(RNS) — A huge sign stating simply “JESUS 2020” filled TV screens around the world as a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Other signs and flags declared “Jesus saves!” and “God, Guns & Guts Made America. Let’s keep all three.”
The signs appeared to confer one religious group’s blessing on the anti-democratic insurgency. For many looking on from abroad, these signs justified the often repeated, though erroneous, claims that America, and therefore American foreign policy, is based on a form of Christian nationalist ideology.
In the Middle East, such sentiments fit well with the radical narrative that insists America is fundamentally a Christian country and that its principles of a separate church and state are simply a façade to cover its real identity.
People in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Libya often use the term “crusaders” to describe Americans, referring to the Europeans who invaded the Holy Land in the Middle Ages under the banner of the cross. They charge that America’s nationalist religious rhetoric reflects its deep hatred of people of the Islamic faith.
The ill-advised mix of religion and politics on display at the Capitol two weeks ago counters years of insistence by many Americans of the opposite: that the fight against terrorism is not a fight against Islam.
To make matters worse, the Israeli flag was spotted alongside the Confederate battle flag.
For much of the past four years, America’s one-sided support of Israel has been justified with exaggerated claims of the United States’ shared values with Israel. The Trump White House has whitewashed Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and supported an apartheid-like oppression of its 5 million inhabitants. This policy has been carried out largely to appease American evangelicals.
Seeing the Israeli Star of David at the Capitol two weeks ago deepened the suspicion and pain of Palestinian and Arab Christians, who have felt long betrayed by their brothers and sisters in Christ, who ignore the suffering and discrimination of the brutal Israeli occupation.
Some will argue that the events of Jan. 6 in Washington were an aberration and that a sane policy will resume now that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have taken over at the White House and Democrats control both houses of Congress.
But the Democrats’ ascendance will do little to erase the images at the Capitol, or the conviction that the scenes reflect the spirit of America’s foreign policy, not only here in the Middle East but everywhere. The attempt to demand democracy and human rights in China, in Latin America or in Israel will now have to overcome the reality left in the minds of people in those regions.
The victory of democratic institutions and the American people’s strong rejection of the attempt to subvert the will of the people are heartwarming, but the new Biden administration now has a huge hill to climb to prove that, indeed, America is a country for all its citizens — black, brown, Arab or white — and that it doesn’t discriminate against people of any faith.
For the sake of the world, too, let us hope that those who govern will return to practicing at home the democracy America preaches around the world.
(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)