The pulpit of Robert Jones’ childhood church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Mississippi, was flanked by two flags ― an American flag and what’s called the “Christian flag,” with a blue canton and a red cross on a white field. During Vacation Bible School, a summer kids’ program, Jones remembers that he and other children were taught to recite three pledges of allegiance ― to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible.
Last week, an insurrectionist carried this Christian flag onto the Senate floor as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to interrupt a joint session of Congress and attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. As Jones watched the siege unfold on social media, he was disturbed to see this flag among the symbols the rioters were using ― but he wasn’t surprised.
There’s a potent mix of nationalism, Christianity and white supremacy at work in the U.S., and it’s not new. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, says it has been part of Christianity in America from the very start.
Jones and other U.S. Christians are now piecing together what it means that their faith was so brazenly invoked during a deadly insurrection ― and what responsibility Christians have to address white supremacy and nationalism in their ranks.
“We are indeed at a moment of reckoning for white Christianity, which has been complicit in legitimizing and baptizing white supremacy throughout the entire American story,” Jones told HuffPost. “We white Christians need to speak out, not just for the sake of repairing the damage we have done to our Black and brown brothers and sisters, but for the sake of ourselves and our faith.”
Christian nationalism is a movement that seeks to affirm and codify America’s identity as an explicitly Christian country, by leveraging the religion’s influence in the public sphere. Many Christian nationalists believe the federal government should advocate for Christian values, allow prayer in public schools, and allow religious symbols to be displayed in public spaces, according to Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and others working with him.
White conservatives don’t have a monopoly on Christianity, an incredibly diverse faith practiced worldwide. But in America, Christian nationalism has long been wrapped up in protecting whiteness. Many white evangelicals have grown anxious in recent years about America’s increasing racial diversity, and believe they are losing ground on culture-war issues.
Symbols of white Christian nationalism were present before and during the Jan. 6 insurrection. People carried crosses and Christian-themed flags. One sign declared “Jesus Saves.” An American flag bore the words “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my President.” Religious rituals and imagery were incorporated into events leading up to the riot, including communal prayers and “Jericho marches.”
The presence of these symbols highlights how Christian imagery has been co-opted by Christian nationalists, according to Whitehead.
“These powerful symbols serve to legitimate their goals and desires in the transcendent,” he told HuffPost. “And by doing that, they can claim that the Christian God is on their side.”
Throughout American history, white supremacists have tried to use the Bible to justify their agenda of cruelty and oppression, Jemar Tisby, the president of the Witness, a Black Christian collective, told HuffPost. The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol last week are also trying to “twist Scripture to fit their destructive ideology,” he said.
“White Christians have been such a big part of the problem of creating white supremacy and Christian Nationalism that they must also be part of the solution,” Tisby said.
Some Christian leaders have condemned the way their faith was misused on Jan. 6. Russell Moore, a prominent voice within the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, said he was “trembling with rage” as he watched rioters display Christian symbols at the Capitol. He insisted that “violent insurrection and the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot coexist.”
Over 250 faculty and staff at Illinois’ evangelical Wheaton College have signed a statement condemning the “blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols” at the Capitol riot. They acknowledged that many Christian leaders “wittingly propagated lies, or were unduly silent” instead of speaking truth to President Donald Trump’s supporters, many of whom still believe his repeated false claims that he rightfully won the 2020 election.
“We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas,” the statement from Wheaton reads. “Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian.”
But this attitude of repentance has yet to manifest among the evangelical leaders who’ve been closest to Trump over the past four years. These leaders ― people like the evangelist Franklin Graham and Texas pastor Robert Jeffress ― have condemned the insurrection and called for healing. But many have not held Trump accountable for inciting it, or acknowledged the role of white Christian nationalists in the violence, or apologized for failing to decisively recognize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory sooner.
In the weeks leading up to Congress’ certification of Biden’s win, the president’s close evangelical allies were either actively promoting Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud or tacitly giving credence to that narrative with their silence. In some American evangelical circles, self-declared prophets with substantial social media followings held on to their prophecies that Trump would win, even long after the president’s election fraud lawsuits began to fail in the courts.
Election fraud narratives within evangelical circles are partly driven by a toxic view of masculinity, according to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University and the author of a book on the subject. By insisting that God made men to be warriors, conservative evangelicals have fueled a culture-war mentality that erodes trust and promotes an “us versus them” militancy, Du Mez told HuffPost.
“Whether that fight is against communists, feminists, secular humanists, liberals, Democrats or radical Islam, the fate of the faith and the nation are always perceived to be hanging in the balance, and so the ends will always justify the means,” she said.
White conservative Christians’ willingness to entertain conspiracy theories could be a product of their close ties to the Republican Party and their loyalty to Trump, according to Elizabeth Neumann, who served as an assistant secretary of counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump until last April.
Neumann warned last year that the Trump administration wasn’t doing enough to counter violent extremism coming from the political right, even though right-wing domestic terrorism is more of a threat than left-wing violence.
Trump’s hard-line stances have made conservative Republicans “extremely vulnerable” to the grooming techniques of right-wing extremist groups, Neumann said. The outgoing president has sown “seeds of grievances” around white supremacist talking points, such as the idea that immigrants are stealing American jobs, or that the best way to handle terrorism is to keep Muslims out of the country. This has helped create a “common values system” between average Republicans and white supremacists, Neumann said.
Some of the rioters at last week’s insurrection were members of established far-right hate groups, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, or vocal supporters of apocalyptic conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Neumann believes there were other people at the protest who didn’t have official ties to these groups, but who shared their conservative values and were led to believe misinformation about the election.
White supremacists know they need to attract a sizable percentage of white Americans in order to achieve their goal of a white nation, Neumann said. So they use sophisticated recruitment tactics to groom and recruit vulnerable groups ― primarily white adolescents ― online.
“It seems like you’re good friends because you have such a common worldview,” she said. “You would never know that that person is actually a neo-Nazi, or is actually a Boogaloo boy intent on overthrowing the U.S. government.”
This is how white conservative Christians can unwittingly be pulled into extremist circles, she suggested.
“The concern I have is not that by being a Christian, you would naturally think that white supremacy is a godly thing or that it’s part of the Bible, as much as it is some of the other political viewpoints that you have gotten into by being a Trump adherent,” she said. “You’ve created this toxic soup of conspiracy that makes people very vulnerable and susceptible to recruitment to other radicalized causes.”
Moore, the Southern Baptist leader, has been speaking up about the proliferation of conspiracy theories in evangelical circles. In a webinar for church leaders on Friday, he used biblical language to condemn conspiracy theories about QAnon, the COVID-19 pandemic and the political leanings of the insurrectionists.
Conspiracy theories use apocalyptic rhetoric to create a sense of desperation, Moore said, and people who don’t feel as if their lives have a purpose become addicted to the rush that these theories offer. Christians have a responsibility to speak truth about these conspiracy theories, he said ― and to separate the violent actions of the rioters from the message of Jesus.
Moore said he’s heard people claim that the problem with Christianity is that it’s become a “weak, ‘turn the other cheek’ sort of religion.” He pointed out that these kinds of statements explicitly contradict Jesus’ instructions in his famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.
“If the Sermon on the Mount is the problem with American Christianity in your view, then [you’re suggesting] Jesus Christ is the problem with American Christianity, which means what you’re holding on to is something else,” he said.
“There are people who don’t yet know who Christ is, who all they know about Jesus is seeing ‘Jesus saves’ in the hands of violent insurrectionists who are disobeying the clear commands of Scripture and the explicit words out of the mouth of Jesus himself,” he added. “That is blasphemy.”
Moore said Christians should reach out if they see loved ones being drawn into justifying violence ― and if pastors notice that members of their congregations have become vulnerable to that kind of ideology, they should call it out as un-biblical.
Neumann, who is a Christian herself, said church leaders can connect people who have fallen into the “QAnon rabbit hole” with resources to help them de-radicalize. Beyond that, she said, pastors should be willing to say there was no evidence of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, and to remind their congregations to place their hopes in Christ, instead of on a specific political outcome.
This moment calls for repentance and accountability from white American Christian communities ― including among the prominent evangelical leaders who have “idolized” Trump over the past four years, Neumann said.
“It’s important to acknowledge what a challenging moment we have as a nation, but also the fact that there was an element of the Christian community that participated in what got us to this point,” she said. “We need to pause and take a moment and reflect, and if we have sinned, repent of it.”
She said her biggest fear is that people will rush to declare that this “sickness” within American Christianity has been cured.
“We’ve got to start acknowledging there’s a problem before we can get to starting to heal from it,” she said. “It took decades to get us to this point. It’s not going to be fixed with a Band-Aid and a platitude. We have to go deeper and understand why the church was able to be deceived, why an individual was able to be deceived, why a movement of conservatives was able to be deceived.”