Storm-Tossed into Infamy: What Christian Nationalism, the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and President Biden’s Inauguration Mean for America and the Church

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.


So, now what?

I read with great interest the Reverend David Schoen’s excellent blog article “White Nationalists Down the Street” (Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, February 1, 2021/).  Much as we may feel that America has turned a corner with the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, 2021, and that most Americans (including conservatives and evangelicals) don’t want to talk about Donald Trump now that he is no longer living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we must reflect on the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, and on the dangerous currents of anti-Americanism that the former president set loose.

“The mob that stormed the Capitol” came from all over America, representing different affiliations — QAnon, Proud BoysOath Keepers, law-enforcement officers, Evangelical Christians, elected officials, active duty military members, and everyday Americans — united by a common allegiance:  to restore Donald Trump’s presidency (Dan Barry, Mike McIntire, and Matthew Rosenberg, “‘Our President Wants Us Here’: The Mob That Stormed the Capitol,” New York Times, January 10, 2021).

Indeed, “nearly 2,000 people gather[ed] in Washington on [the eve of the insurrection] for a ‘Rally to Save America.’”  The next day, these disparate protesters—”some exuberant, some hellbent”—overran the U.S. Capitol Building, and were “stormed-tossed into infamy, “as lawmakers hid in fear.” 

Meanwhile, presidential advisers Rudy Giuliani and General Mike Flynn, encourage Trump to declare martial law and nullify the November 2020 election results.

In the end, the insurrection failed.

Now, hundreds of rioters have been arrested, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking for others who broke into the Capitol.  

Remarkably, many of the insurrectionists claimed to be practicing Christians. In a recent New York Times story, journalists Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham recalled how, “before members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, marched [to] the U.S. Capitol” to riot, “they stopped to kneel in the street, and prayed in the name of Jesus. The group, whose participants had a flair for violence, prayed for God to bring ‘reformation and revival’” to America (“How White Evangelical Christians Fused with Trump Extremism,” January 2021).

“Then they rose,” told the media to “‘get the hell out of [their] way,’” and stormed the Capitol.

“The presence of Christian symbols and language at the Capitol insurrection was unmistakable. There was “a white cross declaring ‘Trump won.’”  There was a “Jesus Saves” sign, and a “God, Guns & Guts Made America Great” placard. An American flag bore the words “Jesus Is My Savior, and Trump Is My President.”  There were QAnon flags, Confederate flags, and anti-Semitic signs. Some in the crowd wielded American flags and Christian flags, which they used to spear the Capital Police.]

“The most extreme corners of support” for President Trump blurred with evangelical Christianity and “QAnon conspiracy theories that [claimed that America] is dominated by deep-state pedophiles.”  A “potent mix of grievance and religious fervor ha[d] turbocharged” the rioters, who saw “themselves as participants in a holy war.”  

Who were these brawling Christians? Some were members of the “prophetic/charismatic movement.”  Many “neo-charismatic” Christians are not primarily focused on church attendance, scripture study, or denominational affiliation. Instead, “they embrace the idea that the Bible is happening right now; the world is a supernatural story of good versus evil, and they are [active] players in it.”  Moreover, they believe that they have “the power of prophecy”—and that there are “prophets and apostles” whose proclamations must be heeded. “In recent [years], millions [of devotees have sought] out these prophets and apostles on YouTube channels, in group prayer calls, via text chats, and at faith healing conferences” (Michelle Boorstein, “For Some Christians, the Capitol Riot Doesn’t Change the Prophecy: Trump Will Be President,” Washington Post, January 14, 2021).

In recent years, the rhetoric and ideas of these neo-Charismatic Christians had “entered mainstream conservative politics.” These included the notion that “Trump was anointed by God, divinely assigned to save America and protect religious freedom.”  

Understandably, the Inauguration of President Joe Biden has created “an existential moment” for neo-charismatic Christians. Many are now trying “to discern God’s will” in recent events—“and to look for the next prophecy.”

Trump’s evangelical supporters “condemn[ed the] riot at the Capitol, but few were willing to blame the president for inciting it,” and even fewer regretted supporting him over the past five years (Michelle Boorstein, “Trump Faith Advisers Condemn Insurrection, But Say Benefits of Presidency Will Last Longer Than ‘Controversies,’” Washington Post, January 8, 2021).

Indeed, in the weeks leading up to President Biden’s Inauguration, Trump’s allies were either actively or tacitly “promoting [his] debunked claims of election fraud.” Self-declared prophets were insisting that he would win, even after his court challenges had collapsed (Carol Kuruvilla, “White Christian Radicalization Is A Violent Threat,” Huffington Post, January 15, 2021).

There were exceptions. A week after the January 6 “storming” of the U.S. Capitol, some prominent evangelicals, like Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, “criticiz[ed] the president sharp[ly]. ‘Nooses and Confederate flags [don’t mix] with crosses,’ [he] said.  ‘Violent insurrection and the Gospel cannot coexist’” (Carol Kuruvilla, “Prominent Southern Baptist Leader Calls for Trump to Resign,” Huffington Post, January 8, 2021). 

Others expressed concern that the insurrection would damage “the reputation of Christianity:  “‘[we] evangelical Christians who supported Donald Trump now find ourselves tremendously embarrassed,’” said seminary president Albert Mohler. Mohler added that storming the Capitol with “Jesus Saves” signs is blasphemy (Emma Green, “A Christian Insurrection,” Atlantic, January 8, 2021).

But “Dallas mega-preacher Robert Jeffress and Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed were unequivocal in their praise of Trump’s presidency. ‘No conservative president has done more to champion Christian values,’” Jeffress said. Reed noted Trump’s record of nominating conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court and to federal benches.  

The evangelical Christians who participated in, or approved of, the insurrection were prompted by two impulses. One was Christian nationalism, the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, but had subsequently succumbed to pluralism and multiculturalism—and must therefore be reclaimed—by any means possible—to its original and explicitly Christian purpose (Katherine Stewart, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage,” New York Times, January 11, 2021).

“Many Christian nationalists believe [that] the federal government should [reinstate Christian] prayer in public schools, allow [Christian] symbols to be displayed in public spaces,” criminalize abortion and homosexuality, and replace non-Christian lawmakers and judges with conservative Christians (Carol Kuruvilla, “White Christian Radicalization”).

The second impulse was a literalistic and extreme understanding of the notion of God’s sovereignty over human and national affairs. According to this idea, “there is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.  [Therefore,] human beings do not have the freedom to choose how [to] live their lives;”  instead, Christians must take the Lordship of Jesus Christ “into every sphere of life, including the political realm.”

Unfortunately, “th[is] binary, nihilistic,” and undemocratic vision [is] medieval,” and it devalues “the achievements of liberal, societies,” sniffed Lauren R. Kirby, of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School (“White Christian Nationalists Want More Than Just Political Power,” Atlantic, January 15, 2021).

Today, Americans generally think of the January 6 “insurrection at the Capitol [as a] ‘desecration’ of a national sacred space. But to Christian nationalists, the Capitol has already been desecrated by lawmakers who fail[ed] to enact God’s will for the nation. The building [contains] relics from America’s Christian past, but real Christians and their God have long since been exiled” from it. 

Indeed, the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol “were living the dream” of countless other frustrated Christian nationalists. For a brief moment, they [had] bypassed everything designed to keep them out, and [had] claimed the Capitol [as] their own. They [were] taking back the country for God” and Trump.

In addition, many Christian nationalists made no distinction between patriotic and Christian imagery and meanings in the countless statues, paintings of historical figures, and biblical inscriptions in buildings and memorials all over the city.  To them, this blurring of the patriotic and the religious provided “proof of the nation’s Christian past, and a promise of its future restoration.”

So, what does any of this have to do with the church?

First, the events of January 6—and the Trumpian politics of the past five years—have divided our country and its churches.  It’s like Jesus said, in Luke 12:53: wives and husbands, and parents and their children, would come to hate one another because of him. Only it’s Donald Trump who has made us hate each other—not Jesus.

Many American Christians, including some attending UCC churches, are Christian nationalists. Analogously, many Christians, including some UCC congregants, support, or are sympathetic toward, former President Trump, the Republican Party, and the idea of a “stolen 2020 election.” Some may even agree with certain “fringe” ideas about the necessity of the January 6 insurrection, the need to assassinate certain elected officials, and/or the necessity of another American civil war.  

In addition, in coming months and years, UCC churches and leaders may come under attack because of their pro-life commitments, their open-and-affirming stances, and their unwavering solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, immigrants, and other marginalized peoples and groups.  Donald Trump may be gone, but Trumpism, far-right militia groups, and QAnon—as well as the sharp partisan rancor and conspiracy theories that they spawn—may be with us for a long time to come.

One thought on “Storm-Tossed into Infamy: What Christian Nationalism, the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and President Biden’s Inauguration Mean for America and the Church

  1. If you read a book like Mark A. Noll’s THE CIVIL WAR as a THEOLOGICAL CRISIS or Harry S. Stout’s UPON THE ALTAR OF THE NATION-A MORAL HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR you will find that some of the beliefs of modern day self proclaimed American Christian Nationalist are a part of the theological history of our nation going back to the beginning of the nation and formed a theological basis for slavery as an institution and the Civil War. Maintaining its popularity mainly among Conservative churches, it formed a background as late as the 1950 & 60’s against the Civil Rights movement and the segregation of the American church. These are not new ideas and to misunderstand how deep they run historically is to risk missing the depth of the political ideas some of these groups you mentioned goes to in American thought. Many in urban and progressive American Christianity have over looked groups like these and their influence on our country for years. If the events of Jan. 6th don’t make us start taking these groups and the underlying thoughts and theology seriously or just put the blame on Trump alone we risk as a nation seeing this hatred and anger continue. If we don’t have a serious theological discussion between the left and the right in the church we are failing to give witness to God’s call for justice and peace.


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