A field guide to Christofascism
On the specter of a white cross at the U.S. Capitol putsch
In the two weeks since Trump supporters stormed the U.S. capitol building, political commentators have been grasping around for historical precedents. There are plenty to choose from.
The reactionary mob violence of late Reconstruction might be a good starting point, as my friend Baynard Woods argued in the Washington Post. Aggrieved white Americans were once again employing terror tactics to override the will of Black voters, and Sen. Ted Cruz had even invoked the explicitly racist Compromise of 1877 as precedent for throwing out election results.
There were echoes, too, of Germany’s Beer Hall Putsch, a horrifying if clownishly executed coup attempt that presaged the rise of the Third Reich. We could use the grim reminder that fascists rarely give up after a single setback.
And then we have more recent examples, including the more than 80 coup attempts that the United States either endorsed or materially supported between 1946 and 2000. There is a real sense in which the capitalist zealotry and anticommunist mania that the U.S. exported for the last 75 years have returned to the imperial core.
This brings me to Bolivia, where the 2019 coup led by interim president Jeanine Áñez bore one striking similarity to the United States’ “Stop the Steal” movement: It had a strong current of support among Christians.
In November 2019, Áñez stood in Bolivia’s presidential palace grinning and clutching an enormous copy of the four Christian gospels. Right-wing nationalists had seized power after throwing out the results of an election that the incumbent socialist Evo Morales had won.
Signs of the cross were everywhere during the conservative ascent, from the numerous Bibles held aloft by the golpistas to the insignia of the fascist youth group led by Interim President Áñez’s ally, Luis Fernando Camacho.
“God has returned to the palace,” Camacho said. “To those who did not believe in this struggle I say God exists and is now going to govern Bolivia for all Bolivians!”
Áñez, Camacho, and their allies succeeded where the U.S. right wing failed on Jan. 6 this year. Where the U.S. merely had a putsch in the Capitol building, Bolivia had a successful coup many years in the making. Whereas in the U.S. police merely turned a blind eye to the Trumpists’ open organizing on social media, in Bolivia the police and military ultimately threw their support behind the coup.
What followed was predictable. The Áñez government massacred protesters, granted immunity to police forces, sought to reverse the successful anti-poverty measures of the preceding socialist administration, launched a manhunt for one of Morales’ top aides, and banished indigenous symbols and religious practices from the halls of government.
In the year between the coup and Morales’ MAS party regaining power in a landslide second election, the Áñez administration pushed the country back toward the Cold War ideal of the Bolivian Fascist party, which had modeled itself around Francisco Franco’s Catholic republic in Spain.
“I believe that just as He freed Israel from the Pharaoh of Egypt, He freed Bolivia from the Pharaoh Evo,” said Luis Aruquipa Carlo, a hard-right pastor from La Paz. “Evo’s era is coming to an end. And the era of Christ is being born.”
I was reminded of Áñez and Camacho’s Bible-wielding theatrics during the heady days of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, when Trump strolled from the White House to a nearby Episcopal church for an awkward photo op with a Bible, escorted by riot police who tear gassed everyone in his path. Some white evangelical leaders lapped up the symbolism.
“His presence,” said Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, after Trump spent two months screeching that the election had been stolen from him, Christian symbolism was on prominent display during the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Someone waved a “Jesus 2020” campaign banner; a white cross declared “TRUMP WON;” one 40-year-old evangelical in the fracas told the New York Times she had received a sign from God and heeded her pastor’s call to “stop the steal.” Even the Proud Boys knelt in prayer and asked God’s blessing on what they were about to do.
After the failed putsch, after the mob bludgeoned a cop with a flag pole and some of the tamer Republicans blanched, evangelicals were evidently not contrite about their support for the president who had egged the riot on. An opinion poll released on Jan. 20 by PRRI found 62% of white evangelical Protestants still viewed Trump favorably.
Donald Trump and Jeanine Áñez both oversaw orgies of fascism during their time in office, and they both did so under the sign of the cross. The word for this is “Christofascism.”
By fascism, I mean the pattern of populist ultranationalism, racial grievance, and violent paramilitary action that was first formulated in Mussolini’s Italy and re-emerged in different forms from Hitler’s Germany to Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
By Christofascism, I mean the adoption of fascist doctrines by the Christian church. It happened in Germany and Bolivia, and to some extent it has already happened here.
The German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle coined the term Christofascism in 1970 and watched as it crept into U.S. churches through Cold War jingoism, patriotic reverence for capitalism, and the media crusades of the Moral Majority.
Sölle warned that it was possible to slide toward fascism without the obvious totalitarianism that was a trademark of German fascism. In her 1990 book The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality, she wrote:
[O]ne of the essential differences between this [U.S. fascism] and European fascism is, in my judgment, the geopolitical fact that nowadays the concentration camps are not close to Weimar or Munich, but are far away: in El Salvador, in the Philippines, in South Africa, and wherever the great world power permits or encourages torture and murder, or has done so in the past.
Sölle saw three uniting themes in U.S. Christofascism at the end of the Cold War: 1) U.S. superiority; 2) the veneration of work and, in the inverse, cruelty toward those who depend on welfare or solidarity; and 3) the lionization of the patriarchal nuclear family and, in the inverse, the demonization of sexual and gender minorities.
Notably, Sölle quoted the televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.’s preaching on “free enterprise” as a key text for understanding U.S. Christofascism. (Falwell’s son, Jerry Jr., achieved notoriety in the last four years by using his father’s school Liberty University as an ideological battering ram for Trumpism.) She wrote about Jerry Sr.’s television program The Old Time Gospel Hour:
Whom is he reaching? These are the people for whom the American dream has not become a reality, people who have been impoverished by inflation, isolated suburbanites, politically frustrated little people. The Moral Majority promises them that everything will be fine again … the way it was. America will be Number One again, sexuality under control, criminality abolished.
Christofascism, like fascism, is a fuzzy term that overlaps with other fuzzy terms. It has much in common today with the Christian dominionism of Mike Pence and the Christian nationalism of Franklin Graham. In the evangelical church’s current moral panic over the rights of transgender people, it finds unlikely common cause with the TERF wing of American feminism.
To the extent that “Christofascism” is a useful term, it is useful for naming and repenting of a grievous sin within the church.
For those of us who count ourselves as followers of Jesus, it should nauseate us to see, as Eduardo Galeano wrote, “the sign of the cross on the handles of swords.”
Sölle’s words rebuke us again today:
At a mass meeting a thousand voices shouted: ‘I love Jesus’ and ‘I love America’ — it was impossible to distinguish the two. This kind of religion knows the cross only as a magical symbol of what he has done for us, not as the sign of the poor man who was tortured to death as a political criminal … This is a God without justice, a Jesus without a cross, an Easter without a cross — what remains is a metaphysical Easter Bunny in front of the beautiful blue light of the television screen, a betrayal of the disappointed, a miracle weapon in service of the mighty.
A church that celebrates power and laughs at weakness is not the church of Christ. It is a church of something else, and it’s worth our time to name it.
My inspiration for this week’s newsletter was a recent episode of The Magnificast podcast from Jan. 8, which introduced me to Sölle’s writings on Christofascism.
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