The jarring events of January 6 warrant anger, disappointment, and action. They also require an honest look in the mirror.
If the mob that breached the U.S. Capitol revealed anything, it revealed we are a nation of contradictions. Two segments of America believe in two distinctly different “truths” regarding the nature of the 2020 Presidential election. Americans are disturbingly losing sight of how to find and define truth.
Even so, more contradictions abounded. Images of rioters violently entering were juxtaposed by the same people walking through the halls of Congress, neatly staying between velvet ropes. Like many of my colleagues who work in Congress, I have conducted tours through those same halls. Whenever I led tours, I would recommend people look up at the ceilings.
“The best views of the Capitol are up,” a former boss once told me. If the rioters had taken the time to look up, perhaps some did, they would have seen the remarkable piece of art adorning the Capitol rotunda’s ceiling: “The Apotheosis of Washington.”
George Washington sits among figures from ancient mythology, deified and enthroned. While awe-inspiring, this piece reveals America’s deepest and most concerning contradiction. Despite our founding commitment that “all men are created equal,” we idolize singular individuals in history, deifying them.
The word apotheosis means, “the elevation of someone to divine status.” Rather than this piece of art celebrating the culmination of a life in service, it has been twisted into idolatrous worship.
A sign at the Wednesday rally read, “Jesus is my God, Trump is President.” In the eyes of some, President Trump is deified, seated with Washington among gods. Many have rightly condemned the idolatry present in the Christian nationalist movement. However, truly, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
This is not a new phenomenon in American life and it is not limited to the person of Donald Trump. In “The Democratization of American Christianity,” Nathan Hatch writes, “Over the last two centuries, an egalitarian culture has given rise to a diverse array of powerful religious leaders, whose humble origins and common touch seem strangely at odds with authoritarian mantle that people allow them to assume.”
While focusing on religious leaders, Hatch’s larger point should not be lost. In American culture, our egalitarian impulse allows leaders to rise. They are then exalted and can so easily assume a dangerously deified position in society.
Evidence how those on the Right praise President Ronald Reagan and those on the Left praise President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even in response to this crisis, Vice President Mike Pence has been repeatedly heralded and lauded. The day after the riots at the Capitol, a headline read, “Pence rises to the occasion, to truly save America.” The book currently sitting atop The New York Times’ bestseller list is President Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.”
Admiration of great men is warranted, but we slip into unhealthy worship without fail. Even now, we obsess with our leaders: quick to fall in love, quick to worship. As someone who loves a good presidential biography, I am particularly guilty of this.
To address the crisis we face, we cannot merely stop at condemning the events of January 6. We must be willing to look at the heart and soul of our nation. We must recognize that idolatry has long penetrated our national identity. Psalm 146:3 reads, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” As a nation, we must repent from idolatry. We have put our trust in mortal men who will only disappoint. We mistakenly allow them to define our truth, construct our identity, direct our purpose.
On January 6, I sat locked with colleagues in our office building, disturbed and distraught. Days after, I remained distraught. The violence had been suppressed, but it shed a light on a level of brokenness, of internal contradictions that remain unsolved. At some unknown moment, however, my despair was overtaken by a conviction that we must move forward and build a better future. As we look to build, we must come to grips with our brokenness. My earnest hope is that I, like so many others, can turn away from idolizing my fellow man.
Mistakenly, we have looked to our mortal leaders of the past and present for rescue, dangerously exalting them. Yet our savior remains exalted above all.
Christ alone can set our hearts free from idolatry and allow us to look at our nation and our leaders rightly with clear eyes and clear hearts. Then, the Christian can freely love and build unity in our broken world.
Will Derrick is a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill.