What Place Did Jesus Have at the Capitol Hill Riot?

Pastors who preached Christian nationalism and Trump’s promise from God are complicit in this violence

Supporters of Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s not by chance that banners with Jesus’ name flew above this week’s insurrection on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, armed domestic terrorists scaled the United States Capitol building against the backdrop of a makeshift scaffold with a dangling noose. Rioters clambered up walls, broke windows, pawed at congressional offices, killed a Capitol Police officer, and planted explosive devices. It was a scene some have likened to the fall of Rome.

Among the Confederate flags and Trump banners, the bare-bellied New Age shaman costumes, and anti-Semitic shirts and hoodies, were signs of Jesus: “Jesus Saves.” “Jesus 2020.” “Make America Godly Again.” Since when did a violent insurgency against our halls of government have anything to do with Jesus?

Really, it’s been this way for a long time.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 data on religious typologies, 12% of Americans surveyed considered themselves “God and country Christians” for whom American conservative values and national Christianity were most important. Sociologists like Andrew Whitehead have been studying this segment of American Christians for years; they believe the United States, like Old Testament Israel, must maintain cultural purity through conservative policies that reflect a brand of strict, white Protestantism to fulfill God’s will.

Commonly, these beliefs get folded in with a nativist view that includes white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism. If you can accept all that, it isn’t a great leap to believe our country is under assault by atheists, feminists, and Muslim immigrants. Your pastor might preach that the defense of your country is your religious duty.

Donald Trump, by appealing to these fears and bemoaning a loss of American Christian heritage at his big-tent rallies, became a figurehead for accelerating Christian nationalism’s gospel distortion. Comfortable in a worldview that reveres authority like his, the president legitimized their fears, telling his followers at the January 6 “Save America Rally,” “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

For God’s promised country, these Trump supporters were armed foot soldiers.

If you’re witnessing Christian nationalism from afar, such as the First Dallas Choir singing “Make America Great Againas a hymn, it can be hard to understand how Christianity became so red, white, and blue. But as pastor and journalist Angela Denker writes in her book Red State Christians, Christian nationalism is currently on display in many conservative churches across the country.

It’s not just the rhetoric blending theology and freedom, policy and prayer; Denker writes, “even Christmas and Easter are subsumed by a sort of civic religion that worships God, guns, and country.” The majesty and pomp traditionally defined by the liturgical calendar has shifted, “lifting up Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July to the same place of honor as religious high holy days.” At these services, American flags and bunting at the altar are plentiful.

In her widely acclaimed book, Jesus and John Wayne: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes how evangelical masculinity popularized since Billy Graham became the foundation of American Christian nationalism. It was this conflation of God and country, she writes, “that heroic Christian men would advance zealously, and by any means necessary, with their resurgent religious and political power.”

Kobes Du Mez also notes that Christian nationalism’s militaristic edge long predated Trump’s assent. More than any other demographic in America, white, evangelical Protestants condone torture, support preemptive war, favor the death penalty, own a gun, and believe citizens should be allowed to carry firearms in most places. The model of Christian manhood that morphed into male authority as headship in so-called complementarian marriages glorified a fantasy of combat for Christ, such as MMA for Jesus and the faux-military ALERT Academy.

On Wednesday, Trump banged on about “weak Republicans” not standing with him—lawmakers who were abiding by the Constitution—and asserted “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, you have to be strong.” It wasn’t just posturing. Trump’s words carried echoes of the righteous battle that has long lived in Christian nationalism’s imagination. Trump has been uniquely gifted in speaking this language, of stoking that imagination.

Donald Trump won over 80% of the white, evangelical vote in 2016; in 2020, he claimed the same portion. (Although during his administration, the number of people who call themselves “evangelicals” has continued to shrink.) In the early days of his presidential campaign, Trump benefited from the mental and moral gymnastics of faith leaders; they were stuck with him as the Republican presidential candidate and mostly wanted the judicial nominees he promised. So they found reasons, like James Dobson, the evangelical founder of Focus on the Family, who said his support of Trump was about religious liberty.

Vice President Mike Pence came to embody this deal — a lawmaker whose strict religious understanding dictated the minutia of his day, as well as his policy commitments. (Pence famously abides by the so-called Billy Graham rule, and as governor of Indiana he supported the LGBTQ-targeting Religious Freedom Restoration Act.) Evangelicals would get to influence the direction of our country, so long as they excused Trump and normalized him. They called the Access Hollywood tapes lewd, but still said publicly they were voting for him. America was being made great, according to God’s promise.

This hypocrisy damaged how some believers came to view their churches. But in many corners, Christian nationalism was at the heart of what their pastors already preached: American exceptionalism with cherry-picked Bible verses as justification. Trump’s charismatic force rallied a base that pulled other Republican leaders along with him. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and president of the Billy Graham Evangelist Association, pronounced God was behind the 2016 election results.

The revelations of 2020, though, bumped our country’s realities against this vision. Take the reckoning with racial injustice. If you hold that the country’s white Founding Fathers established the most blessed nation on the planet, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea that their glorious venture was built on the exploitation and plunder of Black people.

In November, six Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminary presidents issued a statement that while Baptist seminaries condemn racism in any form, “affirmation of critical race theory, intersectionality, and any version of critical theory is incompatible with the Baptist faith and message.”

A parallel rejection of these forms of critical thought had also appeared in a September White House executive order combating race and sex stereotyping, which explained many people were pushing a different version of America that recognized various social and political identities. “This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country… This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world.”

The ills of systemic sexism and racism simply cannot cohere in a Christian nationalist worldview. For the worldview to hold, they’re either not a problem or need to be denied.

In November, Paula White-Cain, Trump’s spiritual adviser, became most widely known for the viral video of her intense prayer service calling upon angels “dispatched from Africa” to help Trump win the election. The Lord was going to win Trump the second term in office.

Except he lost.

On Wednesday afternoon, around the time Donald Trump was spouting lies about election fraud to a crowd and encouraging them to march to the Capitol, Franklin Graham posted on Facebook: “The votes are in, but is the election over? I have no clue.” As the violence escalated, he made a statement praying for peace. Graham, not one shy about condemnations, did not condemn the violence.

It wasn’t until Thursday that Graham finally referred to Joe Biden as President-elect. He also stated “both parties bear responsibility for the problems we face today.”

Back in 2015 in the Washington Post, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Louisville, Kentucky, seminary, described Trump as the “personification of what evangelicals have preached (and voted) against.” However, after backlash on the right and pressure from within SBC, Mohler, who is an expected contender for SBC president next year, changed course and wrote a 3,700-word piece supporting Trump’s reelection this fall. Mohler called the president “sadly deficient in many of the most crucial issues of character and moral virtue,” but explained he was still voting for him, largely because Trump was “the most effective and consequential pro-life president of the modern age.”

Evangelicals would get to influence the direction of our country so long as they excused Trump and normalized him.

On January 7, Mohler gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle in which he said he voted his conscience on November 3, but that this week Trump encouraged what amounted to “an attempted insurrection against the United States government.”

Referring to the erected crucifixes and “Jesus 2020” banners among the riot, Mohler told the Chronicle “it adds to the scandal to have God dragged into this equation.” As if he himself had not — from his platform as a faith leader — supported Trump. As if Trump had not been defended as a modern-day King Cyrus or held up as God’s chosen one. “Attempts to co-opt Christianity for political purposes go back to the Roman Empire,” Mohler warns. “So there’s no shock in that pattern. But there’s absolute shock in the extent to which it was on full display in Washington.”

What was exposed Wednesday was a flock of Christian nationalists from various churches and corners of our country, whose votes have been so valued by the right that their surging violence was ignored by some. It was antagonized by others.

The intoxication of Trump’s promised power lost many believers on their way to the shining city on the hill—a symbol from the Bible too long confused with America. As Tish Harrison Warren wrote for Christianity Today, Wednesday’s “atrocity was in large part brought to us by the white, evangelical church in America.”

It all became uglier and harder to control when—stuck at home and online during lockdown—a cross-section of Americans began following the conspiracy theory QAnon, who many considered a prophet. A number of pastors started preaching QAnon theories themselves; congregants shared theories during Bible studies. QAnon built a scaffolding that blends spiritual language that sounds Christian, with a battle of good versus evil, the promise of a “great awakening.”

How can a pastor convince a true believer they are clinging to a false reality when they’ve spent years insisting the promise of our country’s exceptionalism hinges on God’s selection of a man whose policies separated children from their parents? A man accused of rape and sexual assault by 26 women. A man seemingly unaffected by a plague that has killed 369,000 Americans to date. A man who has come to celebrate this country only in so far as it is an extension of himself and its ability to feed his ego? How can you do that and simultaneously assert the inerrancy of a text that tells believers to turn the other cheek, that to be Godly is to love, that the meek shall inherit the earth?

You can’t.

It has broken the hearts of many believers to watch Christian nationalism’s elevation over all the basic moral precepts of a faith they love.

There may be a gush of blog posts and op-eds in the next few days from a handful of evangelical pastors. Maybe the shock of the January 6 riot will be enough for a few who trust them to follow suit. Even Pence found the bottom of his well of loyalty to Trump—but only as domestic terrorists shouted “hang Mike Pence” and stormed the Capitol. It’s sad that the danger of Trump had to become that personal for Pence to revert to his loyalty to the Constitution. But it’s no shock.

It’s unlikely we’ve seen anything like the end of Christian nationalism in this country. Many, like Graham, will back off just enough—and if so, only from Trump. Others will stick with Trump, or at least his election fraud conspiracy, as long as it is useful to them. The real surprise would be to see evangelical leaders own up to their part in manipulating a segment of our country into believing Donald Trump was God’s gift to a nation, one that God — and not they — were working to keep in power.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb