“The Return,” a Friday evening program and day-long rally Saturday near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., put the Christian nationalist vision of President Donald Trump’s religious-right supporters in clear focus. Organizers hope that a second Trump term and a right-wing-dominated Supreme Court will help bring about a United States in which abortion is criminalized and treated as murder, LGBTQ people are denied legal equality and despised in culture as perverts, church-state separation has been dismantled and public school students recite officially sanctioned prayers, and law and policy reflect the Mayflower pilgrims’ covenant with God to build a society dedicated to advancing the Christian faith.
Speakers lavished praise on Trump and thanked God for his presidency; Trump returned the favor, sending a supportive “presidential message” that was read from the stage to cheers from the crowd, which covered most of a two-block stretch of the National Mall. Trump’s message quoted a phrase from George Washington, a favorite of religious-right leaders, in which the first president said that the “propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.” To that quote, Trump added, “As a country and a people, let us renew our commitment to these abiding and timeless principles.”
After Trump’s statement was read, “The Return” organizer Kevin Jessip used a Trump campaign slogan in his prayer. “Lord, you’ve raised him up for a time such as this,” Jessip prayed. “May he continue to lead this nation and make it great again, but more importantly, make it godly again.” Mixed in with the American flag-styled clothing and MAGA hats, some attendees wore “MAKE AMERICA GODLY AGAIN” caps.
“The Return” was called by End Times author Jonathan Cahn, who has sold millions of books claiming that U.S. history and current events are following a paradigm sent forth in the Bible. According to Cahn, the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. were a warning from God and by failing to respond with national repentance, Americans have earned God’s judgment. Cahn, who calls himself a Messianic rabbi, began the day by donning a Jewish prayer shawl and blowing on a shofar, which he said is how the Bible instructs that a “solemn assembly” should begin.
Cahn described the nation as “hanging in the balance” and said this year’s election has the potential to “seal the course of this nation toward judgment.”
Cahn began his keynote speech, billed as “a prophetic word to America,” with a joking warning that “if you came here for a politically correct message, you came to the wrong sacred assembly.” Cahn portrayed the U.S. as having violated covenants that pilgrims and Puritans made with God and that, like ancient Israel when it turned away from God, the U.S. is experiencing divine judgment for national sins, especially abortion and acceptance of LGBTQ people. “We war against the order and the nature of man and woman, of gender, of marriage, of life,” he said“And we now watch the smiles of Heaven are being removed from the land.”
Cahn said the use of the rainbow—which he said “belongs to God”—as an emblem of the LGBTQ equality movement was inviting God’s judgment. Putting himself in the role of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, he smashed a clay jar to the ground as a symbol of what will happen to the U.S. if it fails to repent and return to God.
“The Return” included personal testimonies of redemption and encouragement to individual and collective repentance for racism as well as political themes. The dozens of speakers—those who appeared in person and those who delivered messages by video—represented the breadth of the current Christian right political movement. Included were movement elders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, leaders of political advocacy groups like the Family Research Council, and representatives of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, a Pentecostal movement whose leaders believe God has ordained modern-day apostles and prophets to transform Christianity and bring nations into alignment with their biblical worldview. Many speakers focused on the failure of the church to more aggressively engage in culture war battles. Several denounced “compromise” as a moral failing.
Pierre Bynum, chaplain and national prayer director for the Family Research Council, said that the U.S. was once known as “a leading Christian nation” but has “fallen a long way.” Bynum’s theme was apathy, and he said the country would not be “imploding” if the church had been more outspoken. “We’ve watched as prayer has been taken out of our schools,” Bynum said. ”We’ve watched as Bible reading has been taken out of our schools. Where were we? What were we doing? What were we thinking? What did we do? They took the Ten Commandments off the walls. They legalized abortion. They legalized same-sex marriage, defying the living God. Where were we? What were we doing? God has called us to be anything but apathetic.”
Mark Gonzales, a POTUS Shield leader active in electoral politics, declared in the language of New Apostolic Reformation, “We’ve been anointed by God to transform society.” He called for an “awakening” in pulpits. “We want to walk in power and authority like never before,” he said.
Ché Ahn, a California pastor and New Apostolic Reformation leader, urged Christian leaders to repent for being spiritually lukewarm and called on them to be bold in their preaching:
I pray Lord God that we would see revival begin right here in the United States, the state you have given us as an apostolic nation, Lord, and leadership calling. I pray, Father, that you would raise up the next generation of leaders that would not bow their knees to any compromise, that would not be lukewarm. Lord, they would maintain that fervent first love relationship with you and love others.
Give courage to pastors in the pulpit. Lord, help us to speak the truth. Help us not to compromise, to define marriage between a man and a woman and not same-sex marriage. Forgive us not to speaking about the sins of homosexuality, abortion. Forgive us for hands that have shed innocent blood in our nation, God. Have mercy upon us, Lord.
Lord, I want to pray that you would overturn Roe v. Wade. Lord, I thank you with [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg being, uh, passed away, and Lord, I believe that [Amy Coney] Barrett will be the judge that will help us to overturn Roe v. Wade, that we will see a moral reformation, that we will see revival and transformation take place.
Anti-choice activist Janet Porter continued the focus on abortion, thanking God for the state legislatures that have passed her abortion-banning “heartbeat” legislation and asking him to speed enactment in other states considering similar laws. “And through your grace, we pledge and proclaim, ‘America will end abortion, and no longer merely regulate it,’” Porter declared.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who appeared by video, denounced the “depravity” and “utter wickedness” of the “godless culture” in the U.S. He condemned “the murders of 62 million babies” through abortion and decried that marriage has been “redefined and perverted.” He recited a litany of the nation’s sins: “Sadly, she has prostituted herself with pornography, perversion, pedophilia, profanity, infidelity, greed, pride, sexual slavery, premarital sex, the LGBT ideology, illicit drugs, lawlessness, dishonesty, hatred, racism, wanton violence, family abandonment, public schools that are corrupting our young and apostasy.”
Ralph Drollinger, who teaches right-wing Bible studies to members of Congress and Trump administration officials, prayed, “May we be about aggressively fulfilling the Great Commission amongst the political leaders of our land today, that we might see more obedience of our public servants to your precepts, which … directly relates to the success or not of a nation.”
Conservatives’ favorite Hollywood couple, Kevin and Sam Sorbo, were on hand. Sam Sorbo portrayed the COVID-19 pandemic-related closure of schools as an opportunity for pastors to encourage parents to homeschool and avoid the “nefarious force” at work in “government schools”:
Nefarious forces in our government schools teach children disdain for their parents’ beliefs and disgust for our country, programming them to question their own biology, obey authority, and despise themselves—to believe that they are accidents of nature and that survival of the fittest is the law of the land. This is child abuse. Looting, rioting, and self-destruction are the natural byproducts of atheism, hedonism, and abortion—survival of the fittest. The ideological anti-God virus that now controls most of our public education institutions is a disease of the mind that no vaccine can ever cure. We declare the conflict of interest of a government that teaches its citizens to worship it instead of their God.
Anti-LGBTQ activist Jim Garlow repented over “national sins.” He included “destruction of the definition of marriage” in the same breath as the abuse of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-Semitism. His wife Rosemary Schindler Garlow repented “as an American” and asked for forgiveness that “we have covenantal biblical governance” but “have not acknowledged you as the head of our nation.”
Cindy Jacobs, associated with the New Apostolic Reformation and POTUS Shield, thanked God for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who some religious-right leaders believe has been anointed by God to end abortion in the U.S. Jacobs said God told her that he had heard the prayers offered during “The Return” and that in the days ahead he would demonstrate his plans to intercede in the election with visible signs in the sky such as triple rainbows and fireballs.
Former Trump campaign adviser Frank Amedia, who spent the week before “The Return” describing the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a “move of God” and warning that God is planning more “epic” actions as part of a pre-election “blast,” spoke Saturday evening. He once again warned people that this is not the time to stand in the way of God’s plans: “Beloved, I tell you, this is not a time to contend with God and his plan upon this nation and this Earth right now, for the fury of the Lord has gone out and shall accomplish that which he has said he shall do.”
Also participating were two Republican members of Congress from Texas, Rep. Michael Cloud—who began his remarks quoting a Bible verse, “Let God arise and his enemies be scattered!”—and Rep. Louis Gohmert. The Trump administration was represented by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.
On the same day as “The Return,” Franklin Graham, another Trump-promoting evangelical leader, drew thousands of people to the National Mall for a “prayer march” from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, with some of “The Return” speakers participating.