To listen to the New York Times and the Washington Post tell it, the events of 6 January were nothing less than an unforgivable act of sacrilege and blasphemy. ‘Inside the most sacred spaces of American democracy,’ went the New York Times report by Grynbaum, Koblin and Hsu, unfolded an abomination of desolation worthy of the breaking news format ‘reserved for foreign wars, natural disasters or terrorist attacks’.
Now, I am someone who likes public order and stability as public goods. Order and stability are valuable no matter where they happen to be. So yes, I was naturally upset by what was essentially a riot aimed at overturning an election result in contravention of the established law of the land. I firmly believe that the rioters in DC were in the wrong, for the same reasons I believe that the looters and shooters here in Minneapolis over the summer were in the wrong. I also believe it is a very bleak indicator of the direction that our country is, in general, headed. But is it not intriguing that these established organs of the national news media would be so insistent on the sacrality of the buildings of the national government, when they have shown so little respect to public monuments elsewhere in the country? Is not the New York Times in its insistence on this public sacrality not being monumentally hypocritical, after having given space to a project – to wit, the 1619 Project – that was meant specifically to axe the root of American civil religion in the first place?
Of course, one can look at this in a cynical way. The New York Times arrogates to itself the right to attack national institutions, national statuary and national history, which it then denies to those who are not in the clique. We can look at this as a simple demarcation on the New York Times’s part between ‘friends’ (woke liberals, whose attacks on American civil religion are humane and righteous) and ‘enemies’ (conservative deplorables, whose attacks on the same are treasonous and wicked). But I think the actual stakes run quite a bit deeper than that. The riots that happened last week in DC, and the heated language around them in the press, are indicative of what is essentially a religious conflict, a contest of political myths, that attempt to orient the body politic toward very different objects of public veneration.
The 1619 Project’s actual aim from the beginning was to ‘reframe’ American history to centre the narrative around the oppressed. Unfortunately Nikole Hannah-Jones has been remarkably coy about her overall purpose (not to mention her corporate sponsors). However, I think it is reasonable to say that it attempts to create and promote an alternative revisionist history of the United States from its roots in British colonialism. The objects of veneration that can be seen most clearly in the 1619 Project are the individuals in American history, who: (a) belonged to groups seen to be historically oppressed, and (b) are seen to have worked toward ends of political or sexual liberation for their oppressed group.
On the other hand, we now also have a 1776 Project, supported by – for example – The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, as well as a broad array of historical scholars from the (Trotskyist) left, the liberal centre and the conservative right. These scholars rightly point out that the 1619 Project is ideologically motivated. However, the aim of the 1776 Project goes further than simply debunking the factual or interpretive missteps of Hannah-Jones and her fellow contributors to the New York Times. Their aim is instead to preserve and expand an ideological reading of history that places the fundamentally deistic and nominalist ideas of the American experiment at the centre of the same world-historical struggle for liberation. The aim is to preserve the Founding Fathers, the ideological principles of the founding documents, and an abstract concept of liberty as the objects of public veneration.
As Orthodox Christians, the first thing we need to understand is that these duelling myths are not our myths. Both myths are grounded in a historical naïveté about human nature and the potential for human perfection apart from God’s grace. We do not and cannot recognise a salvation of the world through abstract ideas like representative government, or through pieces of paper like the Constitution of the United States. We do not hold any truth to be ‘self-evident’ other than the Living Truth, which is the truth of one Essence in three Persons that is rendered visible and intelligible to us in the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. I stand in full agreement with Orthodox theologians like Christos Yannaras and Vigen Guroian – and, for that matter, non-Orthodox theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank – when they voice their doubts about the fundamental soundness of America’s founding ideology and its commensurability with the revealed truth of Christ’s Person.
However, we can and should recognise that governments – even governments that are held captive to wicked men or to erroneous ideas – are nevertheless given their authority and legitimacy by God. Christians in America should still give due gratitude and respect to the establishment of justice and the insurance of domestic tranquillity – to borrow the language of the Constitutional Preamble – that the American state has (at its best) been able to provide to most of its citizens, including us. These public goods are precious and desirable, and we recognise them in every Divine Liturgy – when we pray to the Lord ‘for our country, for the president, and for all in public service… For this city, and for every city and land, and for the faithful who live in them… For favourable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times’.
We are compelled to pray for the country, for our cities, and for those in public service. This means that we are also compelled to seek their good. It is therefore wrong to support an unlawful riot in our nation’s capital, which seeks to maintain the President in contravention of our established Constitutional order. On the other hand, however, we must be careful not to indulge in the sorts of sentimentality that the President’s most vocal critics indulge in, when they describe the halls of our government as ‘sacred’. This is a form of idolatry, and we must oppose this as well.