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The morning after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol interrupted but failed to stop congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election, The Dove Christian television network’s morning news program featured hard-right activist John Guandolo telling viewers that the insurrectionists showed “restraint” by not executing the “traitors” in Congress.
“I don’t see any other way out than a real armed counterrevolution to this hostile revolution that’s taking place, primarily driven by the communists,” said Guandolo, who trains law enforcement agencies to view Muslims as terrorist threats.
Guandolo’s call for civil war on a channel called “The Dove” was far from the only pairing of religious fervor and calls for violence by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The violence at the Capitol on January 6 should not have been a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Even before the election, researchers were tracking an increase in violent rhetoric from conspiracy theorists, religious-right activists, white nationalists, and anti-government groups.
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Right-wing pastors, religious-right leaders and activists, and conservative Christian media aggressively promoted then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 presidential election in a landslide and that it was being stolen from him and his supporters.
These leaders and media outlets inflated the stakes of Trump’s re-election campaign and post-election efforts to “stop the steal” by portraying them as part of a spiritual war between good and evil. In their telling, Trump was the divinely anointed leader of the forces of light, and his opponents were agents of Satan bent on crushing religious freedom and destroying the American republic. Prayer and calls for spiritual warfare were blended with invocations of “1776.”
Paula White, a longtime spiritual adviser to Trump, used her position as a White House aide and campaign spokesperson to engage in the fearmongering strategy to get conservative Christians to vote for Trump. “They want to take our churches,” she said at an Evangelicals for Trump rally last summer. “They want to take our freedoms. They want to take our liberties. They want to take everything.”
At that same event, Atlanta-area megachurch pastor Jentezen Franklin warned that if evangelicals didn’t mobilize to keep Trump in power, they wouldn’t get a second chance to protect their freedom or their children’s future: “Speak now or forever hold your peace. You won’t have another chance. You won’t have freedom of religion. You won’t have freedom of speech.”
In September, Pentecostal televangelist and religious-right activist Rick Joyner announced on Jim Bakker’s television show that God has “seeded” the country with military veterans to head up Christian militias in preparation for civil war. In October, he assured his viewers that life for most Americans would go on pretty much as usual during the coming civil war because the militias would be focused on “inner cities.”
At a religious-right rally on the National Mall in September, Frank Amedia, a former Trump campaign adviser who founded the POTUS Shield network to wage spiritual warfare on Trump’s behalf, warned people not to stand in the way of God’s plans to return Trump to office, saying, “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.”
When it became clear that Trump had lost, and that his response would be to deny the legitimacy of the election, most of his religious-right backers joined him. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and other right-wing leaders associated with the Council for National Policy—a secretive umbrella group of right-wing organizations—signed a letter in mid-December urging state legislatures to override voters and stating, “There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect.”
Organizers of rallies, bus tours, and other events mobilized under the banners of Jericho March, Stop the Steal, and March for Trump frequently claimed a divine blessing on their efforts.
Former national-security adviser Michael Flynn joined one of the dozens of online prayer calls convened after the election. Flynn praised conspiracy-promoting attorney Sidney Powell, who repeatedly urged Trump to invoke martial law, as a “spiritual warrior” and “guardian angel of justice.” On that call, Christian author Eric Metaxas noted that the campaign to reverse the election was being led by “born-again believers” and “serious Christians” like Powell and attorneys Lin Wood and Jenna Ellis, a fellow at Liberty University’s Falkirk Center.
These leaders and media outlets inflated the stakes of Trump’s re-election campaign and post-election efforts to “stop the steal” by portraying them as part of a spiritual war between good and evil.
Jericho March, organized by two Trump administration staffers who said God had given them visions to get Christians into the streets to protest “corruption” in the election, teamed up with religious-right activist Ed Martin and Stop the Steal activist Ali Alexander to organize a December 12 “prayer rally” on the National Mall. They called it “Let the Church ROAR.”
Among the roaring speakers was Stewart Rhodes, founder of the extremist Oath Keepers, who warned that if Trump didn’t use the military to stay in power, militias like his would be forced to engage in a “much more bloody war.” Metaxas, the rally’s master of ceremonies, was apparently not troubled by Rhodes’s threat, responding with a “God bless you” and telling the crowd that Rhodes was “keepin’ it real, folks.”
In late December, Intercessors for America, a network of “prayer warriors” closely aligned with White, urged Trump, “PLEASE do not give up or step down,” and promised, “If you will not back down, neither will we.”
A few weeks later, a day before the assault on the Capitol, speakers at an hours-long rally at Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza, in sight of the Capitol, mingled Christian nationalism with threats of violence. Members of Congress were warned to reject electors from battleground states won by Biden or face an “uprising” from the “pissed-off patriots” gathered in D.C. Bikers for Trump’s Chris Cox claimed, “They want your Bible, they want your babies, and they want your bullets,” and he offered to “take the first bullet.”
“We serve a mighty, powerful God,” said Christie Hutcherson of Women Fighting for America. “He wants everybody to know it’s by His might, by His hand, that Donald J. Trump will serve four more years.” She urged people to “rise up and push back against this tyranny, against this communist invasion.”
California pastor Ché Ahn, a leader of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, called the “stolen” election “the most egregious fraud” in U.S. history and said, “I believe that this week we’re going to throw Jezebel out … and we’re gonna rule and reign through President Trump and under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Alexander led chants of “Victory or death.” Several speakers invoked the “black robe regiment”—Colonial-era pastors who mobilized congregants to war against the British—and called for a new army of pastors to lead their people to war to ensure that America remains a Christian nation. One pastor asked others to join him in an oath that ended, “And now, as a minister of God, I lead sheep, I feed sheep, and I kill wolves.”
Even after congressional affirmation of Biden’s victory closed off legal avenues to Trump staying in power, Metaxas and other members of Trump’s amen corner were still praying for a miracle that would keep him in office. Many spoke of a “Red Sea” moment, invoking a story from the Bible in which the Israelites were caught between the sea and the Egyptian army. Just as God intervened when the Israelites had no earthly means of escape, Trump’s prophets insisted, God would make a way for Trump to stay in power and complete his divine assignment.
At the January 6 rally on the Ellipse from which Trump would send protesters to march on the Capitol, White prayed that God’s people would “rise up and stand strong” and that God would give them “holy boldness.” She asked that “every adversary” be “overturned right now in the name of Jesus.”
After the insurrection, some religious-right leaders disavowed political violence. Will they also reflect on the ways they contributed to the fear, resentment, and rage that fueled the attack?
Consider this: If you were a patriotic Christian who believed what you were repeatedly told—that a Biden victory would bring crushing religious persecution and leftist totalitarianism—would you be willing to resort to extreme measures to defend your faith, family, and freedom?
The relentlessness of apocalyptic spiritual-warfare rhetoric and pro-Trump propagandizing by right-wing Christian leaders and media outlets helped create what religion scholar Peter Manseau has called a “permission structure” for the violent insurrectionists to believe that they were acting righteously.
And it isn’t over. Some religious-right leaders continue to insist that Biden’s victory was fraudulent and “demonic,” and that the new administration’s policies reflect an “anti-Christ agenda.” That kind of rhetoric could easily push people into the arms of more extreme groups that are hoping to find new recruits among people dismayed at the failure of pro-Trump prophecies that they had put their faith in.