I have spent the past few weeks attempting to understand what happened at our nation’s capitol on January 6. As a Presbyterian minister and a follower of Jesus, I found myself furious. I could not fathom how others who claim to follow Jesus, some of whom even carried flags and posters invoking his name, could attempt an insurrection against the United States of America.
As I wrote about my feelings in my personal blog and on social media, and later, when I spoke about them in a sermon, I found myself attacked by those who either supported the attempt to overturn the election or who dismissed the attack as just a few bad actors. Some of these folks were part of the #StoptheSteal movement, which invoked the Biblical story of Joshua in which God commanded the Israelites to march around the walls of an evil city for seven days, praying and worshipping, so that God would crumble the walls and allow the Israelites to conquer it in battle.
Supported by disgraced Trump national security advisor Mike Flynn and the My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell (who got in a plug for his product immediately after leading the crowd in a prayer) #StoptheSteal had strong ties to the evangelical movement. American evangelicals have been increasingly intertwined with Republican operatives, including some who are certainly more conversant with sin than holiness. While the ordinary folks who felt called to the Capitol may have had the best of intentions, I found myself taking a closer look on how American Christians found themselves in Washington, D.C. on January 6.
Demonstrators at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 2020. Photograph by Maranie Rae Staab.
The effort to turn out evangelicals was led by, among others, Eric Metaxas. I knew a little about his work. A Yale-educated author and radio show host, Metaxas had written biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther. Scholars discredited the Bonhoeffer book and expressed serious qualms about the hagiography in the Luther tome, but Metaxas found an audience, and the latter became a bestseller.
Apparently Metaxas found Donald Trump shortly after God, and he had been a vocal supporter of Trump’s contention that the election was stolen. Late in 2020, he made headlines for punching someone in the head on his way out of the White House.
Another organizer, Ali Alexander, is a convicted felon who has kicked around right-wing Republican political circles. The #StoptheSteal effort has also been linked to veteran dirty trickster Roger Stone, recently released from prison where he was serving a 40-month sentence on seven felony counts, after a pardon from Trump.
The involvement of self-professed Christians in the attack on the Capitol was deeply disturbing to me. I have devoted my life to the ministry. As a seminary student, I read Reinhold Niehbur, a brilliant theologian who influenced President Jimmy Carter, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the subject of Metaxas’ book, a theologian known as a critic of Nazism.
The protest’s organizers elided and distorted the messages of these men of principle who examined Christ’s presence in the world. While Bonhoeffer wrote of the need to abjure “purity” in the form of religion’s “invisibility” in the world, because detachment from the affairs of men had led to the failure to rebuke Nazism, I feel certain that these theologians would have been shocked by the debasement of their ideas by Metaxas and others. The kind of literal thinking espoused by so many Christians in the U.S. now is an unmistakable danger sign, both politically and spiritually.
One woman I know sincerely believed that God himself told her to pray outside the Capitol on January 6. Her account is a striking example of how a closed system of thinking brings people to a dangerous point.
On Monday night late, a friend sent me a text saying she believed we were supposed to go on Tuesday. I did not want to go. She pushed and asked me to please pray about it. I told her I would.
Monday I held 2 national prayer events. I had 2 more to do on Tuesday. I did not want to go. I wouldn't go as a Trump supporter but out of obedience to my God.
Tuesday morning I contacted 5 accountability partners and asked them to pray. All 5 came back independent of each other with a "yes", not knowing the question. I just asked them to seek the Lord for a yes or no. I still didn't want to go. I asked the Lord to confirm.
He kept saying "Jericho" to me over and over again. I assumed that meant I had to have feet on the ground and could not do that from a distance….
I did not go to hear the President. I just went to the Capitol and walked around it praying several times. It was uplifting because there were a large number of Christians there, praying, praising. They were not Trump idolators at all. Of course there were some of those as well but they were polite and nice….
So bottom line is, God told me to be there and I obeyed.
Video shot by Maranie Rae Staab at #StopTheSteal demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol. Note: This is not the woman whose account of her trip to the Capitol is cited above.
As I read this woman's words, I thought that her experience was a clear case of what’s called “confirmation bias,” the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. Let’s be fair: confirmation bias is not confined to one group. It happens on the Left and the Right, and everywhere in between. Many observers, including respected social scientist Jonathan Haidt, have noted that this phenomenon has grown as our society has become increasingly atomized. Social media dramatically increases the divisions sown by an already isolationist culture.
As I deliberated about the turmoil afflicting us, I recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Speaking to a divided nation, Lincoln notes that both sides “read from the same Bible and pray to the same God.” He continued: “the prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither have been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Invoking the hand of God and the lives of men, Lincoln described democracy as designed by the framers: a system built on checks and balances. This is the opposite of a Manichean view, the epic fight between good and evil we’ve all seen in scores of Hollywood blockbusters. Neither is it the false history promulgated by David Barton, an untrained historian whose contention that the framers were promulgating a Christian nation have been disproven—but whose books have become influential bestsellers nonetheless.
The spirit of compromise designed by the framers bridges the gap between the ideal world and the imperfect world in which we live our days. There is a separation between God and humanity. A relationship, yes, with God providing inspiration, but the two spheres are not the same. The illusion that we can somehow turn one world into the other, or confabulate the two, is dangerous, both to our country and to ourselves as moral beings.
“Any god who promises to fulfill all our desires is the devil in disguise,” according to Donald McCullough in The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity.
So how does a person of faith navigate the world? God has given us a brain to reason, scriptures to study, and a diverse community in which we live out our faith. For us to accept what we “hear” as being from God, the message needs to be confirmed within the overarching story of scripture and within a diverse community of believers. I emphasize the word diverse.
We can’t just accept what is our own bias by finding a verse that seems to support our idea and a group of like-minded Christians who look and think like us to confirm it. Otherwise, we may be hearing what we want to hear. And even when we are sure we’ve heard God speak, we need to advance such ideas in humility and not certainty: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
This is far from the approach taken by cynics who have weaponized people of faith. According to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans consider themselves evangelicals. As the evangelical community grew, these charlatans found an enormous market.
In the 1960s, civil rights leaders organized in churches, and the ties among black voters became strong, as we have seen in the 2020 election. In the 1990s, Ralph Reed, a Republican political consultant who became executive director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition galvanized conservatives by reaching them in their church communities. Reed's timing was perfect: thanks to a number of social forces, many communities were fraying. As daily newspapers lost their audiences or outright disappeared, churches became a central source of information in suburban and rural America. The message of the Christian Right was amplified by groupthink.
And as we all know now, black evangelicals tend to vote Democratic, while white evangelicals are rock-solid Republicans. What they haven’t been, until now, is insurrectionists.
In his book, The World is Not Ours to Save, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson writes that “the goodness of God is so alien in its holiness that human life must encounter it in awestruck fear… We are left with a God who in no way may be domesticated to serve any earthly project.” This means we cannot solely claim God for our side and make our enemies out to be also be God’s enemies. Even as a wartime president, Abraham Lincoln understood this truth.
Photo by Maranie Rae Staab
Let me return to the events of January 6. It appears to me that a "storm" rolled into Washington, as promised by QAnon: a perfect storm. There were the inciting words of the President, his son, his attorney and others who riled up the crowd. There were Christians gathered for the Jericho Walk, who believed the election had been stolen, and who prayed for some kind of divine intervention. While I disagree over their views of a stolen election, they had every right to peacefully protest.
And there were others, fewer in number, who saw themselves as divine avengers. These wanted to be heroes and patriots. Not only did they gather, ready to storm the Capitol, but some appeared willing to kill duly elected politicians.
While I am greatly troubled by this last group of radicals, I can’t totally let the large multitude of others who surrounded the Capitol off the hook. While most of those who had gathered were peaceful, their mere presence emboldened the latter group. If there had not been a multitude of people surrounding the Capitol, those with nefarious plans would have been less likely to proceed.
Scripture reminds us over and over again of the danger of keeping company with the wicked. When the riot broke out, the best thing for this larger group to have done was to leave the area. Doing so, it would have been easier for reinforcements to help the Capitol police. Furthermore, separating the peaceful protesters from the insurgents, would make it easier to contain the lawless.
The events of January 6 also exposed another perfect storm within the evangelical church. Many of those who gathered blended the American Western myth of a lone cowboy savior with a theology that’s been reinforced by popular culture. People who haven’t been reached by the false intellectualism of Metaxas and Barton are easy prey for the fictional “Left Behind” series of books and movies.
The series of 16 bestselling books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins sketched a cartoon-like Biblical apocalypse. It’s easy to see the inspiration for conspiracy theorists: in the series: the Tribulation Force, an underground network of converts, takes arms against the "Global Community" and its leader, Nicolae Carpathia, who is also the Antichrist. Carpathia wasn’t named George Soros, but he might as well have been. His name was exotic enough to give license to all kinds of nativist sentiments.
How influential was this series? By 2016, 65 million copies had been sold, and that’s to say nothing of the movies and video games. The Left Behind version of good versus evil was presented as mainstream, Biblical, and what the church has always believed. It’s not. It is based on a theology that arose in Britain during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it is easy for those steeped in such heretical ideas to get caught up in the fantasy of being one of the “Good Guys.” Wanting to be the macho good guy savior, like the fictional characters in the Left Behind series, they are willing to do what it takes to bring about what they see as God’s purposes.
Others came from an extreme charismatic position in which they believe not only that God speaks directly to them, but such messages carry a greater or at least equal weight with Scripture. This is the case of a friend who supported Trump because she was “told in a dream it was God’s will." As I illustrated earlier, any “word from God,” must stand the test of Scripture and be affirmed within the larger community.
But what community is that? When I grew up, the community was my town; my church, including its overarching and deliberative infrastructure; and later my university. People with whom I had face to face contact and the entire network of relationships grounded in history and faith. Now? Is community on the Internet? There, the dialogue can be manipulated all too easily. The phrase “false prophets” comes to mind.
Then there is a strain of Christian nationalism that sees our country as the world’s last hope. Such ideas are dangerous for they tend to ignore our own sin and to elevate a nation above the rest of the world, a world loved by God.
Christian nationalism is heresy. Again, we are confabulating two worlds. Nations are created by human beings. Faith comes from God. A more correct response, instead of seeing ourselves as some kind of heroic savior fighting against the ungodly, is to see ourselves as we really are: Sinful human beings who must depend upon God’s grace. True faith makes us humble, not triumphant.
The church has failed to teach people the basics of a Biblical faith. The story of the fall is a reminder that we, the faithful, are also part of the problem. We are all sinful and must depend on God to save us. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson provides us with this warning. “There is nothing God needs us to do so badly that it warrants neglecting some aspect of Christlikeness in our lives.”
Maybe there were some isolated hidden individual examples, but I didn’t see any Christlikeness on the Capitol steps on January 6.
Jeff Garrison is a Presbyterian minister who serves two churches in the mountains of Virginia.
In a Marist poll, 60 percent of white evangelicals do not believe the 2020 election result was accurate, and 50 percent believe that Trump should not concede. That’s a big chunk of the GOP that Trump has tended to assiduously — from rushed anti-transgender tweets to welding the US to Netanyahu’s agenda in the Middle East.
William Cowper (1731-1800)*
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
*Keep in mind that Cowper tried to drown himself shortly after writing this hymn.
The Devil In Disguise ::: Elvis Presley
Glad To See You’ve Got Religion ::: Loudon Wainwright III
Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho ::: The Golden Gate Quartet
Me And The Devil ::: Gil Scott Heron
I Think He’s Hiding ::: Randy Newman
Somebody Calling My Name ::: Brian Cullman
He Calls That Religion ::: The Mississippi Sheiks
Mysterious Ways ::: U2
Mysterious in France ::: U2