The Seeds of Political Violence Are Being Sown in Church
The new insurrection is being organized, in a sanctuary near you.
On Thursday night in Castle Rock, Colorado, a group called “FEC United” (FEC stands for faith, education, and commerce) held a “town hall” meeting that featured a potpourri of GOP candidates and election conspiracy theorists. Most notably, the event included John Eastman, the Claremont scholar who authored the notorious legal memos that purported to justify the decertification and reversal of the 2020 election results.
During the meeting, a man named Shawn Smith accused Colorado secretary of state Jena Griswold of election misconduct. “You know, if you're involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang,” he said. “Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”
“I was accused of endorsing violence,” he went on. “I’m not endorsing violence, I’m saying once you put your hand on a hot stove, you get burned.” As soon as he said, “you deserve to hang,” an audience member shouted “Yeah!” and applause filled the room. You can watch the moment here.
The moment, almost entirely ignored by the national media, is worth noting on its own terms, but perhaps the most ominous aspect of the evening was its location—a church called The Rock.
If you think it’s remotely unusual that a truly extremist event (which included more than one person who’d called for hanging his political opponents) was held at a church, then you’re not familiar with far-right road shows that are stoking extremism in church after church at event after event.
Last week, the New York Times’s Robert Draper wrote a must-read profile of former President Donald Trump’s one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn. Before January 6, Flynn advocated military intervention, including martial law, to assist in overturning the election results.
During the Biden administration, he’s taken his show on the road, launching a “ReAwaken America” tour that features conferences that combine “elements of a tent revival, a trade fair and a sci-fi convention.” It is striking to see Flynn’s use of Christian channels and venues to spread his apocalyptic message of election corruption and national doom.
Draper caught up with the tour at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, where 3,500 people had shown up to see Flynn and his collection of speakers. Flynn, Draper says, is “the single greatest draw besides Trump himself” in the “parallel universe” of the Make America Great Again movement.
Intrigued by the Dream City Church reference in Draper’s article, I went to the ReAwaken America tour page to see where Flynn was headed next. The first thing you notice is that the tour is sponsored by Charisma News, a charismatic Christian outlet. The next thing you should notice is the list of upcoming venues: Trinity Gospel Temple in Ohio, Awaken Church in California, The River Church in Oregon, and Burnsview Baptist Church in South Carolina.
It is always difficult to know when and how to cover extremism. Does highlighting a fringe provide an artificial sense of their danger and strength, in much the same way that “nutpicking” works in online spaces to exaggerate the extremism of your opponents? Or does ignoring a fringe allow it to flourish outside the spotlight and shock the nation when it finally emerges?
When it comes to Christian nationalism, the bar for concern has been passed by any conceivable measure. When a movement is strong enough to storm the Capitol, then it is worth continued monitoring and continued concern. Moreover, it’s important to understand why it continues to flourish, and why it is so difficult to understand, much less combat.
First, MAGA Christian nationalism is emotional and spiritual, not intellectual or ideological. While a number of scholars have done yeoman’s work in identifying the basic tenets of Christian nationalism, I’m still partial to Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd’s formulation of the ideology as “more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance.” Kidd provides a telling example:
I recently saw a yard sign that read “Make Faith Great Again: Trump 2020.” I wondered, How can re-electing Donald Trump make “faith” great again? What faith? When did it stop being great? No coherent answers would be forthcoming to such questions, but that’s the point. The sign speaks to a person’s ethnic, religious, and cultural identity in ways easier to notice than to explain.
But a MAGA Christian nationalist will read that sign and know exactly what it means–when Trump wins, America wins, and the church wins. The man, the nation, and the church are the movement.
Second, MAGA Christian nationalism is concentrated in the churches most removed from elite American culture, including from elite Evangelicalism. While there may be some Christian nationalists in seminaries, or in the pews of big, highly-educated suburban churches, or in the leadership of America’s largest denominations, you’re far more likely to find the true believers in exactly the kind of nondenominational, independent, and often-charismatic churches that populate the list of ReAwaken America tour stops.
Pentecostal Christianity, despite its immense size, is about as far from elite American culture as Mercury is from Mars. And this means it’s quite distant from elite Evangelical culture as well. Right-wing blue-check theologians and pastors who speak disdainfully of warnings about Christian nationalism because it’s not something they see in their churches never darken the door of a Pentecostal church.
They’re almost wholly unfamiliar with the world of “prophets” and “apostles” who have helped fuel much of the fervor for Trump. It’s no coincidence that Paula White, a pentecostal pastor herself, was Trump’s spiritual adviser. Trumpism penetrated pentecostalism early. I do not mean to say that all pentecostals are Trump supporters, much less Christian nationalists. But you can’t understand the Trumpist Christian core without understanding its pentecostal connection.
Third, MAGA Christian nationalism is often rooted in purported prophecies. I’ve spent every single day of the Trump era living deep in the heart of Trump country, surrounded by Trump-supporting friends, and attending church with Trump-supporting Christians. If there’s anything I know by heart, it’s the “Christian case for Trump.” I’ve read all the essays. I’ve heard all the arguments. It’s in the air out here.
There’s the pragmatic or prudential cost/benefit analysis—he’s a bad man, but his judicial appointments are good. There’s the cultural argument about threat—the left has grown so terrible that we have to punch back. But there’s also another argument entirely, one that’s impossible to discuss rationally—that Trump is divinely anointed by God to save this nation from imminent destruction.
I have up-close experience with this level of fervor. Some readers may remember that I debated Eric Metaxas at John Brown University in September 2020. While the debate was civil enough, it was clear to me that Metaxas was operating with a level of commitment to Trump that went well beyond reason. He truly believed Joe Biden would destroy America. He truly believed Trump was God’s chosen man for the moment.
Then, after the election, Metaxas escalated his rhetoric considerably. Let’s recall some of his quotes about the election:
“It’s like stealing the heart and soul of America. It’s like holding a rusty knife to the throat of Lady Liberty.”
“You might as well spit on the grave of George Washington.”
“This is evil. It’s like somebody has been raped or murdered. … This is like that times a thousand.”
Indeed, Metaxas claimed certainty even in the absence of proof: “So who cares what I can prove in the courts? This is right. This happened, and I am going to do anything I can to uncover this horror, this evil.”
Don’t forget that Metaxas was a key figure in the so-called “Jericho March,” a December 2020 protest in Washington that was so apocalyptic in tone that it should have served as an alarm that violence was imminent. (Michael Flynn participated there, too.) Indeed, on December 13, 2020, I wrote this: “While I hope and pray that protests remain peaceful and that seditious statements are confined to social media, we’d be fools to presume that peace will reign.”
Were there prophecies at the Jericho March? Oh yes:
It’s possible to overreact to this, to paint with too broad a brush. Michael Flynn is not speaking for the Evangelical mainstream. Millions of Republican Evangelicals have likely never even heard of the ReAwaken America tour. They dismiss “prophecies.” They’re legitimately aggrieved when they’re lumped into a movement and an ethos they find strange and appalling.
In fact, one underappreciated reason why conspiracies that Antifa was at least partly responsible for January 6 or that the attack was incited by the FBI have taken hold amongst Republicans is the firm conviction in many Republican hearts that Republicans don’t act like that. That is not what we do. Thus, there has to be an alternative explanation.
So we have to be careful. When dealing with a potentially insurrectionary subculture, it’s important to separate it from the population. Wrongly tie them to the mainstream, and members of the mainstream may wrongly see the insurrectionists as allies.
But underreaction can be dangerous too. We know that fanatical religious subcultures can do an immense amount of damage to the body politic. We know that they can be both deadly and destabilizing. A Christian political movement that’s so focused on the threat from the left can often unwittingly facilitate the rise of radicals, through sins of both commission and omission.
The sin of commission is constant threat-inflation. By focusing relentlessly on “wokeism” or the worst of the left, Christian media exacerbates the sense that Evangelicals are under siege and hanging on to their place in American society by their fingertips. As a leader in a well-known Christian activist group told me this week, threat-inflation leads to “cornered-animal syndrome,” rendering Christians vulnerable to the siren call of the extremists. Join us. We’re the last hope for the nation and the church.
The sin of omission is the deafening silence from so many Christian leaders about the threat to the church and the nation from the far right. Convinced by threat-inflation of the danger from the left, and desperate for the unity that is perceived as necessary to confront existential risks, the last thing they want to do is to divide the right. Indeed, they scorn those public voices who dare “punch right.”
Moreover, if Christians know anything about the far right, they know it’s vicious. Silence is the safe course. For all the (legitimate) talk of cancel culture from the left, many Christians self-censor out of fear of the right. They know Michael Flynn is dangerous, but saying so out loud carries a cost. So they remain silent. They stay in their anti-left lane.
The proper response to fear and fanaticism is reason and faith. It’s demonstrating by word and deed that the response even to the worst forms of extremism on the left is not to stampede to extremism on the other side. But we have to know what we face, and what we face is an Christian subculture that is full of terrible religious purpose. The seeds of renewed political violence are being sown in churches across our land.
One more thing …
This week Curtis and I hosted Dr. Derwin Gray on our Good Faith podcast, and I can’t recommend the conversation highly enough. Dr. Gray has a remarkable life story, one that took him from Texas to Brigham Young University, to the Indianapolis Colts, to seminary, and to founding a multi-ethnic church in South Carolina.
We go into everything, including critical race theory, navigating political and racial tensions in church, his new book, How to Heal Our Racial Divide, and how he proposes reaching a profoundly polarized church.
Listen to the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.
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One last thing …
I just discovered this song this week, and I think it’s a beautiful reminder of God’s love and mercy, in this nation and beyond: