Three men, eyes closed and heads bowed, pray before a rough-hewn wooden cross. Another man wraps his arms around a massive Bible pressed against his chest like a shield. All throughout the crowd, people wave “Jesus Saves” banners and pump their fists toward the sky.
At first glance, these snapshots look like scenes from an outdoor church rally. But this event wasn’t a revival; it was what some call a Christian revolt. These were photos of people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, during an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The insurrection marked the first time many Americans realized the US is facing a burgeoning White Christian nationalist movement. This movement uses Christian language to cloak sexism and hostility to Black people and non-White immigrants in its quest to create a White Christian America.
A report from a team of clergy, scholars and advocates — sponsored by two groups that advocate for the separation of church and state — concluded that this ideology was used to “bolster, justify and intensify” the attack on the US Capitol.
Much of the House January 6 committee’s focus so far has been on right-wing extremist groups. But there are plenty of other Americans who have adopted teachings of the White Christian nationalists who stormed the Capitol — often without knowing it, scholars, historians, sociologists and clergy say.
White Christian nationalist beliefs have infiltrated the religious mainstream so thoroughly that virtually any conservative Christian pastor who tries to challenge its ideology risks their career, says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”
“These ideas are so widespread that any individual pastor or Christian leader who tries to turn the tide and say, ‘Let’s look again at Jesus and scripture,’ are going to be tossed aside,” she says.
The ideas are also insidious because many sound like expressions of Christian piety or harmless references to US history. But White Christian nationalists interpret these ideas in ways that are potentially violent and heretical. Their movement is not only anti-democratic, it contradicts the life and teachings of Jesus, some clergy, scholars and historians say.
Here are three key beliefs often tied to White Christian nationalism.
A belief that the US was founded as a Christian nation
One of the banners spotted at the January 6 insurrection was a replica of the American flag with the caption, “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President.”
Erasing the line separating piety from politics is a key characteristic of White Christian nationalism. Many want to reduce or erase the separation of church and state, say those who study the movement.
One of the most popular beliefs among White Christian nationalists is that the US was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were all orthodox, evangelical Christians; and God has chosen the US for a special role in history.
These beliefs are growing among Christians, according to a survey last year by the Barna Group, a company that conducts surveys about faith and culture for communities of faith and nonprofits. The group found that an “increasing number of American Christians believe strongly” that the US is a Christian nation, has not oppressed minorities, and has been chosen by God to lead the world.
But the notion that the US was founded as a Christian nation is bad history and bad theology, says Philip Gorski, a sociologist at Yale University and co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
“It’s a half truth, a mythological version of American history,” Gorski says.
Some Founding Fathers did view the founding of the nation through a Biblical lens, Gorski says. (Every state constitution contains a reference to God or the divine.)
But many did not. And virtually none of them could be classified as evangelical Christians. They were a collection of atheists, Unitarians, Deists, and liberal Protestants and other denominations.
The Constitution also says nothing about God, the Bible or the Ten Commandments, Gorski says. And saying the US was founded as a Christian nation ignores the fact that much of its initial wealth was derived from slave labor and land stolen from Native Americans, he says.
For evidence that the United States was founded as a secular nation, look no further than the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, an agreement the US negotiated with a country in present-day Libya to end the practice of pirates attacking American ships. It was ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution and declared, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on Christian religion.”
Does this mean that any White Christian who salutes the flag and says they love their country is a Christian nationalist? No, not at all, historians say. A White Christian who says they love America and its values and institutions is not the same thing as a White Christian nationalist, scholars say.
Gorski also notes that many devout Black Americans have exhibited a form of patriotism that does not degenerate into Christian nationalism.
Gorski points to examples of the 19th century abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were devout Christians who expressed admiration for America and its founding documents. But their patriotism also meant that “they challenged the nation to live up to its highest principles, to become a place of freedom, equality, justice and inclusion,” he says.
The patriotism of White Christian nationalists, on the other hand, is a form of racial tribalism, Gorski says.
“It’s a ‘My tribe. ‘We [White people] were here first. This is our country, and we don’t like people who are trying to change it or people who are different’ form of nationalism,” Gorski says.
A belief in a ‘Warrior Christ’
Videos from the January 6 attack show a chaotic, tear-gas-soaked scene at the Capitol that looked more like a medieval battle. Insurrectionists punched police officers, used flagpoles as spears and smashed officers’ faces against doors while a mob chanted, “Fight for Trump!” The attack left five people dead and nearly 140 law enforcement officers injured.
The incongruity of people carrying “Jesus Saves” signs while joining a mob whose members are pummeling police officers leads to an obvious question: How can White Christian nationalists who claim to follow Jesus, the “Prince of Peace” who renounced violence in the Gospels, support a violent insurrection?
That’s because they follow a different Jesus than the one depicted in the Gospels, says Du Mez, who is also a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University — a Christian school — in Michigan. They follow the Jesus depicted in the Book of Revelation, the warrior with eyes like “flames of fire” and “a robe dipped in blood” who led the armies of heaven on white horses in a final, triumphant battle against the forces of the antichrist.
White Christian nationalists have refashioned Jesus into a kick-butt savior who is willing to smite enemies to restore America to a Christian nation by force, if necessary, Du Mez and others say.