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Religious Bias & the Capitol Insurrection: A Conversation on Rhetoric, Truth, and Coming Together

Following the well-received post-Inauguration public conversation on politics and religion, ICJS Scholars explored the mix of religious, civic, and conspiracy-theory images and symbolism that came together in rallies and marches against the 2020 election results, culminating in the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. ICJS Scholars explored an interconnected web of topics, examining the sometimes graphic imagery displayed by participants, highlighting notions of good and evil, and commenting on the intersections of free speech and violence.

“Those people who are storming the Capitol are not thinking they are on the side of evil, they’re not thinking they’re on the side of injustice,” said Protestant Scholar Matt Taylor, who facilitated the conversation. “Saying what they are doing in these protests is for justice—that narrative of ‘we are on the side of good’—allows you to dehumanize, allows you to set aside, a lot of the moral frameworks that you might be operating with normally and say no, what we are doing now is moral. That’s what many of the people, and I would say most of the people, who are doing this were thinking. They thought they were on the side of right.”

While the tensions remain high and the divisions deep, finding common ground, replacing divisions with dialogue and pluralism, is imperative. This is easier said than done, however, with the climate of suspicion and mistrust so widespread, with the spirituality of perceived political identities clashing so violently with longstanding mores and beliefs.

“We’re operating in entirely different truth universes—‘alternative facts’ has become a catchword—and that’s really dangerous, as a society, to end up having entirely hermetically sealed different worlds that you’re living in,” said Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar Heather Miller Rubens. “So, I think trying to create space and opportunity to really say what’s true, what’s good, what’s evil, and equip people to have those conversations, is a step in the right direction.”

The conversations we are trying to have today must engage with a long, troubling history of violence, oppression, and harm. From the Holocaust to the Middle Passage, Jim Crow to Christian Nationalism, religious institutions and individuals must come to terms with the past in order to meaningfully address the present.

“For Muslims and especially Black Muslims, what happened on January 6 showed a very clear difference in treatment in how law enforcement treats White rioters,” said Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan. “There’s also a deep concern within the Muslim community that when stricter legislation is enforced that it inevitably gets turned on communities of color and Muslims, that it’s also used to crush protest movements and social justice groups as well.”

“This has been going on in our country since its establishment,” added Jewish Scholar Ben Sax, during the Q&A period. “These are debates and divisions that we’ve had, where people have felt threatened and people have been murdered as a result of it. And so, when looking into how we think forward, how we do this together, know that this is not just addressing our present moment, but the entire weight of the history of this country in terms of its racism, its intolerance toward religious others. There is no panacea, there is no easy fix to this but to recognize people’s pain rather than interpret it for them; that if people feel threatened or people feel exposed, ask clarifying questions rather than trying to interpret their feelings out of existence.”

Replacing divisions with dialogue, overcoming fear through friendship, and dismantling bias and ignorance through education and community is the key to overcoming seemingly insurmountable differences and building a more equitable future.