounding the defeat of Donald Trump.

While the laws that we live under matter a great deal, Christians need to recover the primacy of the personal over the political more than anything else. If we can’t love our neighbors in a personal, politically agnostic, face-to-face way, they’ll turn to synthetic and unreal ideological communities to fill the gap left by the loneliness of their daily lives.

The road back to sanity, solidarity, and social trust on both sides of the political spectrum will involve turning away from this ideological cul-de-sac and back toward personal communities once more. If Christian churches won’t do this, they risk being exploited as political playthings of the powers that be.

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