What would happen, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody asked, if Trump lost? Graham’s reply stated plainly the stakes as he saw them. “I’m just asking that God would spare this country for another four years to give us a little bit more time to do the work before the storm hits,” he said. “I believe the storm is coming. You’re going to see Christians attacked; you’re going to see churches close; you’re going to see a real hatred expressed toward people of faith. That’s coming.” Graham said of Trump: “God has put him in this position” to defend “Western civilization as we have known it.” The Democrats, by contrast, were “opposed to faith.”
While Trump may have incited the riot at the Capitol that led to his second impeachment, many of his followers already had all the encouragement they needed: They believed God wanted them to do this.
Contrary to Graham’s dire warnings, we have not seen any of the kinds of violence directed at Christians that he predicted the Biden administration would bring. We have, however, seen a regular churchgoer inaugurated as president in a ceremony suffused with the language of faith. We have also seen a shocking act of violence committed by Christians: an assault on a symbol of American democracy that left the halls of Congress strewn with shattered glass, 140 police officers injured, and one officer and four others dead. Not only was this assault accompanied by Jesus flags, Bible quotes and loudspeaker sermons, it was undertaken — according to many of the attackers themselves — in Christianity’s name.
No matter such claims, the Capitol attackers of course do not represent the Christian faith as a whole. Christians across the country, along with members of every religious group, immediately and forcefully decried the events of Jan. 6 as madness. Yet at the same time, it was not incidental that Christians made up the core of the mob; their actions were a natural and perhaps inevitable outgrowth of the kind of rhetoric that Graham and other prominent faith leaders used for months to describe the election.
In Trump’s final days in the White House, it was often difficult to tell where puffery ended and the putsch began, but the religious framing of the effort to keep him in office was always clear. The question of who would occupy the White House after Jan. 20 had implications that were literally apocalyptic. Armed with this understanding — relentlessly pushed by prominent voices in Christian media, including presidential spiritual adviser Paula White, who virally denounced “demonic plans and networks” working on Joe Biden’s behalf, and author and radio host Eric Metaxas, who said that “this is God’s battle even more than our battle” — many of the insurrectionists believed that Trump would remain in power because the necessity of that outcome was entwined with deeper beliefs. “Jesus is my savior,” one popular flag seen during the Capitol siege said, “Trump is my president.” In their minds, it was not just the commander in chief who wanted the election results overturned, it was the Lord on high.
For further evidence of this, we need look no further than the words of those who were there:
Michael Sparks of Kentucky, charged by the FBI as being among the first to enter the Capitol, which he did through a broken window, declared on Facebook that “Trump will be your president four more years in Jesus name.” Echoing Graham’s view that this was not just a political contest but a spiritual war, Sparks added, “We’re getting ready to live through something of biblical purportions [sic] be prayed up and be ready to defend your country and your family.”
Leo Kelly of Iowa, charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct, said that when another rioter in the occupied Senate chamber “consecrated it to Jesus,” he found that to be “the ultimate statement of where we are in this movement.”
After the attack, Pastor Ren Schuffman of Oklahoma prayed over a man involved in the incident that led to the shooting of Ashli Babbitt with the words, “God Lord, protect this soldier for you.”
It is not anti-Christian to note any of this; it is simply descriptive. The religious contexts and motives for the siege were not a fringe element. They were, for many involved, the underlying reason for the entire event. Even for those without strong Christian convictions, the pervasive religious imagery provided both a permission structure and a psychological safety net that allowed self-declared patriots to rampage through a space they supposedly held sacred. If any had second thoughts as they charged up the Capitol steps, they perhaps needed only to see a Bible thrust in the air above the crowd to be put at ease. How could a righteous mob be wrong?
Just as they had for months, on the day of the attack, some religious leaders continued to frame the election as a matter that remained in God’s hands. While he denounced the violence after the fact as the work of “thugs,” on the morning of Jan. 6, Graham continued to sow seeds of doubt. “The votes are in, but is the election over? I have no clue,” he said at 11:43 a.m. that day to the nearly 10 million people who follow him on Facebook. “I guess we just have to wait and see. But I do know that we need to pray for our nation. We are in trouble. I believe God’s judgment is coming, for the sins of our nation are great and they are a stench in the nostrils of our Creator.”
At Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, House managers have not mentioned the role of religion in the insurrection. This is most probably strategic and understandable. The influence of the insurgents’ theological assumptions is complex and would only distract from the crucial question of the president’s culpability. But as the trial continues, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are many ways to incite a riot. Trump may have shouted fire in a crowded theater, lighted the fire and then watched as it nearly consumed the nation, but it would not have burned so brightly had religious justifications not fanned the flames.