The Capitol Riot Revealed the Darkest Nightmares of White Evangelical AmericaRoundup
tags: Christianity, authoritarianism, evangelicalism, Donald Trump, White Supremacy
Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism and, most recently, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War. He is the chair of the history department and the Berry Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University.
White evangelicals believe they see truths that you and I cannot.
While Americans around the country watched an inflamed mob overrun the Capitol on January 6, the evangelical participants in that mob saw something else: a holy war. Insurgents carried signs that read “Jesus Saves,” “In God We Trust,” “Jesus 2020,” and “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President.” One man marched through the halls of Congress carrying a Christian flag, another a Bible. They chanted, “The blood of Jesus covering this place.”
As law enforcement authorities and media outlets track down and identify these insurrectionists, we are beginning to understand who they are and what they wanted. Amid the QAnon adherents, antisemites, neo-Confederates, and revolutionary cosplayers were the evangelical faithful: those who see themselves as the vanguard of God’s end-times army. Their exultant participation in the riot represented some of the most extreme political action that any group of evangelicals has taken in recent history.
These Christians apparently believe that they had no choice but to try to overthrow the Congress. For months, various evangelicals have claimed in sermons, on social media, and during protests that malicious forces stole the election, conspired to quash Christian liberties, and aimed to clamp down on their freedom to worship and spread the Christian gospel. They felt sure that the final days of history were at hand and that the Capitol was the site of an epochal battle. As one evangelical from Texas told The New York Times, “We are fighting good versus evil, dark versus light.”
Much has been made about the evangelical community’s relationship to Donald Trump. And typically, observers tend to view this alliance as purely transactional, with nose-holding evangelicals pledging their support to this least Christian of men in order to get something in return—most notably, a trio of religiously conservative Supreme Court justices. This dominant interpretation also treats Trump as the apotheosis of a shape-shifting brand of grievance politics that unites and permeates all factions of the right, very much including the evangelical movement. But what is less understood—and what the Capitol riot revealed in all its gruesome detail—is the extent to which Trump channels the apocalyptic fervor that has long animated many white evangelical Christians in this country.
For the last 150 years, white evangelicals have peddled end-times conspiracies. Most of the time their messages have been relatively innocuous, part of the broader millenarian outlook shared among most major religious traditions. But these conspiracies can have dangerous consequences—and sometimes they lead to violence. Every evangelical generation throughout American history has seen some of its believers driven to extreme conspiracies that blend with other strains of militant political faith. This has meant that in the Trump era, with the destabilizing impact of a global pandemic and a cratered economy, white evangelical Christianity has become enmeshed with, and perhaps inextricable from, a broader revolution against the government.
And so an insurrection in the name of Jesus Christ broke out in tandem with the Trump voter fraud putsch. The action is also, in all likelihood, a prophetic foretaste of where this group might go once Trump is finally out of office.