The weekend after a violent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol led by pro-Trump rioters, I went to a gun show and then to church. I was less scared at the gun show than I was at the church.
Iowa is a red state. It took hours for Republican state leaders to condemn the violence. And they did. The chairman of the Iowa GOP, Jeff Kaufmann, who tweeted this summer that riots and violence only happen with Democrats’ protests, condemned the violence. The governor, Kim Reynolds, who had previously spread false claims about the election, also condemned the violence. But the condemnation of the violence, without a condemnation of the things that spurred the violence, was just empty words. And not words that many Republicans echoed.
Doug Jensen, an Iowa man, was arrested last week for his role in the violence. A Facebook post by the Henry County Republicans cheers on the rioters, noting, “Get ready for the coming revolution as the storming of the capital [sic] will be like the shot heard round the world that launched the first Revolutionary War. Only this time it will be Red vs Blue. Pray for America.”
Congressman Randy Feenstra called the rioters “wonderful people.” Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks tried to blame Democrats. In December of 2019, Miller-Meeks appeared at a campaign event with Nazi Nick Fuentes, who was at the Capitol riot. Afterward, she apologized for appearing with him at the event, but you don’t accidentally speak on the same stage at the same event with a Nazi, unless you share something in common with them.
Dean Fisher, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, posted on Facebook sympathizing with protesters and doubled down on false election claims. Fisher later deleted the post, but screenshots remain. A man from Cedar Rapids, my town, was part of the violence. He said in an interview on a partisan website that after being part of a violent mob that forced its way into the U.S. Capitol, he prayed on the Senate floor. His story is told with sympathy. As if it’s just one of those things that happens — violent insurrection. A little white man’s oopsie. White men are always accidentally committing violence. It’s breathtaking the violence we allow with our silences.
And while Republican leaders call for unity rather than division, what they really mean is “shut up and be quiet and forget this whole violent insurrection thing.”
And if this is what people were publicly saying, I wanted to hear what people were saying when they didn’t think we could hear.
On Saturday, I went to a gun show. I spent two hours milling around tables of “Build your own AR-15” parts, antique Winchester rifles, and plastic containers of potassium chlorate. Among the gun parts were bullet wound repair kits, old postcards with racist stereotypes on them, a fading photograph of Robert E. Lee, and signs advertising an open-carry pizza night every Wednesday at Godfather’s pizza. Most people wore masks, even more wore shirts with the NRA logo. One man had a sweater with an image of a bullet casing, with the words, “Just the tip” written next to it. I bought jalapeño jelly from a woman who told me that she’d been talking to people all day, who’d been telling her what they heard on Parler and Gab. Basically, Nancy Pelosi was running for the border and “they” were looking at her laptop. Indictments were coming for Democrats. What the protesters had done was good. There would be more. Her shirt read, “The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am a child of God, a woman of faith, a warrior of Christ. I am the storm!’”
I am not unfamiliar with guns. Growing up in Texas, I took NRA gun classes at the age of 10. I made my own musketballs and won a shooting contest. The prize: A 10-year membership to the NRA and a hat, which I gave to my dad. It’s easy to code-switch, to talk in the language of the paranoid world that raised you — when Waco was a harbinger of things to come for all Bible-believers, Cabbage Patch dolls were a conspiracy, and Hillary Rodham Clinton was the anti-Christ.
Guns and god. God and guns. During my research for my book God Land, I heard pastors brag about carrying guns while they preached in rural Nebraska churches, calling it a “pastoral aide.” To them it’s a freedom; they are the victims of their narratives. But, the reality is, they are the victimizer. Their guns and their god, a violence of faith that once colonized the prairie, erasing the homes and faith of the First Nations with the white wooden churches, now replaced with the sprawling vinyl-sided mega-worship centers.
I see more people of color here at the gun show than I do at the church I will attend the next day. As a Black woman passes by, the woman who sold me jalapeño jelly whispers that she has the most beautiful hair.
On my way out, I see a sign cut in metal. “Gun control is not about guns, but control.”
The next morning, I went to the church where the majority of the parents of my children’s friends attend, where my congresswoman, Ashley Hinson, attends, and where I had visited often when I was in my 20s, still trying to bridge a divide between faith and politics that existed in my marriage. I’ve been there often for school choir concerts and once for a wedding. The church is only five miles from where I live, but it might as well be in another state.
On August 12, 2017, I walked out of the Evangelical church I attended with my then-husband. It was the final day of the Unite the Right rally, when white nationalists with tiki torches swarmed the streets of Charlottesville. I never went back.
This Sunday, I went to the church because I know that, statistically, the majority of the people in that church voted for Donald Trump. I know they did it twice. I know they approve of his policies. I once read a story about a woman who sat on a toilet for so long that her skin grafted onto the seat. This is American faith and conservative politics — two entities, entirely separate, now bonded together through an inability to move. At what point would they break apart?
The church, like a lot of Evangelical churches in the Midwest, is a long, low building that looks like a warehouse with a cross on top. Inside, people with masks stood huddled, talking about children and school and Bible studies. Small communion cups, pre-filled with grape juice, with a small wafer packaged on the top, sat in communion trays near the doors to the large windowless auditorium. Every other row was blocked off to reduce capacity, and hand sanitizer was near every doorway. But it felt pointless once people began streaming in, hugging, talking, taking off their masks and sitting down, getting ready to sing.
“You are not alone if you are lonely,” were the first lines of the song. It’s the perfect song for clapping, but in an auditorium of white Evangelicals, very few people do.
During a pause in the music, an associate pastor baptizes his middle son. “This is a celebration Sunday!” he shouts and people clap. “Celebrate good times, come on!” he sings. Everyone laughs.
When the head pastor takes the stage, he chuckles a little. “It’s been quite a week and quite a mess,” he says. Everyone laughs some more. The pastor tells us he texted our congresswoman during “everything,” and she replied with a picture of herself near a computer, maskless, giving a thumbs up. He then asks us to pray for Christ followers who are lawmakers and reminds us that nothing changes without God.
And that’s it. There was nothing else. No other words about the violent insurrection. The sermon was about being blessed and living like a Christian against the norms of the world. About how they were to be a church that would be a place of welcome for people in crisis, for example if they were divorced, had an abortion, or were struggling with “gender identity issues.”
I do not feel welcome. In fact, I feel like I am going to die as I sit huddling in my seat, mask on, while over 200-plus maskless people stand and sing about living without fear.
At home, I watched sermons of other large churches in town, not one of those pastors talked about the coup attempt. One talked about how Jesus wants us to save up for retirement. Another talked about being “everyday missionaries,” and watching that maskless crowd, I quipped to the cat that the only thing they are spreading is good news of COVID. The cat leaves.
What’s more incredible is that, even though a Baptist minister had been elected to the Senate that week, all of them referenced the fact that America was a godless nation. It’s clear, only white Republicans get to be “Christ followers who are lawmakers.” One church, an Assembly of God church, opened their live stream with the worship song, “Heaven Invade,” which was released in October by the artist Kari Jobe. The chorus is shouted with arms uplifted: “Heaven invade/Heaven invade/There’s freedom in this place/Every heart awaken, everything is changing now/Heaven invade.”
I hear the song and I can’t stop listening. Don’t they know an actual invasion happened and people died? I realize they do know, they just think this is right.
After the worship, the pastor at this church prefaced his sermon with the fact that while 2021 was already challenging, he was focused on the spiritual realm. That was it. As if our spirits weren’t suffering. As if we didn’t need something more than vague platitudes.
As a child, living in Texas, I’d heard the End Times preached during the siege at Waco and when Bill Clinton was elected, again. The apocalypse was coming soon, I was assured. The Left Behind book series came out, and I had nightmares that Jesus would rapture me while I was on the toilet. The violence would be coming any day. We had to live prepared.
So, part of me expected just that — an acknowledgment of the violence. A lamenting, perhaps? But there was no apocalypse here. No sadness. In fact, there was rejoicing for blessing. A tacit complicity among the white and the middle class in middle America. A YouGov survey found that 45 percent of Republicans believe the violence at the Capitol was justified.
This has happened over and over. I remember my pastors lamenting the silencing of Tim Tebow but saying nothing when a member of our community was shot and killed because someone thought he was Muslim. The stories that we refuse to tell are linked to race and class and power. Who is seen in church and who is unseen.
Whatever else church is, it’s a way of building narrative continuity. Births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, all strung together in this place. The narratives that are not told here are just as important as the ones that are told.
For four years, we’ve been forced to empathize with our captors. Told in narratives over and over that these are just the poor disaffected white men. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan mocks them as beer-drinking “Sausage McMuffin” eaters, but that’s a myth. They’re more likely to be upper-middle-class CEOs, living out a narrative where they are the hero in every story. Their feelings preempt everyone else’s survival. And I see that here in this auditorium, where hundreds of maskless people, led by white men, breathe on one another, and on me. I’m terrified.
I know there have been outbreaks at the church I’ve visited. Students have disappeared from my kids’ classes. Pastors’ wives have posted about COVID in their Facebook and Instagram stories. Brief acknowledgments that disappear after a few days.
After the sermon ended, I snuck out and booked a COVID test in the parking lot. And as I drive away, I know what I am leaving behind. I am leaving behind a crowd of people milling about, drinking coffee, talking, and laughing about anything other than the violence. And they’ve convinced themselves that this silence is good and right and moral.
Of course, all over America, pastors have chosen to respond differently. Some denounced the violence, some doubled down on conspiracy claims. But what concerns me the most are the things not being said to the people who need to hear the truth the most.
835 miles away in Atlanta, the newly elected senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock gave a different kind of sermon. “The violent are trying to take the kingdom by force,” he said. He showed a video of the invasion of the Capitol. “The old order is slipping away. Sometimes it responds violently and desperately. You cut the head off of a snake and it shakes and moves violently, not because it is living but because it is dying. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
He also noted there is more than one way to be violent, listing poverty and structural racism as violence. But one violence he didn’t name, the violence I heard on the Sunday after the riot, was the violence of white silence.