How Christian nationalism drove the insurrection: A religious history of Jan. 6

Fanatical, extreme religious faith wasn't incidental to last year's Capitol assault: It was a central driving force

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published January 6, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the midst of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley, the bare-chested man in Viking horns who's come to be known as the QAnon Shaman, stopped his fellow marauders in the Senate chamber to pray. "Thank you Heavenly Father for gracing us with this opportunity … to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs," he said. "Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn." 

The prayer, caught on video by New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson, was just one moment among hundreds that day illustrating how deeply the insurrection was intertwined with Christian nationalism. Across the sea of protesters in and outside the building, t-shirt and ball-cap slogans proclaimed it: "Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president"; "God, Guns, Trump"; or, on the sweatshirt of a man helping construct the rough gallows erected on the Capitol lawn, "Faith, Family, Freedom." (The gallows itself was quickly covered in handwritten notes — "as if it were a yearbook," observed lawyer and author Andrew Seidel — reading "Hang them high" and "In God We Trust.") 

Elsewhere, protesters carried gigantic portraits of Jesus and replica statues of the Infant of Prague, or chanted about the blood of Jesus washing Congress clean. A long-haired blond man sang praise songs into a microphone plugged into a stack of amplifiers he was wheeling on a hand-truck. A Nebraska priest performed an exorcism on the Capitol building to banish the demon Baphomet, who he claimed was "dissolving the country" in order to "bring it back as something different." One rioter later indicted for breaking into the Capitol was actually a cast member in a touring production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Another, Leo Brent Bozell IV, came from a long line of Christian right activists: His father, L. Brent Bozell III, founded the right-wing Media Research Center and his grandfather, L. Brent Bozell Jr., wrote speeches for Joseph McCarthy and a manifesto for Barry Goldwater. 

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"It was evident to anyone watching that there was this religious character to what was going on, both in the Trump movement writ large but particularly in the leadership of the 'Stop the Steal' movement," said religious studies scholar Jerome Copulsky, co-director of a new website, Uncivil Religion, dedicated to collecting "digital artifacts" of Jan. 6 religiosity and exploring what it means for, say, violent protesters to dress up like Captain Moroni — a legendary warrior from the Book of Mormon — or sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" alongside fellow protesters carrying Confederate flags. "It wasn't just the Stop the Steal rally, then the assault," Copulsky continued. "People really wanted to display their religious commitments, literally wearing them on their sleeves."  

The Uncivil Religion project developed from a Twitter hashtag, #CapitolSiegeReligion, created by author and religious historian Peter Manseau and based on his sense that the religious subtext (and text, and blaring headline) were "*the* story of what happened" on Jan. 6. In Manseau's view, religion wasn't an incidental element, but had been the driving motivation that had brought many people to the Capitol. Much of that had begun much earlier, with Christian right leaders — both official and self-declared — framing the 2020 election, and the rest of America's polarized conflicts, as an all-or-nothing showdown between good and evil. 

Some were national names, like Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham, who in August 2020 warned in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview that if Trump lost, churches would close down and Christians would be attacked. But that message was echoed so widely, in both religious and secular conservative media and across numerous niche religious right communities, that allegations about the "stolen" election became nearly inseparable from messages of apocalyptic faith.  

Much of that was on display on Dec. 12, 2020, in Washington, when a large-scale interfaith prayer protest, the Jericho March — widely seen as a forerunner to Jan. 6 — brought together a number of religious right factions to pantomime the biblical Battle of Jericho in praying to "bring down the walls of the Deep State." The carnivalesque full-day rally — organized, as journalist Sarah Posner reported, by two then-current employees of the federal government — featured an odd fusion of charismatic evangelicalism, Christian Zionism and right-wing Catholicism. There was contemporary Christian praise music and Virgin of Guadalupe iconography; a rendition of "Ave Maria" that concluded with the singer whooping "Giddy up"; and the female pastor of a New England pro-cannabis church wearing Catholic vestments while blowing on a Jewish shofar.  

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Emceeing the event was evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, author of a bestselling biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a key figure in building an alliance between conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Metaxas had become increasingly extreme throughout the Trump era. The week of the Jericho March rally, he told TurningPoint USA founder Charlie Kirk that the 2020 election was like "somebody is being raped or murdered … times a thousand," and that conservatives would need "to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood" to keep Trump in office.  

That December rally featured several notable names on the Catholic right, including a bishop from Texas who refused to acknowledge Biden as president-elect, a nun who had delivered a fiery pro-Trump address at the 2020 Republican National Convention and, most prominently, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a dissident Catholic figure who had once been the Vatican ambassador to the U.S. but fell into disgrace after calling for Pope Francis' resignation in 2018. Since then, Viganò has turned into a sort of alternative pope for disaffected Catholic traditionalists at odds with their more moderate pope, and in 2020, he published an open letter to Trump warning that a "deep church" was working with the "deep state" to use the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests to undermine his presidency. After Trump tweeted a link to the letter, Viganò attracted so much support on the broader right that when he appeared, via video, at the Jericho March — praying "for the conversion of public officials who have become accomplices in public fraud" — an audience largely composed of evangelical Protestants cheered alongside his Catholic fans. 

Evangelical speaker Lance Wallnau, who in 2016 famously compared Trump to the biblical figure of Cyrus — a "heathen" king who nonetheless served as the instrument of God — also sounded the theme of intra-religious conflict. "This is the beginning of a Christian populist uprising. There is a backlash coming," he said. "And you're going to see this wrecking ball of a reformation hit the church as well … because it's going to divide between those who are awake and those that are asleep. … There is a great awakening coming, and this is the spark that is starting it right now." 

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Not all speakers at the Jericho March were religious leaders in the traditional sense. Stewart Rhodes, the devoutly Christian founder of the militia group the Oath Keepers, was on hand to urge police and military members to prepare to fight Chinese "proxies" in the U.S., who he claimed were working to install Joe Biden as their "puppet." Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, freshly pardoned by Trump for lying to federal investigators, appeared in a flag bandana to talk about spiritual war and lead the crowd in an "Our Father." And conspiracy-theory talk-show host Alex Jones delivered a barn-burning near-sermon, proclaiming, "This is the beginning of the great revival before the Antichrist comes. World government, implantable microchips, Satanism — it's out in the open. The Bible is fulfilled, Revelation is fulfilled." 

And there was Ali Alexander, the bombastic founder of the Stop the Steal movement, who appeared frequently on stage alongside Metaxas, vowing that if Biden was installed as president, Alexander and his supporters would return to "occupy D.C. full of patriots," adding, "We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us." 

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In the following weeks, Alexander repeatedly underscored the religious dimensions of his mission. In late December, he told the Epoch Times-affiliated NTD television network, "We are in a fight of good versus evil, of light versus the darkness, and a global order over sovereign citizens. … I believe that this is a metaphysical fight and we are channeling all energy in heaven and on earth towards a favorable outcome." 

On New Year's Eve in 2020, Alexander announced on Twitter that he was converting to Catholicism, in part, he explained, because he'd become convinced that the Catholic Church had been "infiltrated" by an "earthy [sic] order that works in concert with Satan himself against the Church," and that he had been personally called to join the battle. And when the Jericho March returned to Washington on Jan. 5, for a slate of protest events leading up to the following day's MAGA march, Alexander spoke again, whipping the crowd into a chant of "Victory or death." 

"The Jericho March put a definite religious imprimatur on Jan. 6," said Posner. "After Jan. 6, the organization put a note on their website that they condemned violence. But they held multiple rallies in which they talked repeatedly about the election being stolen, that God told them they must have the church 'roar,' and that they were going to be like Joshua's army in the Bible and the walls of the Deep State would fall." 

But no matter how explicit — and violent — the religious rhetoric swirling around Stop the Steal was, it was little recognized before the Jan. 6 attack. "We have gotten so used to religious language used by evangelicals and other religiously-affiliated officials that the danger that was there — whether at the Jericho March or the Jan. 6 rally that led up to the attack on the Capitol — was really just noise to some people," said Anthea Butler, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. "And then it happened, and everyone pretended to be shocked. But that's willful ignorance about the role religion has played in the last 40 or 50 years in the Republican Party. It hasn't just been this alliance of how to get people elected, but has had this element of things that have fed upon each other to create a monster that threatens democracy." 

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That has remained central to the legacy of Jan. 6, as religious leaders have used the rhetoric of faith to minimize and redirect responsibility for the violence of that day: whether it's people like Wallnau or South Carolina televangelist Mark Burns blaming "antifa soldiers" for perpetrating a false-flag operation to smear Trump supporters; Mike Huckabee suggesting, in email newsletters over the last six months, that Nancy Pelosi may have orchestrated the attack, and casting indicted Jan. 6 protesters as political prisoners; or former Vice President Mike Pence, in a December interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, downplaying the very attack in which an angry mob called for his execution. 

The rest of its legacy is more diffuse, but no less troubling: Metaxas suggesting that the creation of COVID-19 vaccines is akin to experimenting "with the bodies of Jews we murdered in the concentration camps," or Viganò writing that COVID exists merely as a "psycho-pandemic"; Wallnau calling "wokeness" the religion of the Antichrist and, on the eve of the Jan. 6 anniversary, blessing a cardboard cutout of Trump; Flynn declaring that if America is to be one nation under God, it must have only one religion. More systematically, there's the fact that much of the religious organizing energy that went into Stop the Steal has now transferred itself, as Posner reports, into mobilizing the Christian right on behalf of voter suppression initiatives. 

A year later, none of the religious fervor that helped drive Jan. 6 has vanished, says Copulsky. "It's built into the fabric of American life. There's a radicality to it, but this didn't come out of thin air. And it's not going to go away. It's incumbent on religious leaders and organizations to think about what that means." 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Ali Alexander Capitol Riot Christian Nationalism Insurrection Jan. 6 Religion Reporting