How the Christian right helped foment insurrection
Christian-right activists inside and outside of government promoted the election fraud lie and claimed God told them to “let the church roar.”
By Sarah Posner | January 30, 2021
This article was published in partnership with Rolling Stone.
The Jan. 6 Save America March, where then-President Donald Trump incited a crowd to attack the U.S. Capitol, opened with a prayer. Trump’s longtime spiritual adviser and White House adviser, the Florida televangelist Paula White, called on God to “give us a holy boldness in this hour.” Standing at the same podium where, an hour later, Trump would exhort the crowd to “fight like hell,” White called the election results into question, asking God to let the people “have the assurance of a fair and a just election.” Flanked by a row of American flags, White implored God to “let every adversary against democracy, against freedom, against life, against liberty, against justice, against peace, against righteousness be overturned right now in the name of Jesus.”
Within hours, insurrectionists had surrounded the Capitol, beaten police, battered down barricades and doors, smashed windows and rampaged through the halls of the Capitol, breaching the Senate chamber. In video captured by The New Yorker, men ransacked the room, rifling through senators’ binders and papers, searching for evidence of what they claimed was treason. Then, standing on the rostrum where the president of the Senate presides, the group paused to pray “in Christ’s holy name.”
Men raised their arms in the air as millions of evangelical and charismatic parishioners do every Sunday and thanked God for allowing them “to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs.” They thanked God “for allowing the United States of America to be reborn.”
White evangelicals have been Trump’s most dedicated, unwavering base, standing by him through the cavalcade of abuses, failures and scandals that engulfed his campaigns and his presidency – from the “Access Hollywood” tape to his first impeachment to his efforts to overturn the election and incite the Capitol insurrection. This fervent relationship, which has survived the events of Jan. 6, is based on far more than a transactional handshake over judicial appointments and a crackdown on abortion and LGBTQ rights. Trump’s White evangelical base has come to believe that God anointed him and that Trump’s placement of Christian-right ideologues in critical positions at federal agencies and in federal courts was the fulfillment of a long-sought goal of restoring the United States as a Christian nation. Throughout Trump’s presidency, his political appointees implemented policies that stripped away reproductive and LGBTQ rights and tore down the separation of church and state in the name of protecting unfettered religious freedom for conservative Christians. After Joe Biden won the presidency, Trump administration loyalists launched their own Christian organization to “stop the steal,” in the ultimate act of loyalty to their divine leader.
Since even before Trump took office, his cry of “fake news” was embraced by GOP leaders and leaders on the Christian right, who reinforced their followers’ fealty by seeking to sequester them from reality and training them to dismiss any criticism of Trump as a witch hunt or a hoax. At the 2019 Faith & Freedom Coalition conference, held just months after special counsel Robert Mueller released his report on the Russia investigation, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused the president’s critics of “Trump derangement syndrome,” and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, urged the audience to disregard mainstream news and turn instead to the “most important name in news” – “you and your circle of friends.” A few months later, amid Trump’s first impeachment hearings, then-Rep. Mark Meadows, who would go on to become Trump’s chief of staff, encouraged Christian-right activists at a luncheon at the Trump International Hotel in Washington to counteract news reports by retweeting him and other Trump loyalists in Congress. He underlined the power of this alternative information system, claiming that recent tweets from himself and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio – who would later vote to overturn the results of November’s election – had received 163 million impressions, “more than the viewership of all the networks combined.”
Over the course of 2020, those circles of disinformation became infested with QAnon conspiracy theories about a satanic, child-sex-trafficking “deep state,” priming Trump’s White evangelical shock troops for his ultimate conspiratorial lie: that the election was stolen from him and that Biden’s victory was the result of fraud. As Trump and his legal team fanned out across the country’s courthouses and right-wing airwaves, insisting that they would prove voter fraud and reverse the results of the presidential election, Christian-right leaders and media picked up the rhetoric and ran with it. By Thanksgiving, the lie that the election had been stolen from Trump had become an article of faith.
Coverage of the Capitol insurrection has focused on such far-right instigators as the White supremacist Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, a militia group. But a reconstruction of the weeks leading up Jan. 6 shows how a Christian-right group formed to “stop the steal” worked to foment a bellicose Christian narrative in defense of Trump’s coup attempt and justify a holy war against an illegitimate state. In late November, two federal workers, Arina Grossu – who had previously worked for the Christian-right advocacy group Family Research Council – and Rob Weaver, formed a new Christian right group, the Jericho March. The new group’s goal, according to a news release announcing its launch, was to “prayerfully protest and call on government officials to cast light on voter fraud, corruption, and suppression of the will of the American people in this election.” In fact, the Jericho March would help lay the groundwork for the insurrection.
The group held its first rally in the nation’s capital Dec. 12, the same day other protests against the democratic process took place there. That night in Washington, the protests devolved into violence as armed members of the Proud Boys roamed the city’s streets looking to fight, stole a Black Lives Matter banner from a historic Black church and set it on fire. The Jericho March rally, which had run most of the afternoon on the National Mall, featured a lineup of some the right’s most incendiary figures, blending conspiracies and battle cries with appeals to Christianity. Eric Metaxas, a popular author, radio host and unrelenting promoter of the false claim that the election was fraudulent, was the emcee.
In an interview from the rally posted on the influential disinformation site The Epoch Times, Weaver compared the marchers he enlisted to the capital to the story of Joshua’s army in the Bible, which encircled the city of Jericho as priests blew trumpets, causing the walls to tumble down so the army could invade. Grossu told an interviewer that the election had been “stolen” from Trump, citing Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s baseless claims about voting irregularities. Grossu promised, “God can reveal all the election fraud and corruption that stole the election from him.”
Other Jericho March speakers linked to the Trump administration pressed themes of biblical war and Christian redemption. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, described the walls of Jericho as a metaphor for the walls around the “deep state” and pledged, “We’re going to knock those walls down.” Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, who claimed to have been born again since his conviction for obstructing the Mueller investigation, told the crowd in a recorded message: “It was Jesus Christ who gave our president, Donald Trump, the courage and the compassion to save my life when I was unfairly and illegally targeted in the Mueller witch hunt. … My faith is in Jesus Christ, and we will make America great again and we will stop the steal.” These testimonies were punctuated with the blowing of shofars, traditionally Jewish ritual objects, to echo the trumpets sounding outside Jericho that summoned an invasion.
Among the speakers were leading figures in the subsequent insurrection. Weaver and Grossu, the rally’s organizers, sang “God Bless America” with Ali Alexander, founder of Stop the Steal and a prominent organizer of the Jan. 6 rally. Alexander had previously attracted attention in Trump circles – he was invited to a 2019 social media summit at the White House and appeared with GOP figures such as Rep. Paul Gosar at previous Stop the Steal rallies – and has said he worked with Gosar and Republican House members Andy Biggs and Mo Brooks to plan the Jan. 6 rally. He rallied the Dec. 12 Jericho March crowd, declaring that the event “is only the beginning.” He urged them to return to Washington on Jan. 20 – Inauguration Day – to “occupy D.C.” According to an archived page from the Jericho March website, organizers took up the call, planning several subsequent rallies and marches, including mobilizing for Stop the Steal’s “Wild Protest” on Jan. 6.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the militia group Oath Keepers, also appeared, vowing that if Trump did not “show the world who the traitors are and then use the Insurrection Act to drop the hammer on them,” then “we’re going to have to do it ourselves later in a much more desperate, much more bloody war.” Oath Keepers have since been arrested and charged with conspiracy for allegedly helping to coordinate movement inside the Capitol siege.
Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracist radio host and Trump booster, electrified the Jericho Marchers with his invocation of the Book of Revelation, thought to prophesy Christ’s return. “Christ’s crucifixion was not our defeat, it was our greatest victory,” he shouted. “The state has no jurisdiction over any of us. Our relationship with God is sacred and is eternal.” He vowed that Biden “will be removed, one way or another.”
Grossu and Weaver, though, were more than just Trump fellow travelers. They were on the payroll of the federal government, which constrains employees from engaging in certain partisan political activities. Grossu was a contractor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, on a contract from Nov. 6, 2017, through Jan. 30, 2021, according to an agency spokesperson. For his part, Weaver was named an adviser in the department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in July 2020 and served, according to the spokesperson, through Jan. 8, 2021. Earlier, in 2017, Trump had nominated Weaver to serve as director of the agency’s Indian Health Service. But the nomination was withdrawn after The Wall Street Journal reported that Weaver had misrepresented his experience on his resume. Weaver leveraged his new health department role at the Jericho March, saying in the live interview that day that he worked for the federal government and claiming, without providing any details, to have “seen a lot of really hidden things that I just can’t stand.” The country, Weaver said in the interview, “stands on the shoulders of Jesus. He’s the real government.”
Weaver went on, “God told me to let the church roar.” Grossu did not respond to a request for comment, and Weaver’s email at the Department of Health and Human Services was no longer functioning; the public relations firm that handled Jericho March media relations also did not respond to requests for comment.
Speakers at the Dec. 12 Jericho March continued to show up at protests decrying the election as fraudulent. Jones, for example, returned to Washington on Jan. 5 for a rally at Freedom Plaza, near the White House. That rally, according to the permit, was hosted by a group called the Eighty Percent Coalition, an apparent reference to a Gallup poll that showed more than 80% of Republicans did not trust the results of the election. That evening, Jones reprised his Christian nationalist bombast. Employing apocalyptic language about a coming “new world order,” he called Biden a “slave of Satan” and warned that “things are going to be rough, things are going to get bad in the future.” He added that “not everybody is going to make it, but that’s OK, because in the end, God will fulfill his destiny and will reward the righteous.” Then he turned to the next day’s events. “Tomorrow is a great day,” he shouted. “We don’t quietly take the election fraud, we don’t quietly take the scam and believe their BS. We’ve seen the evidence. The system has had to desperately engage in this gambit to maintain control, but this will be their Waterloo, this will be their destruction.”
The next day, Trump goaded protesters to march to the Capitol. Jones is seen in video footage of the insurrection scraped from Parler and other social media giving directions to rioters through a bullhorn. The day after the insurrection, Jones claimed the White House had asked him to lead the march to the Capitol.
The events of Jan. 6 shook the nation, but they appear to have done little to weaken Trump’s White evangelical support. A Marist College/PBS/NPR poll, conducted after Jan. 6, found that 63% of White evangelicals did not trust the election results were accurate, and a similar number, 65%, did not believe Trump was to blame for the violence at the Capitol. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while Trump left office with his lowest overall favorability rating since his 2016 campaign – 31% – his approval rate was twice as high among White evangelicals.
The Sunday after the insurrection, Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White was back in the pulpit at City of Destiny, the church she pastors in Apopka, Florida. Trump and White have been friends since the mid-2000s, when he invited her for a meeting after he spotted the blond televangelist while channel surfing. White briefly condemned “lawlessness,” but then mounted a strong defense of free speech rights and assured her congregation that “God is still at work.” She recounted the story in the first Book of Samuel, in which the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant. In the biblical story, the ark is considered too holy for the apostate Philistines, “the eternal enemies of God,” as White described them, to handle, and God returns it to the Israelites – evidence that, in White’s view, God will restore America to its rightful inheritors, too.
Other evangelical leaders sought to deny reality, blaming the violence of that day on antifa or Black Lives Matter protesters who they falsely claimed had posed as Trump supporters. Michele Bachmann, the former Republican congresswoman who is now a dean at Regent University, had been inside the Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege. Speaking to a prayer call with other Christian-right leaders that evening, she said: “You know the kind of people that we were with. The nicest, friendliest, happiest – it was like a family reunion out there. It was incredible, it was wonderful, and then all of a sudden, this happens.” Of the rioters at the Capitol, Bachmann insisted that “this wasn’t the Trump crowd, this didn’t look anything like the Trump crowd or the prayer warriors.”
Lance Wallnau, a popular evangelical author, speaker and Trump loyalist who attended the Jan. 6 protest, echoed that same theme. “This is not your typical evangelical, I’m telling you right now,” he told Metaxas on his radio program the day after the insurrection, “and they’re banging on the hoods of the police and they’re creating a scene, I said, ‘This is the local antifa mob and this is like from the playbook 101.’ ”
By Jan. 8, the Jericho March had posted a statement denouncing violence and scrubbed any reference to Stop the Steal’s Jan. 6 protest.
Accountability for the former president was not on the table. Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas has been close to Trump for years, as one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse his candidacy in 2016. He condemned the violence but stopped short of blaming it on Trump, telling Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that while he accepts the election results, Trump “has a right to believe” that it was stolen.
Another influential Trump ally, Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, sent an unmistakable signal to Republican lawmakers that their White evangelical base would not tolerate a second impeachment. In a Facebook post, Graham compared the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump to Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus led to his crucifixion. “It makes you wonder,” he wrote, “what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi promised for this betrayal.”
Meanwhile, the Christian right is readying its troops for an escalation of the culture war: a campaign to delegitimize not only Biden’s presidency, but any Democratic election victory. Bachmann, during the prayer call just hours after the insurrection, claimed that Democrats also “stole” control of the Senate when Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their seats in Georgia – a development Bachmann repeatedly called a “coup.”
That narrative means that Republican lawmakers can rest assured that their most loyal base will have their back as they reject Trump’s second impeachment, obstruct the Democratic legislative agenda and refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Democratic president and Democratic leadership of Congress. The movement’s new jeremiad, a battle against the democratic process itself, is just getting started.
On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism advisory bulletin that warned of the potential costs of the false claims at the heart of that battle: “Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.”
This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.