Who We Are: Oppositional, Conspiracy-Minded & Prone to Violence
Updated: Mar 28
Despite concerted attempts to minimize it, the unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol one year ago tomorrow has turned January 6 into one of those rare dates, like the Fourth of July or "9-11," that Americans can now reference without needing to specify a year to conjure its memory.
I had the unusual experience of finishing my book about the American Revolution in the months leading up to this singular day. Almost everyone who has reported back to me after reading ONE LIFE TO GIVE has wanted to talk to me about January 6. These conversations have challenged me to connect the history of our nation's founding to the events of one year ago, and they have led me to a sad conclusion: this was a very American event.
The people who loudly proclaimed (and proudly livestreamed) their rejection of duly authorized election results; who used American flags as weapons against Capitol Hill Police officers; who, but for a few fateful steps, might have taken members of Congress hostage or hung the Vice-President of the United States -- these people are not outliers. To the contrary, they are ordinary Americans who were acting in very American ways.
The January 6 insurrectionists were ordinary Americans acting in very American ways.
Across the past twelve months, "White Christian Nationalism" has become a common shorthand for describing the ideology that inspired so many of the rioters to take such extreme action. (The more precise -- if less soundbite-friendly -- descriptor would be "Anglo-American Protestant Providentialism.") The belief that the English colonization of North America was a part of God's master plan for human history was shared across the disparate Protestant traditions in colonial America, and this belief facilitated the colonists' discovering common cause with one another. You needn't buy the argument that "America was founded as a Christian nation" to agree that without the shared embrace and propagation of these pan-Protestant religious sentiments there would have been no American Revolution.
While high-minded principles helped to galvanize residents across the thirteen colonies during the buildup to the American Revolution, so too did ancient impulses that sprung from this Protestant spiritual inheritance. Soldiers in the Continental Army risked their lives in part because they believed in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They also risked their lives because they concluded that King George III was a "tyrant" determined to prevent them from realizing these ideals. Talk of tyrants had dominated conversation in Protestant circles for centuries, as Thomas Jefferson was well aware when he made this his central argument in drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Whether Jefferson's characterization of King George was fitting -- not just American loyalists and British, but also revolutionaries like John Adams did not think it was -- is almost irrelevant. A new generation of American men were ready to go to war.
This was what masculine virtue looked like in early America -- virulent, and often violent, opposition to conspiratorial exercises of authority. This is what the Protestant forebears of countless revolutionaries had done for generations -- they took up arms to fight in what they believed were sacred causes. Across divisions of class, ethnicity, geography and denomination, young men who came of age in the buildup to Revolution were raised to aspire to this ideal. They were taught, as Americans would say today, to "man up." In the vernacular of their day, they were taught to "play the man."
This inheritance is still a powerful force in American life, and it has bequeathed to us what is, in moral and spiritual terms, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this inheritance can inspire a profound sense of purpose and destiny, imbued with the dimension of the divine, rendering us, as Americans, capable of extraordinary sacrifice for causes greater than ourselves. It also predisposes us to absolutize our every cause, to draw sharp distinctions between ourselves and others, and to then demonize them. It tempts us to absolutize almost any cause, to turn almost any dispute into a holy war.
So this is my conclusion one year after what we will remember quite simply as "January 6." The events of that day taught us something important about ourselves: This is part of who we are as Americans -- oppositional, conspiracy-minded and prone to violence.
Is this all we are? you might ask. Is this our inescapable destiny as a people? To these questions I would answer: No, this is not all of who we are. And, yes, we can be better than this.
LEFT: An idealized rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1883).
RIGHT: Rioters wave American flags while attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
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What inspired so many young men to risk their lives for the cause of the American Revolution? In ONE LIFE TO GIVE: Martyrdom and the Making of the American Revolution, John Fanestil answers this question by tracing the motivations of ordinary soldiers in the Continental Army to the spiritual inheritance of English Protestant martyrdom. The book opens and closes with the story of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary spy who was executed on September 22, 1776.