Public hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection have given Americans a much clearer understanding of all the ways then-President Donald Trump and his allies tried to keep him in power by overturning the results of the presidential election. Another public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 28, with the committee’s final report expected to be released later this year.
One force driving much of the effort to keep Trump in power, one which has not been explored publicly by the Jan. 6 committee but has drawn the attention of many journalists, scholars, and activists, was the political ideology of Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is grounded in beliefs that the United States was founded by and for Christians, that being a “Christian nation” is central to national identity, and that it’s the job of activists and government officials to keep it that way. Under Trump, this ideology has woven its way into the broader religious-right movement and Republican Party, while far-right and white nationalist activists have made it a cornerstone of their movements.
Ahead of the insurrection, Christian nationalists promoted the belief that Donald Trump was chosen by God and that his opponents were opposing God in a spiritual war between good and evil—providing some insurrectionists with the belief that their storming of the Capitol was a righteous act.
Trump and Christian Nationalism
To understand Christian nationalism’s role in the efforts to overturn the election results, we need to first look at how Trump made it to the White House.
Conservative evangelical Christians are an essential part of the Republican Party’s base. When Trump became the GOP nominee in 2016, he knew he needed to address skepticism about his character and record. Trump allies gathered hundreds of religious-right activists for a meeting at which Trump offered them a deal: If they made him president, he would make them more powerful. And he would give them the Supreme Court of their dreams, one that would let them overturn Roe v. Wade.
Religious-right leaders took the deal. They told their followers that Trump was anointed by God, and that controlling the Supreme Court was more important than any concerns they might have about his character or positions on other issues. And it worked. Conservative white evangelicals turned out in force for Trump in 2016.
As president, Trump gave Christian nationalist leaders more power and access to power than they had ever had before. Federal agencies implemented the religious right’s anti-choice and anti-equality agendas. Trump gave televangelist Paula White a White House job that she used to promote Christian nationalist ideology—and his reelection. He gave them the kind of judges he promised and a Supreme Court that this year overturned Roe.
The 2020 Campaign: Trump’s Reelection Prophesied
Religious-right leaders and right-wing Christian media outlets did everything they could to get Trump reelected. Self-declared prophets announced that God had promised Trump a second term. Trump’s reelection was portrayed as the key to the nation’s spiritual revival. Megachurch pastor Jentezen Franklin said that Trump’s loss would mean the end of freedom in America. Paula White denounced Trump’s opponents as demonic.
When Trump started to rage against state election officials’ plans to increase mail-in voting so that people could vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, religious-right leaders joined his attacks on that expanded access. Six months before the election, the leader of the pro-voting-restriction group True the Vote told a group of pro-Trump “prayer warriors” that the push to expand vote-by-mail was “from Satan” and that they were involved in a “spiritual battle” for “control of the free world.”
Millions of dollars were spent to get conservative white evangelicals to turn out for Trump—and they did, in even bigger numbers than in 2016. When he lost anyway, many of them threw themselves into his effort to overturn the election.
In God’s Name: Promoting the Big Lie and Fomenting Insurrection
As soon as it became clear that Trump would not accept his loss and would try to overturn the election results, his religious-right allies signed on to the Big Lie. They told supporters that Trump won the election by a landslide and that corruption, voter fraud, and the forces of Satan were trying to steal it from him.
For two months, Trump Republicans waged a campaign to overturn the election. Inside Trump’s team, lawyers and politicians plotted to sabotage the constitutional process for affirming the will of the voters. Meanwhile, far-right activists waged a “Stop the Steal” campaign to spread Trump’s Big Lie and pressure state officials and members of Congress to betray voters and keep Trump in power. Christian nationalists were at the heart of these interconnected schemes.
The multi-layered legal effort to overturn the election included Jenna Ellis, a Trump attorney and loyalist who once wrote a book arguing that “divine law” is “the only legitimate basis for constitutional authority.” On one of dozens of online prayer calls mobilized on behalf of Trump’s effort to keep power, religious-right author and radio host Eric Metaxas noted that the campaign to reverse the election was being led by “born-again believers” and “serious Christians” like Ellis, “Kraken” attorney Sidney Powell, and Trump team lawyer Lin Wood.
Meanwhile, so-called Stop the Steal events were rife with spiritual warfare rhetoric and threats of physical violence. Less than two weeks after the election, the so-called Stop the Steal campaign brought together members of Congress, conservative movement leaders, and Trump supporters for a large rally in D.C.; at night, violent rhetoric turned into violent skirmishes between far-right groups and counter protesters. The next month, in December, under the banner of Stop the Steal and Jericho March, a “prayer rally” on the National Mall united dominionist evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians to promote the Big Lie and demand that Trump stay in power. “We’re marching for God,” declared event organizer Ali Alexander. “We are in a spiritual battle for the heart and soul of this country,” said former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who urged Trump to declare martial law rather than admit defeat. “God gave us Donald Trump,” screamed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, adding that satanic forces were trying to steal the greatest victory since 1776.
Also in mid-December, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and other leaders associated with the secretive Council for National Policy signed a letter urging state legislators to override voters. “There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election,” the letter declared. “Joe Biden is not president-elect.” We now know, thanks to the Jan. 6 committee, that current and former FRC officials were involved in the effort to get coup-promoting attorney John Eastman an audience with then-Vice President Mike Pence to pressure Pence to stop congressional affirmation of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
At Trump’s request, on the eve of the insurrection, as MAGA activists poured into Washington, D.C., Stop the Steal activists and others gathered for an hours-long rally near the White House. There, Christian nationalism mingled with conspiracy theories, threats of violence, and calls for war. “We’re here to serve notice because this is a demonic attack from the gates of Hell!” said South Carolina pastor and current congressional candidate Mark Burns. California pastor Ché Ahn, a leader of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, told the crowd that “we’re gonna rule and reign through President Trump and under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
On Jan. 6, Christian nationalist pastor and White House aide Paula White opened Trump’s rally near the White House with a prayer, calling for God to give the assembled MAGA activists “holy boldness” and praying that “every adversary” would be “overturned right now in the name of Jesus.”
On the grounds of the Capitol, religious imagery was impossible to ignore, often mingled with fanatical devotion to Trump. “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President,” proclaimed one flag. “Trump is President. Christ is King,” read another banner. Proud Boys knelt in prayer before members of the far-right group headed into the Capitol.
After insurrectionists had successfully battled police to break into the Capitol and members of Congress had been evacuated, insurrectionist Jacob Chansley led a prayer from inside the Senate chamber. He concluded:
Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you, and we thank you. In Christ’s holy name we pray! Amen.
After the insurrection failed, Christian nationalist leaders and media outlets, including figures like Michele Bachmann and Lance Wallnau and programs like “Flashpoint” on Kenneth Copeland’s Victory Channel, began contributing to the cover-up almost immediately. “Prophet” Mario Murillo claimed on the evening of Jan. 6 that he knew “for a fact” that none of the insurrectionists were Trump supporters. Among the false claims presented to Victory Channel viewers as “confirmed” news: the insurrection was led by antifa activists who had been bused in by the FBI to infiltrate a peaceful rally.
Not everyone was on message: The morning after the insurrection interrupted but failed to stop congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election, the Dove Christian television network’s morning news program featured hard-right activist John Guandolo telling viewers that the insurrectionists showed “restraint” by not executing the “traitors” in Congress.
A month after the insurrection, the conservative American Enterprise Institute released survey data showing that white evangelical Protestants were far more likely to believe QAnon conspiracy theories, Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and false claims that anti-fascist activists, not Trump supporters, were responsible for the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. About half of white evangelical Protestants “said the antifa claim was completely or mostly true.”
Religious-right leaders supported Trump Republicans’ efforts to prevent a congressional investigation of the events leading up to the insurrection. “What’s the point?” FRC’s Tony Perkins asked last year.
The Big Lie as Excuse and Voter Suppression
Christian nationalists have played an essential role in keeping Trump’s Big Lie alive, claiming in spite of all evidence that he was the legitimate winner of the election as many of them had prophesied. And many have rallied around a wave of voter-suppression legislation pushed by Trump Republicans around the country—legislation that disproportionately targets voters of color—and whose proponents justify it by pointing to the Big Lie’s success at sowing mistrust about election results.
By portraying the election as a spiritual war between good and evil, and claiming that the defeat of God’s favored candidate—Trump—would mean the end of religious liberty and the criminalization of Christianity, religious-right leaders fostered the sense that the end justified any means to keep Trump in power. Trump Republican officials, their political allies, and far-right activists from former White House aide Steve Bannon to white nationalist Nick Fuentes, invoked Christian nationalist language to fire up their followers.
This fall, Christian nationalists have rallied around candidates like Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania. The have embraced Dinesh D’Souza’s widely debunked “2000 Mules” movie and its claims to “prove” widespread voter fraud, and they have embraced the voter suppression and intimidation efforts that have been inspired by that propaganda.
It is important to note that many Christians, including some conservative Christians, reject the political ideology of Christian nationalism and the ways it has been enfolded into Trump’s MAGA movement.
Scholars have documented that Americans who hold strongly Christian nationalist views are also more likely to support authoritarianism and to believe that violence may be justified in the pursuit of political goals. That explains why Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski, authors of “The Flag and the Cross,” describe Christian nationalism as “a fundamental threat to democracy.” And it is why People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch continues to document the threats posed by Christian nationalism, sound the alarm about the potential for future right-wing coup attempts, and give people tools to defend democracy, pluralism, and freedom.
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