Earlier this week, a new Pew survey found that the share of Americans who believe Donald Trump was largely responsible for the violence of Jan. 6, 2021, has declined by nearly 10 percent over the past year, while the percentage of people who think he bears no responsibility has increased by almost as much. On Wednesday, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty released a new report that helps explain that shift: The same Christian nationalism that served as the unifying principle behind the Jan. 6 insurrection is also driving efforts among the faithful to rewrite the history of that day.
As two of the report’s contributors, scholars Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, co-authors of Taking America Back for God, noted in a launch event on Wednesday, Christian nationalist support for Jan. 6 rioters has doubled in the past year, while support for prosecuting those rioters has declined by 20 percent. That suggests, said Perry, “that this ideology is powerfully connected to a reinterpretation of these events” in a way that could become “a powerful motivator for future potential violence.”
At more than 60 pages and drawing on the work of a number of academics, journalists and researchers, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection” is the most comprehensive account to date of the role of the movement in the attack. Within the political and cultural universe of Christian nationalism, America is a special place: It was created as a Christian nation and its founding documents were divinely inspired. Christianity should and must have a privileged position in public life, and “true Americans” are understood to be “white, culturally conservative, natural-born citizens.”
That ideology, argues the report, served both as the unifying theme for the various factions that joined in the assault on the Capitol as well as the “permission structure” that allowed participants to justify their violence. To call those fringe ideas is misleading: Surveys repeatedly find that close to half of the country supports the idea of fusing Christianity and civic life.
Christian nationalism also lends itself to a number of other convictions, notes the report. Surveys in early 2021 found strong associations between Christian nationalist views, such as the proposition that the federal government should declare America a Christian nation, and a whole range of far-right beliefs not directly connected to faith. Those include the disproved claim that Antifa or Black Lives Matter caused the violence on Jan. 6, while Donald Trump was blameless; support for various white supremacist and antisemitic beliefs; and even a willingness to accept the outlandish premises of QAnon.
Two-thirds of white Americans who strongly support Christian nationalist ideology believe that the 2020 election was rigged; 40 percent of them think that violence from patriotic Americans might be necessary to save the country; and more than 40 percent are convinced that Democrats are engaged in “elite child trafficking,” said Whitehead.
The report includes some meditations on the movement’s origins as well. Penn religion scholar Anthea Butler, the author of White Evangelical Racism, writes that white Christian nationalism began moving more firmly into the mainstream after 9/11, as the “Holy War” coding of the “War on Terror” helped popularize its ideology, laying the groundwork for Trump’s rise. The seemingly contradictory beliefs of Christian nationalism — that America is the greatest nation on earth thanks to its foundation in Christianity, and also that America has been overtaken by alien and even demonic enemies — only serves to keep the movement in a state of tense mobilization, observed journalist Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers.
“It’s astonishing to so many of us that the leaders of the Jan. 6 attack styled themselves as patriots,” Stewart added at Wednesday’s event. “But it makes a glimmer of sense once we start to understand that their allegiance is to a belief in blood, earth and religion, rather than to the mere idea of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Most of the report was written by Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney at the Freedom from Religion Foundation and author of The Founding Myth. It consists of a meticulous accounting, drawing on hundreds of hours of video footage, of Christian nationalism’s ubiquitous role in the lead-up to Jan. 6 and its execution. There are the flags, the signs, the cross and gallows that we’ve all seen.
There are also some less familiar pieces of evidence, such as the 50-person Christian choir singing about swords and taking possession of the land while the attack was underway. Multiple rioters recounted how God’s hand or voice had urged them to enter the capital. One avowed white supremacist had convinced his parole officer to let him travel to Washington that week to hand out Bibles. And then there’s the man who broke down Nancy Pelosi’s office door, believing that “the crowd would tear her ‘into little pieces,'” and later testified in court that God had been on Trump’s side: “And if patriots have to kill 60 million of these communists, it’s God’s will.”
Seidel also describes how the events of the previous two months — including the Million MAGA March in November, and the Jericho March events on Dec. 12 and Jan. 5 — served as test runs for Jan. 6 and a broader “permission structure that gave the insurrectionists the moral and mental license that they needed,” through the promise that they were doing the Lord’s work.
There’s an exhaustive list of such examples. Paula White, “faith adviser” to the Trump White House, recorded nightly prayer videos calling on God to smite Trump’s enemies. The Proud Boys prayed in the street and were “hailed as God’s warriors.” Evangelical speaker Lance Wallnau told his massive following, “Fighting with Trump is fighting with God,” and said that angels were looking for some “risk takers” and “wild cards that are gonna go start something up.”
“They marched around government buildings in state capitals and in D.C., including the Capitol and the Supreme Court, blowing on shofars and claiming to know God’s will,” said Seidel. “Sometimes I wonder how could we possibly have been surprised by the violence that day.”
More than a year later, said the panelists, Christian nationalists continue to march under slightly new banners, leading efforts to suppress voting rights through gerrymandering and new legislation that would require everything from lifetime disenfranchisement of convicted felons to Jim Crow-style civics tests for would-be voters. Jemar Tisby, president of the Black Christian organization The Witness and author of The Color of Compromise, said Christian nationalism is also animating numerous state and local fights, including culture-war battles like the manufactured debate over critical race theory, as well as efforts to silence dissenting Christians.
“Even the religious voices within the church are being labeled as critical race theory, as too liberal or progressive to be trusted, and even the communist and Marxist labels are being used,” said Tisby.
Perry noted the mixed blessing found in recent polling that suggests Christian nationalist ideas as a whole have lost some support nationwide since Jan. 6. The other side of that, he added, is that groups that become more isolated also tend to become more militant. Indeed, added Seidel, researchers have seen an uptick in Christian nationalist pastors proudly and openly embracing the label.
Relegating Christian nationalism back to the margins, say the report’s authors, will not be easy. That would require a national recommitment to the separation of church and state, countering the historical myths propping up Christian nationalist ideology, and coalition work between secular and religious allies.
“I don’t really know if people understand how close we were to losing America that day,” said Seidel. “If they decide to get a little more serious next time, we are in big trouble.”
“America is really a shared ideal, and Christian nationalism refuses to share,” said Seidel. “That’s the choice we face: Christian nationalism or America. Because we can’t have both.”