We’re living between the times. We’re in the territory of the “already, but not yet.” Is the kingdom of insurgency at hand?
After the attack on the Capitol, with an eye to the impending House vote on impeachment, Juliette Kayyem and David French made the case that America was facing a full-blow insurgency. They may not be too far from the truth. With a little more precision and a little more experience in these matters, David Kilcullen, an architect of America’s troop surge in Iraq and a key theorist of counterinsurgency, has been warning since September that America is in a state of incipient insurgency.
In his analysis, Kilcullen has drawn on the CIA’s Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency, prepared sometime in the 1980s, which defines incipient insurgency as encompassing potential threats by groups engaged in subversive activity as well as “antigovernment incidents” that “display organization and forethought.” In essence, incipient insurgency is the underfunded, underorganized, more poorly scripted prequel to the full-blown blockbuster of insurgency. Insurgency is all about questioning the legitimacy of the established political system through violent and subversive means and, after the attack on the Capitol, Kilcullen has doubled-down on his warning. On Jan. 7th, he wrote in The Australian that it “feels as if the Rubicon has been crossed” and noted on Jan. 13th that “We’re probably in the last few weeks or months of a window of opportunity to reconcile and put this thing away before it progresses to a full-blown insurgency.”
To use an analogy from America’s violent pre-9/11 past, Kilcullen has suggested we’re living in a “pre-McVeigh moment.” Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April, 1995, with a truck filled with fertilizer killing around 170 people and injuring hundreds more. In McVeigh’s view, this violence was the necessary response to the violent, heavy-handed and clumsy government sieges at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993. The current moment has yet to produce its McVeigh, but the fields are ripe for the harvest.
To stretch Kilcullen’s analogy a little further, one might say we’re living in a Cooperian moment. Milton William Cooper was the radio personality and conspiracy theorist who likely informed McVeigh’s assessment of America’s degradation. McVeigh was a fan of Cooper’s popular underground radio program The Hour of the Time, which transmitted soundwaves of paranoia and fear throughout America in the 1990s, and may have been one of the two shadowy figures who visited Cooper before the bombing telling him to watch Oklahoma City.
In 1991, Cooper published the conspiracy theory classic Behold a Pale Horse. The original, unedited version includes warnings about the coming New World Order as well as eccentric theories concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the global influence of the Illuminati and the pernicious purposes behind an alliance forged between extraterrestrials and a cabal in the US government. In the book’s preface, Cooper insists that “To learn the truth and then act on it is the only means of survival at the moment.” To ignore Cooper’s warnings, by contrast, is to allow “the complete destruction of the United States of America.”
Cooper concludes his preface with recitation of his creed and the first two articles he cites are revealing. “This is my creed”, Cooper confesses, “I believe first in God, the same God in which my ancestors believed. I believe in Jesus Christ and that he is my savior. Second, I believe in the Constitution of the Republic of the United States of America, without interpretation, as it was written and meant to work.” Cooper’s blend of primitivist evangelical Christianity and constitutional originalism with a conspiracy-theory-riddled account of evil perpetrated by social and political elites may have been fringe in the 1990s when it was potent enough to inspire McVeigh, but it is fringe no longer.
Michael Barkun, the Syracuse University scholar of extremism and conspiracy theory, argued back in 2017 that Trump’s Presidential candidacy had “vastly accelerated… the mainstreaming of the fringe.” In other words, Trump was a Cooper with a prime-time slot and access to new and improved technologies of communication. It’s important to recall that Trump propounded birtherism and alleged rigged elections with no evidential basis before he even won the first Presidential election. Before 2016, those ideas were part of the fringe. That is true no longer. In 2017, Barkun predicted that Trump’s “mainstreaming of the fringe” would likely wash away customs, practices and norms that served as crucial protections of democratic culture in America.
“Should formerly fringe forces substantially weaken the informal rules and practices that historically kept violence at bay,” Barkun wrote, “the stability we now take for granted would become, for the first time in our lifetimes, problematic.” Or, as Led Zeppelin once said, “If it keeps on raining the levee’s gonna break, When the levee breaks, we’ll have no place to stay.” Evangelical Christianity, which once played a central role in legitimizing democracy in the early days of the American experiment through its fusion with classical republican values, may now play a central role in the unraveling of America through its unholy union with modern conspiracy theory.
And, like Cooper, Trump, in the words of Kilcullen, has played less the role of the Pied Piper, calling his followers hither and thither at whim with his flute, than the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, summing dark forces from the abyss that he has no clue how to control. Now we wait to see if someone will play McVeigh to Trump’s Cooper.
How did we get here? The deep and distant causes are many, complex and, in some respects, currently shrouded in mystery, but one important dimension may be noted. This poisonous movement on the far-right has not developed without its double on the far-left. The French historian of Communism, François Furet, has argued that Bolshevism and Fascism were born at the same time of the same parentage. Both were “spawned by modern Democracy” in the midst of the passions set loose by World War I. Both railed against the corruptions of bourgeoisie capitalism though they offered different antidotes to its corruption.
Likewise, Kilcullen has argued that the far-left and far-right in America have taken their strength from the disordered democratic passions set loose by the pandemic and share a common enemy in the political and media establishment. Just like the Bolshevism and Fascism of last century, the far-left and far-right of twenty-first century America have engaged in a call-and-response performance engendering a cycle of violence that is escalating to extremes.
However, Antifa did not march on the capital on Jan. 6th. Trump supporters did. And the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have not been sounding urgent and largely unheeded warnings about Antifa in the last year, but instead about the increasing mobilization of far-right militias.
Still, the far-right is not the lone bad apple in America’s political barrel. There are two bad apples that have grown from the same seed. American Christianity is being outflanked on both its right and left and the American church has struggled to engage with both challenges simultaneously.
Nevertheless, in these fluid and transitional moments when insurgencies are in the making, but not yet fully realized, Kilcullen suggests the necessity of focusing on the proximate, rather than the deep causes, which he identifies as the claim that the election was illegitimate. Kilcullen suggests that this is a moment for truth and reconciliation, but that reconciliation or unity cannot come without truth. For the American evangelical church, I would suggest that it is past-time to reckon with our complicity in the proximate cause.
Numerous outlets have noted the striking religious iconography of the Jan. 6th rally. Trump supporters held Bibles, waved “Jesus Saves” signs and blew shofars. Displays of religious fervor continued even in the midst of the Capitol siege. Luke Mogelson of the New Yorker followed the crowds into the Capitol building and captured surreal scenes of prayer inside the Senate chamber with one rioter shouting “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name, Amen” and Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman, leading rioters in a longer prayer through a megaphone saying “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space. Thank you heavenly Father for gracing us with this opportunity… For this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights…. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ…. in Christ’s holy name we pray” amidst affirmations of “Yes, Lord” and “Amen” from the crowd.
Well before the Jan. 6th rally and siege, evangelicals voiced vociferous support for Trump’s claims of election fraud. The December 12th “Let the Church ROAR” rally in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Jericho March and Stop the Steal, provided a large platform for unproven allegations of widespread electoral fraud and a preview of the religiosity of the Jan. 6th debacle. Evangelical author Eric Metaxas referenced religious visions experienced by Arina Grossu and Rob Weaver, the Roman Catholic and evangelical behind Jericho March, that he believed affirmed the necessity of the proceedings. Metaxas also introduced his “new friend” to the stage, the prominent conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, who was inspired by Cooper in the early stages of his own broadcasting career.
In addition, historian John Fea has noted that “The U.S. Senators who objected to the Electoral College results,” including Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, “were almost all evangelicals.” Though a number of notable evangelicals such as David French, Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore have challenged the unfounded claims of electoral fraud in a timely and persistent manner, others such as Franklin Graham have condemned the violence of the Capitol siege without challenging the false allegations about the election, which Kilcullen identifies as the key motive for the crowds who precipitated the violence in the first place.
Aspects of evangelical theology have fused with a revolutionary commitment to insurgent violence motivated by conspiracy theories, the foremost of which is the claim that the election was stolen from Trump and his supporters. This came into clear relief on Jan. 6th. What is done cannot be undone, but there is still time to do the right thing in this moment. It is not enough to condemn the violent assault on the capitol. Teachers and preachers in churches and Christian universities must condemn and disavow the key conspiracy theory about the election that motivated it. The 2020 Presidential election had its flaws like all American elections in the past, but these flaws do not even come close to undermining its fundamental legitimacy.
Fellow American evangelicals, we have seen the insurgents and the insurgents are us. But incipient insurgencies need not develop into full-blown insurgencies. Instead of playing the role of provocateurs, evangelicals might opt instead to contribute to deescalation through truth-telling.
I wonder which kingdom and which Lord the American church will choose to serve in the coming year. There is still a small window of time to choose.