A year has passed since the January 6 insurgency attack on the United States Capitol, and two images still haunt my mind. One is that of a makeshift gallows built to threaten the murder of the Vice President of the United States. And the other is that of a sign, held over this angry crowd, that said, “Jesus saves.” That these two images can coexist in the same crowd is a sign of crisis for American evangelism.
Some might reject Christian symbols during the uprising – not just signs but prayers “in the name of Jesus” right next to a horned shaman in the evacuated US Senate well. And some might dismiss evangelicals who falsely claimed in the days that followed that it was a mob of anti-fa activists, not people from the rally at which the then-President of the United States had prompted the crowd to march towards the Capitol.
And yet, poll after poll shows that an alarming number of white evangelicals believe in the lie behind the attack – that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast left-wing conspiracy that somehow included the Conservative Republican governors and election officials from Georgia and Arizona.
An evangelical mega-church has hosted former President Trump in recent days, with crowds chanting “USA!” in response to the political speech of the former president. This scene may be a bit too much on the nose for most evangelicals, but poll data shows it is not an aberration. And the same polls show that, far from “calming down” after the Trump era and the insurgency, these people believe the violence may be justified in the days to come.
In some ways, what we have seen in the year since the insurgency represents a change. Note the growing number of people who identify as “evangelical” – many of whom do not even attend church – because they assume that is the religious designation of their political movement.
But, perhaps even more worryingly, these trends represent what has not changed at all.
In the days leading up to the insurgency, evangelical Christians gathered in the National Mall for a “Jericho March,” repeating the same lies that the election had been stolen and therefore had to be overturned. This type of claim that, as Trump puts it, “if you don’t fight … you will have no country” is nothing new to large sections of American evangelicalism.
Some have sold literal or metaphorical bunker supplies for the impending collapse of civilization due to the year 2000 or sharia or the Supreme Court Oberefell decision or critical race theory or a plot to shut down churches permanently due to the pandemic, or whatever. Many areas of evangelism have gone apocalyptic about anything but the actual Revelation.
As with the insurgency (and virtually every authoritarian movement in history), an apocalyptic moment is an emergency requiring urgent action. Thus, we get the cognitive dissonance of people who support law and order (sometimes citing Romans 13) beating police and smashing windows in order to end Congress’ constitutional obligation to count electoral votes. These are the people who can ridicule the very words of Jesus Christ about turning the other cheek as naive and weak.
This kind of urgency, we are told, cannot be concerned with constitutional norms or Christian character. The reasoning is that the Sermon on the Mount is not a suicide pact and Jesus’ way only works with more reasonable enemies than these, like, I guess, the Roman Empire which crucified the one who gave us such a teaching.
This is the sign not of a post-Christian culture but of a post-Christian Christianity, not of a secularizing society but of a paganizing church.
It would be one thing if it was just the mob attacking the Capitol that day. It’s quite another when people – including people with highlights in their Bibles and prayer requests on their refrigerators – dismiss the attack as a mere protest that we should “get past”. This poses more than a threat to American democracy – even if it would be bad enough – but a threat to the witness of the church.
You can’t take the Good News to people that you might, if things go bad enough, have to beat or kill. You cannot do good by doing bad. You cannot “defend the truth” by using lies.
Perhaps January 6 was a terrible anomaly in our history that will never be repeated. I hope. Or maybe January 6th is, like Atlantic in other words, “practice” for even more attempted coup and mob violence to come. I do not know. Anyway, I know this: We American evangelicals cannot justify what happened on Capitol Hill a year ago. We cannot ignore it either. If Jesus is the saver, then we must follow his lead — and that is toward mission, not resentment, toward the gospel, not rage.
And that means that we have to choose between the way of the gallows and the way of the Cross.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity today.