At the eight-minute mark of this remarkable video shot inside US Congress as it was stormed by rioters on January 6, something strange and telling happens: They start praying.
“Let’s all say a prayer,” says the guy who wore a bison skin on his head, with horns, and painted his face red, white and blue. “Thank you heavenly father for gracing us with this opportunity (indistinct). Thanks heavenly father. Amen.”
It was a sign that this was not just a protest about fabricated election rigging. It was also, in part, a religious event.
It was also a clue that while the inauguration of Joe Biden as president will mean the end of President Trump, it will not mean the end of Trumpism.
America’s political dysfunction – and insurrection – runs deep.
My holiday reading has been mainly spent trying to understand why America is still largely a fundamentalist Christian nation, having started life as a secular Enlightenment project in 1776.
It’s true that the place was settled 200 years earlier by deeply religious Puritans, but neither the US Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence mentions God, and the framers of the Constitution saw themselves as Enlightenment thinkers, inspired by Voltaire and Hume among others to entrench the separation of church and state.
I haven’t got to the bottom of that question, despite burying myself in Enlightenment philosophers.
I simply don’t know how so many Americans have remained impervious to evolution, 162 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and why two-thirds of the population still believe in God while the rest of the western world has largely secularised, adhering to science rather than belief.
But I did come to understand the power of the Christian right in America and their 40-year project to take control of the government, culminating in their decision to support a “pagan king” in 2016.
Two books in particular, published last year, informed me about that: Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers – Inside the dangerous rise of religious nationalism, and Sarah Posner’s Unholy – Why white evangelicals worship at the altar of Donald Trump.
Here’s a quote from Stewart’s book: “The religious right is a political movement and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic founders and allied political leaders.”
Also: “Perhaps the most salient impediment to our understanding of the movement is the notion that Christian nationalism is a ‘conservative’ ideology. The correct word is radical.” She called it “neo-medieval”.
Stewart and Posner both explain that the movement did not begin in 1973 with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade to legalise abortion, but six years later when the leaders of segregationist churches and schools, who were trying to protect their tax deductibility status from a civil rights-based push to remove it, decided to use abortion to popularise their stand.
It was brilliantly successful. The effort to preserve tax-deductibility has been forgotten, and abortion became the central energising force for American Christians and eventually was the main reason Donald Trump was elected – to restore the conservative anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court, which he did.
But the key word in that quote from Stewart is “plutocratic”.
The most important thing that has happened over the past 40 years has been the fusion of Christians and capitalists – that is, the gun manufacturers, the “military industrial complex”, big pharma and Wall Street.
There’s nothing new about capitalist Christianity in the US, but in the past few decades it has been taken to a new level.
Stewart quotes one of the movement’s leaders during this period, RJ Rushdoony: “Capitalism is supremely a product of Christianity. On the other hand, socialism is organised larceny; like inflation, it takes from the haves and gives to the have nots.”
The irony that Christ was also on about taking from the haves and giving to the have nots was apparently lost on him and his audience, or ignored.
The movement is also deeply patriarchal: It’s not just about women’s right to choose, but about keeping women at home, out of the workplace and under control.
Anyway, here we are in January 2021 with the Christian right’s 2016-20 champion having lost an election he might have won, had he paid more attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and listened to the health experts.
But even in defeat he got 74,222,593 votes, which was 11 million more than 2016 and more than any other presidential candidate in history, except for Joe Biden.
Most of those 74 million probably still believe the election was stolen/rigged and it will be hard to dissuade them. And all of them, I’d venture, own at least one gun.
That 46.9 per cent vote for Trump is only slightly more than the percentage who believe that God created man in our present form (another 33 per cent believe in evolution guided by God).
Trump’s big final mistake in inciting his followers to storm the Capitol two weeks ago has resulted in business supporters peeling off him in droves and could see him convicted by Republicans in the Senate so he can’t stand again in 2024.
But it doesn’t matter.
That won’t be the end of the power-grab of the radical Christian right. Trump was merely their temporary disposable figurehead, a “useful idiot”.
There’ll be another one, less idiotic and more useful.
God help America.
Award-winning business journalist Alan Kohler is Editor in Chief of The Eureka Report and an ABC regular. Alan writes twice weekly for The New Daily. His next column will be published on Monday. Subscribers read him first in our 6.30 am newsletter. Subscription is free.