I think many Americans have been trying to decompress from the events that took place on January 6th. The long, tense build up to the electoral college vote count, the persistent claims of fraud and a stolen election, the rally and then the sudden alarm of people storming the Capitol Building are being replayed now in the impeachment hearing.
Legal retribution is grinding forward. The Biden/Harris duo were confirmed, took over the White House and issued a flurry of executive orders, but we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The ripple effect of the events that preceded the inauguration seethe and heave under the surface.
A majority of Americans condemn the outburst of misplaced patriotism that spilled into the Capitol Building and onto the congressional chamber floor. Most were horrified by it. It looks even worse in retrospect.
I recently heard someone emphasize that Trump lost by 7M votes. That seems like a hefty number, but consider that almost 75M people voted for him. Almost half the country voted for Donald Trump.
How do we move forward? How does the church move forward? (Divided as it, not much unlike the unchurched)
Our human penchant for sweeping generalization in times like these misses the nuance and complexity that fill out the truth. I think about these things as I listen to an interview of Sarah Posner on the podcast, Sacred & Profane, titled Render Unto Q.
Posner wrote the book, Unholy, WHY WHITE EVANGELICALS WORSHIP AT THE ALTAR OF DONALD TRUMP. She speaks in the interview about the New Right, Moral Majority and New Apostolic Reformation as precursors from the 1970’s and 80’s to what she calls “worship at the altar of Donald Trump” today.
I was involved in the New Apostolic Reformation during that time period, though we didn’t have a label for it. I remember the influence of politically minded religious leaders and religiously minded political leaders during those times.
I am now an outsider to the New Apostolic movement, but I was once an insider. I have friends who are still actively involved in current iterations. As I listen to the interview, many of the things Posner says ring true, but I can bring a little nuance into the dialogue from my own experience.
Sarah Posner has studied these things closely, and is somewhat a subject matter expert on the involvement of evangelicals in politics. She has a far more nuanced understanding than most people, so her comments bear some consideration. I will summarize some of Posner’s observations and add my own, especially where I can add some clarity from my own experience.
Part of the problem with critiques of what happened on January 6th is trying to understand the strange mixture of forces that came together in the storming of the Capitol. They have long been stewing together in a weird kettle of different fish.
As with any stew, the individual ingredients take on a singular flavor, given time, and this stew has been marinating for quite a while. To the extent the church is close enough to this stew to take on its flavor is concerning.
Posner observes that the “rioters” at the Capitol included some members of White Supremacist groups like Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. She rightfully refrains from characterizing the entire mass as White Supremacists, but there were undoubtedly some in the crowd – enough to give that crowd a distinctive smell.
She also observes that people were visible in the crowd bearing signs and shirts identifying with Q, confederate flags and other symbols of “ultra-right-wing” ideologies. Mixed in with them were people holding signs and wearing apparel with religious sayings and symbolism.
For most people, those images meld together into a singular message: Christians are crazy, prejudiced ideologues who don’t have the good sense to wear a mask or refrain from selfies as they commit high treason.
That’s the problem with stew: the ingredients take on a common flavor and lose their distinctives. The peas and carrots, potatoes and meat all taste the same.
Bible believers talk about holiness. To be holy means to be set apart, to be distinctively different. Christians are called to be holy, not to mix into the stew.
One person that I know described his purpose for being there was simply to preach the Gospel, which he did out on the street. He never got close to the Capitol Grounds, and it never entered his head that he should go there, let alone storm the Capitol Building.
He claims most people there were like him. They were older, white-haired conservative and peaceful supporters of Trump. People may disagree with their political choice, but they were not insurrectionists – not in their minds, but most of the rest of the world can’t see the difference.
Of particular concern to me, is the question: how have white evangelicals disproportionately come to support Donald Trump since 2015 along with groups of white supremacists and crazy conspiracy theorists? How did it come to this?
I say, “white evangelicals”, because statistics show that white evangelicals voted 80% for Trump. Our black counterparts with whom we might agree theologically voted 80% against Trump. Thus, I am not being “racist” here (or “progressive”). I am just stating the facts.
Posner says we need to understand how white evangelicals became a political force. Something has been brewing since the late 1970’s. This was when I became a believing Christian, and the early 1980’s was my introduction into the New Apostolic movement, so I have some connection with this stew.
She identifies the New Right as the beginning of a new conservative movement that represented average Americans as a backlash against Ivy League, elite, country club conservativism. It was a populist movement. They targeted white, working class voters who were open to a message that “they were being left behind in the era of Civil Rights”.
This is where I can introduce some nuance from my anecdotal experience. I have always been, since my Kennedy-loving parents first instilled values in me, sensitive to the plight of African Americans and recognized the intrinsic value in the Civil Rights movement. I don’t recall any anti-Civil Rights flavor to the New Apostolic movement or the spiritually motivated political activism when I was involved.
Granted, my experience was in churches in New England. Massachusetts was south. To be candid, also, I did meet people on the fringes of my church involvement who might have matched that description. These were people involved in the John Birch Society and similar groups.
They stood outside the circles of true believers, however. These people may have sent their kids to private, Christian schools, but they rarely attended church. They appropriated religious symbolism and believed that God blessed America, with an emphasis on America, but they were not involved in the life and worship or community of the church.
Still, I can see, now, what a dangerous association that was… for the church!
Posner claims that IRS challenges to the tax-exempt status of private, Christian schools after Brown v. Board of Education was the trigger that got white evangelicals involved. Posner claims the revocation of tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University (for racially discriminatory practices) motivated white evangelicals to get involved in politics, and these events explain why white evangelicals would become Trump’s primary voter base decades later.
I assume she must be right to some extent, but I didn’t see it. I remember the Bob Jones University issue. The court decision was 1983. I was out of college and immersed headfirst in a New Apostolic church, but I don’t remember anyone I knew who sided with Bob Jones or even gave the decision much thought.
Posner claims the Bob Jones case is part of the collective white evangelical memory that can be seen influencing Trump supporters today. Maybe in some circles, but certainly not in the church or group of churches in which I was involved. Those things didn’t influence me or the people I knew, but (it seems) there is guilt by association.
I can fully see how some church circles (like the people who went to Bob Jones) were triggered by those things to become political. There was no connection between them and the evangelical circles I lived in from what I could tell, but the stew was simmering..
Posner references other changes in American evangelicalism that were taking place at the same time. Televangelism (and the prosperity gospel) focused on proof-texting and used Bible verses out of context to explain current events. She adds that the New Apostolic movement focused on “taking dominion” over cities for Christ with an emphasis on direct revelation from God and prophecies about current events.
I remember these things well, but I don’t remember an emphasis on prophecies about current events – not back then. Of course, people like Hal Lindsey tried to connect biblical prophecies to current events and the “end times”, but I don’t remember prophecies about political things.
I have to admit, though, that I can see how the focus then may have changed. The New Apostolic movement emphasized spiritual warfare over satanic forces in the world, and people engaged in worship and prayer specifically to counter those forces “in the spiritual realm”. There was an understanding that America was a Christian nation and that we should be involved in taking America back from those spiritual forces that were waging war against it.
I can see how that might evolve from the spiritual warfare of prayer and worship to political involvement and, eventually, to something like storming the Capitol Building. I don’t think Posner is completely wrong about the connection. She says,
“[These things] factor into this stew that Donald Trump was ordained by God, Donald Trump was anointed by God. You should not question God’s anointed one. The enemies of Donald Trump are the enemies of America. God intended America to be a Christian nation, and it’s your duty as a spiritual warrior to restore that.”
Posner says that people “marinating in that talk” ended up in the Senate chambers praying to Jesus about overturning the election. (She cautions, though, that she isn’t claiming that religious leaders organized or encouraged their followers to do that.)
I appreciate that nuance, but it seems like a big leap to go from an emphasis on prayer and worship to storming the Capitol. Right?
Posner says that a decades long focus on “spiritual” warfare, demonic forces in government and apocalyptic thought factored into how people acted and reacted. Can it be?
Then she gets into QAnon. The longtime focus of many believers on these things, she says, explains why QAnon has been able to leverage the imaginations of Christians into being followers of cult-like conspiracy theories. QAnon plays into the narratives, stories and concepts of people who have long thought in terms that make them susceptible to conspiracy theories like Q.
Posner says that decades of preoccupation with apocalyptic ideas championed by people like Hal Lindsey and the Scofield Bible and decades of warfare imagery and anti-government rhetoric fueled the rising of QAnon. Posner concludes that the culmination of these things is the self-described QAnon shaman standing shirtless, tattooed and horned in the Senate Chambers praying to Jesus.
“Ok, hold on”, I was thinking as I listened. As I was processing the connection she made in my mind, one of the interviewees pushed back. He noted the horned shaman’s speech included no mention of God until a kind of God bless you ending. The thrust of the message was a sense of being wronged. It was political and personal and only “religious” by the addition of a shallow blessing at the end.
Posner acknowledged that the QAnon movement is a “more secular version of the religious lost cause narrative” – a sense of being victimized, marginalized and oppressed. It becomes more potent when hitched to Jesus and Christian martyrs.
She notes that Trump, himself, didn’t invoke prayer, or God, or Jesus in his speeches. He didn’t need to. Other people at the rally did, like Paula White, his personal pastor and spiritual advisor. Posner says,
“Trump knows that kind of persecution rhetoric plays well with evangelicals…. These are the reasons white evangelicals support Trump. They believe he is pushing back against the political correctness that has sought to marginalize white Christians and to restrict their free speech or religious freedom.”
The one thing that rings truest from Posner is her statement that the support for Donald Trump is “a pop culture movement infused with religious rhetoric”. No question, many faithful and genuine Christians have been swept along with this movement by that rhetoric. Many people in this movement, however, are neither genuine nor faithful followers of Christ.
Does anyone think the “QAnon shaman” is really representative of Christians?
But, how did Christians get mixed up in this crowd with a “shaman” of religious tripe?
I will finish (and get more to the point) with this.
I didn’t realize how much the idea that the USA is a Christian nation had influenced me until I went to law school. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing. And not that it isn’t true. But, the fusion of patriotic ideals into the discipleship of following Christ is a dangerous mix – dangerous to the spiritual health of the follower.
As I researched the law and Christianity in America, I learned about the Baptists who championed separation of church state – not for the sake of the state, but for the sake of the church.
That was a light bulb moment for me.
I realized that theocracy doesn’t work in a fallen world. We can’t trust sinful people with that kind of power. It’s dangerous for the church to be hitched to the state like that.
Religious freedom applied neutrally and evenly is a good thing. That will protect the right of Christians to worship, speak and live for Christ in the USA. We can’t oppose Sharia Law, however, and champion making the United States a Christian nation at the same time. We undermine our own freedom when we do that.
We can’t be provincial and serve the one true God well who “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26) and desires that all mankind “should seek God” and “find him”. (Acts 17:27)
I am convinced more than ever that Christians who align themselves too closely with the powers of this world will be tainted by them and will miss the true purposes of God in the world. When we do that we begin to smell and taste like the broth of an unholy stew.
God’s purposes are very simple. Love God. Love your neighbor. Share the Good News. Do justice. Walk humbly with God.