One of the hallmarks of the Trump insurrection last week was the belief of many of the mob that they were doing God’s work. “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” banners waved along with the Confederate and Trump flags. Some Christians gathered under the name Jericho March, to “pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity.”
The rioters were encouraged by leading figures among the religious right. Chief among these was Sen. Josh Hawley, whose willingness to challenge the election results to further his own ambition added fuel to a smoldering fire. Hawley, a right-wing evangelical who makes no bones about his love of theocracy, even gave the crowd an encouraging raised fist just before the mob stormed the Capitol.
Hawley was hardly the only one, however. For the past four years, conservative evangelical leaders have been sending a message to their flocks that Trump is their personal savior and can do no wrong. President Donald Trump’s violent rhetoric – calling on folks at his rallies to attack protesters and labeling the media the enemy of the people – did not deter them.
If anything, the fact that Trump was a bully encouraging violence was one of the reasons he’s been so popular with the religious right.
“We didn’t vote for him to be our pastor or our husband,” Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America argued. “We voted for him to be our bodyguard.”
Moreover, it’s not just the notably non-religious Trump who was fanning these flames. Then-Attorney General William Barr, a conservative Catholic, was effectively calling for a holy war a year before the election. Franklin Graham said that opposition to Trump was “a spiritual battle.” Graham held a Day of Prayer for Trump to ask God to “embolden” the president.
God may not have heard that prayer or the call to battle, but Trump’s supporters did.
Needless to say, the violence at the Capitol has unleashed a flood of condemnations, some of them sincere and some pro forma, from religious right leaders. As an example of the former, Russell Moore, who heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, called for Trump to resign. Moore has long been critical of Trump, something which nearly cost him his job.
But there are a lot more condemnations that simply fuel the lies that justify the insurrection. Franklin Graham said “most likely it was Antifa,” an imaginary “group” of far-left anarchists, who stormed the Capitol – an astonishing denial of reality.
Focus on Family head Tony Perkins, who called on Congress to reject Biden’s election, also soft-pedaled the attacks, viewing it primarily as bad PR.
“I would be hard-pressed to find Bible-believing Christians that would be OK with what took place at the Capitol,” Perkins said. “I think this sets us back in terms of addressing the concerns that endanger our republic.”
Others prefer to focus on social media banning Trump and Parler’s removal from app stores. David Brody, chief political correspondent for Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) complained last Saturday that “the liberal media and big tech are the biggest dangers for a free society” – an amazing statement to make after a violent attack on the seat of democracy.
Will the religious right pay any price for its years-long incitement of a holy war? In the short term, probably not, sad to say.
Conservative evangelicals are so closely aligned with the president that nothing can separate them from Trumpism. They will continue to spout the lies and inflammatory rhetoric that makes Trump who he is.
Moreover, they will find willing partners among many Republicans, who know that their political future depends on placating what has become the GOP party base. More than 130 Republican representatives voted to challenge Biden’s election, just hours after the insurrectionist mob invaded the Capitol. That’s a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives.
In the long run, however, the insurrection may add to the long-term problems the religious right faces. Younger evangelicals are a lot less enamored of the political nature of their faith. With their ranks already shrinking, evangelicals can ill afford to alienate their churches’ future.
But as long as they have willing allies in the Republican party, the religious right will continue to portray itself as the real victim.
If an attack on the Capitol, complete with threats to hang the vice president, doesn’t cause evangelicals to rethink their cause, nothing ever will.