A coalition of evangelical Christian leaders is condemning the role of "radicalized Christian nationalism" in feeding the political extremism that led to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
In an open letter, more than 100 pastors, ministry and seminary leaders, and other prominent evangelicals express concern about the growing "radicalization" they're seeing, particularly among white evangelicals.
The letter notes that some members of the mob that stormed the Capitol carried Christian symbols and signs that read, "Jesus Saves," and that one of the rioters stood on the Senate rostrum and led a Christian prayer. The letter calls on other Christian leaders to take a public stand against racism, Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories and political extremism.
The letter reads, in part:
"We recognize that evangelicalism, and white evangelicalism in particular, has been susceptible to the heresy of Christian nationalism because of a long history of faith leaders accommodating white supremacy. We choose to speak out now because we do not want to be quiet accomplices in this on-going sin."
"Baptizing" extremism with religion
"I am not trying to assign to people something that they didn't want assigned to them — that they were moving and marching in Christ's name," organizer Doug Pagitt said during a recent Zoom call with other signers of the letter. Pagitt, who leads the progressive evangelical group Vote Common Good, highlighted the prayer shouted from the Senate rostrum, which was conducted in a style typical of many charismatic and evangelical churches.
"People from our very communities called people to this action in the days before, unleashed them into the Capitol, and then chose to baptize that action in the name of Christ," Pagitt said. "And this is our time where we need to stand up."
White evangelical Christians made up a critical part of Trump's base, and a majority supported him in both 2016 and 2020. A recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 3 in 5 white evangelicals believe — falsely — that President Biden was not legitimately elected.
Prominent white evangelical leaders have been among Trump's most vocal supporters. Several, including Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Dallas-based pastor Robert Jeffress, have condemned the insurrection but remained steadfast in their support for Trump.
Signers of the open letter calling out Christian nationalism include Jerushah Duford, a granddaughter of the evangelical preacher, the late Rev. Billy Graham. In an interview with NPR, Duford said she was "heartbroken" by the events of Jan. 6, a feeling she said she experienced throughout the Trump years as she watched many white evangelical leaders align themselves with him.
"It felt like this was a symptom of what has been happening for a long time," she said.
"White evangelical brothers and sisters, where are you?"
During last week's Zoom call, Mae Elise Cannon, of the ecumenical group Churches for Middle East Peace, called out unnamed evangelical leaders who she said have declined to sign, citing concerns including how it would go over with their churches or religious organizations.
"White evangelical brothers and sisters, where are you?" Cannon said. "There's a few of us on this call today, but let me tell you how many people said 'no.' "
Another signer, Kevin Riggs, pastors a small church near Nashville affiliated with the Free Will Baptist denomination, which he describes as "to the right of everybody." Riggs said in an interview with NPR that he may receive pushback from other pastors for signing the statement, but he expects his congregation, which devotes much of its time to working with people facing homelessness, incarceration and addiction, to support him.
"I wanted to sign this statement just to say that Christian nationalism is not only wrong, but it's heretical," Riggs told other leaders on the Zoom call, adding that evangelical leaders must take responsibility for "rooting out this evil in our churches."