Militant Christian Nationalists Remain A Potent Force, Even After The Capitol Riot
With Joe Biden just days away from his inauguration as the nation's president, Pastor Darryl Knappen was still denying reality and even declaring himself willing to take up arms to keep Donald Trump in office.
"It was pastors who led the way in colonial times to encourage our country to shake off the totalitarian regime of the king of England," Knappen said in a Jan. 9 Facebook message to his Minnesota congregation. He was referring to the "Black Robed Regiment," a name given to those ministers who supported the Revolutionary War effort.
"I was tempted to wear my black robe today and cover up my AR-15 beneath it," Knappen said from his Cornerstone Church sanctuary in Alexandria, Minn., "but I thought that would be way too graphic for all of you and for Facebook to allow. But I would be part of that movement back then, and I may be part of that movement today."
Conservative evangelical Christians have been among Donald Trump's most fervent and loyal supporters. While few have gone as far as Knappen and endorsed armed struggle on his behalf, the rhetoric of some evangelical leaders has been notably militant.
In a conversation with conservative activist Charlie Kirk on Dec. 9, the right-wing Christian author and radio host Eric Metaxas said he did not care about the overwhelming odds against any effort to overturn the election of Joe Biden.
"What's right is right," Metaxas said. "That is so wrong. We need to do absolutely everything we can. What's going to happen is going to happen. But we need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it's worth it."
Three days later, Metaxas was the emcee at the Jericho March in Washington, where he and others implored God to keep Trump in office.
"We are here because we know he is the God who does real miracles when his remnant cries out to him in humility and love," Metaxas said. "We are here to cry out to the God of heaven to ask him to have mercy on the greatest nation in the history of the world."
A rally organizer, Robert Weaver, told the assembled crowd that God had appeared to him in a vision after Biden's election victory and told him, "It's not over."
The notion that God would take direct interest in a U.S. election is an expression of the ideology of Christian nationalism, says Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University and co-author of Taking America Back For God.
"It's the idea that God has a plan for this nation, that God wants a particular outcome," Whitehead says. Such convictions, Whitehead says, gave extra potency to efforts in support of Trump's attempts to overturn his clear election defeat.
"Religion is such a strongly and closely held system of beliefs and values," Whitehead says. "So if God has said, 'This is the way I want this nation run, and this is the person that I want leading it,' why would you brook any opposition, no matter what?"
Taken to an extreme, Whitehead says, that viewpoint can even be seen as justifying violence.
"Among Americans who see a fusion between their religious identities and their national identity," he argues, "it tends to draw on a framework of conquering outsiders and taking violent hold of what is rightfully yours."
Speaking at last month's Jericho March prayer rally, the founder of the OathKeepers militia group, Stewart Rhodes, told the crowd he hoped Trump would use the Insurrection Act to "drop the hammer" on his opponents.
"He needs to know from you that you are with him," Rhodes said, "and that if he does not do it now, we're going to have to do it ourselves later, in a much more desperate, much more bloody war."
Among the flags at the rally was a big yellow banner that said "JESUS SAVES." The same banner was seen again in the crowd that assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, among other examples of Christian imagery.
One of the leaders of the invasion of the Senate chamber, Jacob Chansley, actually asked the rioters to pause in their rampage and join him for a moment of prayer to God.
"Thank you for allowing the United States to be reborn," Chansley said, standing on the dais occupied a few hours earlier by Vice President Pence.
"We love you and we thank you. In Christ's holy name, we pray," Chansley said, as recorded in a video by Luke Mogelson, a writer at The New Yorker. The rioters, many of whom had quietly removed their hats, erupted in a cry of "Amen!"
The post-election expressions of right wing Christian protest suggest that Christian militancy on occasion can lead to political extremism.
"Inherent in the idea of Christian nationalism is the idea that America is representative of God's truth, and for that reason it needs to be defended. It needs to be protected," says Kristin du Mez, a historian at Calvin University and author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured A Nation.
"Because the dangers are so great and the stakes are so high, that often will require violence. It's violence for the sake of righteousness, violence to achieve order, violence to bring peace and security," du Mez says. "There's a willingness to do what needs to be done."
Since the Jan. 6 assault on the on the Capitol, pro-Trump Christian activists have generally kept a low profile. After an article on the Jericho March was published by The Atlantic, a spokesperson for the organizers wrote to say the March "denounces any and all acts of violence and destruction, including any that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021."
But not all Christian militants have been chastened. In his Jan. 9 Facebook message, Knappen issued a call to arms.
"There is a need in every one of our localities to have individuals, patriots, who are ready to arm up and be part of a citizen militia to protect our freedoms," he said, noting that he was in church, speaking in front of the cross.
For Andrew Whitehead, the protests led by Christian militants in the aftermath of Trump's election defeat show that Christian nationalism can be a dangerous phenomenon when it calls into question the idea of sharing power with an adversary, and one not likely to disappear any time soon.
"It really is a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society," Whitehead says. "It should be taken very seriously."