If you’ve worked as a reporter for any amount of time, you know what it’s like to return from covering a Big Story. Then you face your editor and get THAT LOOK.
Here is the religion-beat version of this scene. The editor asks a question that sounds something like this: “So what happened? Did (insert name of ecclesiastical group) finally make a decision about (insert hot-button topic, usually involving sex and/or politics) or not? We need to know how big a story this is.”
The reporter answers that this or that religious group passed a vague resolution calling for more study, dialogue and prayer, but the text contains slight hints — often involving scripture references — that one side or the other is making progress toward achieving this or that goal (maybe). They’ll be arguing about this newsy issue again next year (or whenever the assembly has its next legal gathering), as they have been arguing about it for 25 years.
The editor gives the reporter THAT LOOK. It says, “You have got to be kidding” (or stronger words) and/or “Why did we spend money to send you to cover this national meeting? You said this was a Big Story.” Trust me: Reporters can detect THAT LOOK in an editor’s voice, even if this encounter is on the telephone.
Editor’s don’t like to wait. They like clear results that produce a BOLD headline over a Big Story.
With that in mind, let’s look at a recent New York Times story about the slowly unfolding legal process surrounding rioters who were arrested for attacking the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” protests. The headline stated, “Arrested in Capitol Riot: Organized Militants and a Horde of Radicals.”
My question: Did the 14 reporters involved in covering this story get THAT LOOK when their reporting revealed that the kinds of people facing federal charges (as of Jan. 31) were pretty much what careful news consumers would have expected? In particular, why isn’t there evidence — at this point — linking the violent rioters with (wait for it) evangelical networks and institutions?
To dig a bit deeper into that question, I think readers should read a Tony Carnes essay — “Mysteries about the Mob in the Capitol cleared up“ — at the website called “A Journey Through NYC Religions.” (That’s a deep website that GetReligion reader should include in their “favorites” lists in online browsers.) Carnes explores lots of logical religion questions about this story.
We will come back to that. First, here is the overture of the Times news feature, which is long, but essential:
In the weeks since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, federal prosecutors have announced criminal charges against more than 175 people — less than a quarter of those involved in the melee, but enough to provide a rough portrait of the mob and the sprawling investigation into its actions.
At least 21 of those charged so far had ties to militant groups and militias, according to court documents and other records. At least 22 said they were current or former members of the military. More than a dozen were clear supporters of the conspiracy theory QAnon. But a majority expressed few organizing principles, outside a fervent belief in the false assertion that President Donald J. Trump had won re-election.
The accused came from at least 39 states, as far away as Hawaii. At least three were state or local officials, and three were police officers. Some were business owners; others were unemployed or made their living as conservative social media personalities. Many made comments alluding to revolution and violence, while others said the protests had been largely peaceful.
A New York Times review of federal cases through the end of January suggests that many of those in the horde were likely disorganized, but some groups and individuals came to the events of Jan. 6 trained and prepared for battle.
At that point, 11 people had been charged with conspiracy, largely based on video evidence. I would imagine that there will be more as law officials probe deeper into online connections.
Who are these people? At least 21 had ties to militant groups such as “Oath Keepers” and the “Proud Boys.” At least 22 have U.S. military ties. At least 13 have publicly claimed QAnon ties.
Now, it’s clear that some of these militant networks use some Christian language and themes. However, it’s interesting to search this massive Times piece for terms such as “evangelical,” “church” and “Christian.” At this point in the story, those searched come up empty.
It’s interesting that these same terms are missing in a new Washington Post report with this double-decker headline:
A majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble
Trail of bankruptcies, tax problems and bad debts raises questions for researchers trying to understand motivations for attack
This doesn’t, of course, mean that religious convictions of one kind of another didn’t play a role in the decisions of some of the rioters. It does suggest that, so far, prosecutors are not finding trial-worthy evidence that points to conspiracies linked to churches, religious denominations, parachurch groups, etc.
That said, let me stress once again that — as the Times story notes — there were several Jan. 6 events on the National Mall and at the U.S. Capitol. Prosecutors are focusing on people who may have committed crimes, as opposed to merely participating in a legal political rally.
Here’s how I described that in an earlier post and podcast here at GetReligion:
… During the January 6th madness, there were actually four groups of people on or near the National Mall whose actions will be examined by law officials and then courts. Some — not all — news reports haven’t been clear about this. These four groups were:
(1) The 8,000 or so who attended the legal Save America rally in support of Trump efforts to flip the election.
(2) The large number of people who then marched to the U.S. Capitol in a legal protest of the Electoral College proceedings inside — staying outside the security boundary. Number? Unknown.
(3) Marchers who illegally entered the security fence and gathered around the Capitol. Number? Some have estimated 1,500.
(4) Rioters — many armed — who violently pressed forward and attacked police, crashed through windows and doors and then committed crimes inside the U.S. Capitol. Some of them (social-media evidence emerging) clearly had plans to commit crimes such as kidnapping and possibly murder (Hang Mike Pence!). Some may have wanted to steal the Electoral College ballots. Pipe bombs are not used in legal protests.
With all of that in mind, Carnes noted:
The violent intruders, perhaps, numbered 100-150 people. …
No pastors, priests, or other organized religious leaders have been identified so far as part of the riot. They may have been outside watching but none took part in the assault — as far as the Times knows right now. Of course, we need to keep looking. Leo Christopher Kelly, who prayed in the Capitol, was an employee of an internet company. He came to Washington, DC by himself and says he entered into the building because he got caught up in the moment. Couy Griffin, a county commissioner, lead a bullhorn prayer.
What else can be said about the alleged Christian roots of the violence?
Read this Carnes summary, and then read it again:
… Were there “Christian nationalist” leaders inside the Capitol mob? Most of the reporting has focused on people outside of the mob inside the Capitol. There were some pastors preaching in the days before the mob and probably some outside the Capitol.
According to the Times, “But a majority expressed few organizing principles, outside a fervent belief in the false assertion that President Donald J. Trump had won re-election.”
There is too small of a sample that would allow a statement such as the mob in the Capitol showed an “authentic White Christianity” (Jemar Tisby) Nor can it be said that it showed that “White evangelicalism” had fused with Trumpian extremism (Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham of the New York Times) unless you mean that the portion of evangelicals among the 74 million people, 46.8%, voting for Trump were extremists.
So, let’s hold up on massive ideological generalizations. There were few people directly involved and they didn’t have a common ideology. They were Trumpists for sure, but a small select group of them.
As Carnes said, it is important for reporters to keep looking for solid evidence — as opposed to Ivory Tower speculations.
Keep looking. But don’t rush ahead, even after receiving THAT LOOK from editors.
Here’s how I addressed some of these Carnes themes in an earlier post and podcast: “New York Times says ‘Christian nationalism’ tied to white ‘evangelical power’.”
Let me be clear: No one can doubt, at this point, that QAnon and other heretical forms of pseudo-religious life … have filtered through the dark WWW and into pews and some pulpits. GetReligion has offered posts on that topic for months (click here for must-read think piece by Joe Carter).
Yet anyone who studies “evangelicalism” — white or otherwise — knows that we are talking about a movement based on the work of powerful denominations (this includes megachurches), parachurch groups, publishers (and authors) and major colleges, universities and seminaries.
In a serious news feature build on sweeping claims of this kind, one would expect to see some kind of evidence of concrete, factual ties to people and institutions in that world.
One additional comment:
… There is no need to ignore the evidence that SOME Southern Baptists backed Trump with enthusiasm and that MANY chose him as the lesser of two evils. But we are looking for hard evidence of some kind of Point A, B, C sequence that puts Christians committing crimes inside the U.S. Capitol security zone while waving “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President” signs.
Stay tuned. There will be trials based on courtroom-worthy evidence.
Hang in there and do not rush ahead.
FIRST IMAGE: From an NPR report on the U.S. Capitol attack, via Twitter.