As the nation swears in President Joe Biden, we look at the long shadow cast by the forces that brought Donald Trump to power.
Reporter Chris Jones describes the scene on the ground in Washington during the inauguration. While the inauguration is usually a celebration, Joe Biden’s was markedly quieter – due to both the pandemic and heightened security. After Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in early January, the city has been on edge.
Then we hear from two people who call Washington their home. Reveal’s Anjali Kamat tells the story of military veteran Arianna Evans, whose relationship with the capital city has changed dramatically since she joined the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Then, host Al Letson talks to D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen about the challenges of managing the city in the aftermath of the insurrection. He says constituents are bitter about the inconsistent response law enforcement had to Trump supporters as compared with Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer.
Then we delve into the role right-wing evangelicals played in bringing Trump to power. Sarah Posner, author of “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump,” discusses why the religious right was on display during the violent insurrection.
Letson closes the hour with a discussion with Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the megachurch First Baptist Church of Dallas. Jeffress has weekly radio and TV shows that reach an audience of millions and says he doesn’t think Trump will ever accept that he lost the election.
Reported by: Chris Jones and Anjali Kamat
Produced by: Michael Montgomery, Najib Aminy, Elizabeth Shogren, Chris Harland-Dunaway and Jonathan Jones
Edited by: Jennifer Goren, Taki Telonidis and Kevin Sullivan
Production manager: Amy Mostafa
Production assistance: Brett Simpson
Digital producer: Sarah Mirk
Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda
Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan
Host: Al Letson
Special thanks: 100 Days in Appalachia, Report for America, Virginia Public Media, and Reveal’s Sumi Aggarwal, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, David Rodriguez, Michael I Schiller and Ike Sriskandarajah
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey. It’s Al and I have some exciting news. Okay. So in July, we brought you American Rehab. That was our eight-episode series that uncovered tens of thousands of people desperately in need of help for their addictions. But instead of getting treatment, they were sent to work without pay, sometimes at big corporations. The New Yorker called it “riveting, urgent and mind-bending.”
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Joe Biden: This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day.
Al Letson: There were flags instead of crowds and thousands of troops on January 20th as Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States.
Joe Biden: So now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.
Al Letson: It was a peaceful transfer of power. It was also an historic day with Kamala Harris becoming the first woman and the first Black-South Asian American to become vice president.
Sonia Sotomayor: [crosstalk 00:02:19].
Kamala Harris: I, Kamala Devi Harris, do solemnly swear …
Sonia Sotomayor: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Kamala Harris: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Sonia Sotomayor: Against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Kamala Harris: Against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Al Letson: The question now: Are we closing the chapter on the violence of January 6, the insurrection of the Capitol, or are we entering a new period with even more upheaval? Many reporters who’ve covered the Inauguration had that on their minds, including Chris Jones.
Chris Jones: So we’re walking from BLM Plaza to Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth. That’s usually about a 15-minute walk. So far it’s taken us 25 minutes and we’re about a third of the way there. Let’s wait.
Al Letson: Chris is a reporter with 100 Days in Appalachia and part of Report for America.
Chris Jones: Lots of journalists in body armor and helmets being told they can’t go through, which is pretty cathartic.
Al Letson: I spoke with Chris just hours after President Biden was sworn in.
Al Letson: Chris, you covered the insurrection on January 6 and you were back today. There were huge concerns about the potential for more violence. It must’ve seemed pretty surreal.
Chris Jones: It definitely felt like the polar opposite city than it was on January 6. The word that I would most describe Washington, DC today was “empty.” You really felt the massive military presence as soon as you started hitting the city limits. The closer you got to the Capitol, the harder and harder it was to get around. You would have to go through five or six checkpoints just to get from one end of the Mall to the US Capitol building.
Al Letson: Some of the militias and extremist groups were talking about today like it was an apocalypse, the fall of the Republic, the end of America. And yet, all that on the line, they seemed to stay away from the Capitol. Why?
Chris Jones: I think it ultimately comes down to three main reasons. The first reason: Donald Trump is gone. He’s no longer in Washington, DC, and he didn’t give any of these groups any explicit or implicit guidance on what he wanted them to do on Inauguration Day. The second reason, and certainly the most visible reason today, was the massive military presence in Washington, DC for the Inauguration. The third reason is that a lot of these groups, the movement that we saw really come together on January 6, it’s extremely disorganized.
Chris Jones: Some portions of these groups are licking their wounds or trying to find some sense of stability or purpose or a future for their movements. Other parts of these movements saw the Inauguration Day as a trap, that they thought that this was part of some bigger plot to attack them.
Al Letson: So you’re based in West Virginia. You’ve been covering right wing groups for a few years. In the run-up to the Inauguration, you were on the road talking to militias and protestors. What were you seeing? What were you hearing out there?
Chris Jones: One of the biggest things in the days leading up to the Inauguration across the far right is a real sense of confusion, disorganization. A lot of these groups are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next in the wake of what happened on January 6th.
Chris Jones: We’ve also seen in communities, not just in Appalachia but across the country, we’ve seen an uptick in white supremacist flyers being placed around. In West Virginia they’ve been found in Target parking lots. We’ve also seen online a lot of people discussing the idea that the threat is not gone, that these people are still under attack and that there’s still a storm coming.
Al Letson: You made it to Richmond, Virginia a couple days ago and some militia did show up. What was that like?
Chris Jones: We came to Richmond on January 18th for Lobby Day, which is a day that Second Amendment advocates protest for loosening gun control. I ran into a guy who was wearing a red plaid shirt with body armor over the top of it, and he was carrying a gray and black gun, part of which he had actually built himself with a 3-D printer.
Chris Jones: He called himself “Patrick Henry,” which is not his real name but one of the founding fathers from Virginia. And he really expressed a sense of disenfranchisement that’s grown over the course of this year.
“Patrick Henry”: I feel like our representatives don’t listen to us anymore, and it feels like that whether for right or wrong, whether you agree with the right or not, that was a way to express that, “Hey, you’re not listening to us.” So now it’s, “Okay, we have to do this.” Whether you feel [crosstalk 00:06:53] …
Chris Jones: Another person that I spoke with who’s been in the militia space a lot longer than this Patrick Henry guy, when I met him he was standing a few blocks from the Capitol wearing military-style camouflage and also wearing body armor. While he, himself, believes that Trump actually lost the election, he also believes that there was interference both foreign and domestic but that it wouldn’t have ultimately affected the outcome.
Chris Jones: And while he was actually critical of some of the extremist groups that were involved on the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, he also had a lot to say about social media and what he predicts will happen over the next few years with far-right extremism.
“Patrick Henry”: I do believe that a lot of that is fed by echo chambers. That’s one of the drawbacks of social media, and every single community has its echo chamber on social media.
Chris Jones: Right.
“Patrick Henry”: Within the next two years I can expect that particular crowd to fizzle out. Let’s be honest here. Probably less than that.
Al Letson: So Trump is now out of the White House and he’s off of social media. Who’s going to be their leader?
Chris Jones: That’s sort of the million dollar question right now, and that’s something that a lot of people who are really focused on the far right and far-right extremism are really looking to answer. At the same time, it’s a question that the far right itself is really looking to answer.
Chris Jones: Most of the people who were there on January 6th did go home, and they are still in their communities. That’s where we’re really seeing a lot of activity in organizing and calls for more activism.
Chris Jones: This is definitely going to be something that we’re looking for in communities across the country, not in major cities or these flash points like here in Washington, DC. It’s something that it’s going to take the country paying attention to in our own back yard all over the place, not just where the news points the attention.
Al Letson: Chris Jones is a reporter with 100 Days in Appalachia. Thanks for talking to us.
Chris Jones: Been nice speaking with you, Al.
Al Letson: Our story was produced by Michael Montgomery.
Al Letson: Everyone breathe a sign of relief that the Inauguration was peaceful. But people who live in DC are still living with the aftermath of the insurrection. We’ll have that story next, and throughout the show, we’ll listen to some moments from January 20th. This is Reveal.
Al Letson: (singing)
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Since the beginning of this year, all eyes have been fixed on the nation’s Capitol waiting for what could happen next. And the people who call Washington, DC home are worried about whether the violence will continue into the Biden administration.
Arianna Evans: Because if they really do get as violent as they are saying they’re going to, how does that not spill into our neighborhoods? Our neighborhoods are right there.
Al Letson: Arianna Evans is a 24-year-old Army veteran who comes from a military family. A few days before the Inauguration, she spoke to Reveal’s Anjali Kamat about her relationship to the city.
Anjali Kamat: When I spoke to Arianna, she made it clear that her DC is not the DC much of the country sees from a distance. It’s more than just politics, cherry blossoms and Georgetown.
Arianna Evans: Everybody knows that the real DC’s over the bridge, east of the river, and Southeast and Northeast DC where the Black people live, that’s the real DC. That’s the DC that I love, that I know, that I remember.
Anjali Kamat: She also remembers how she used to feel when she’d look up at all of the city’s monuments that celebrate American history.
Arianna Evans: I do remember going to them when I was younger and thinking that they were so beautiful and thinking like, “Wow.” Like driving through DC and seeing all that stuff and knowing that both of my parents were fighting to defend this country, I did feel proud. I did. But then, again, you find out all the things that you find out, and everything just gets so tarnished so quickly.
Anjali Kamat: In just the past eight months, Arianna’s relationship with her hometown has changed. It all started with the killing of George Floyd last May.
Audio: Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck [crosstalk 00:12:08] …
Audio: Emotions are strong across the community in response to the death of George Floyd.
Audio: [inaudible 00:12:12] Abby. We have seen pictures from Denver, from New York …
Crowd: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Arianna Evans: I could not sit back any longer with the anger that I was feeling and not do anything about it. So I walked, right, on May 30th for my first time in response to George Floyd, and it changed my life. And I’ve been outside ever since.
Donald Trump: I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting.
Crowd: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Arianna Evans: So June 1st I went down to Lafayette Square.
Donald Trump: As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and [crosstalk 00:12:47] …
Audio: So you can see some coming down the street. You’re going to see them in the fray now using flash bangs in front of them to clear what has been an entirely peaceful protest. Not 90%, not 99%. 100%, just the [crosstalk 00:12:59]-
Arianna Evans: No one really understood in that moment what was happening. You saw all these people in fatigues firing rubber bullets at people and tear gas canisters. And you see people getting hit in the eye. You see people getting shot in the face with rubber bullets. I got shot in the back. So it was really like a war zone. I was so angry.
Anjali Kamat: And so were a lot of the other protestors. Some of them even came together to sue the government, including President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, for violating their First Amendment rights. The government filed a motion to dismiss the case, but the lawsuit is still pending in court.
Anjali Kamat: Arianna immediately thought of what happened to her over the summer as she was watching a mob of insurrectionists storm the Capitol earlier this month.
Arianna Evans: I was out on U Street, and I saw the presidential motorcade go down towards Freedom Plaza. And I was like, “Mmm. I wonder what you’re about to go do?”
Donald Trump: … because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.
Crowd: Let’s go down to the [crosstalk 00:14:24].
Crowd: I was really [inaudible 00:14:24] set up with COVID.
Crowd: Hang Pence! Hang Pence! Hang Pence!
Crowd: All right, let’s take the C, people. Let’s take the C.
Arianna Evans: I know for a fact that the police officers really, they don’t care when it’s white people. Is because they were waving them in; they were letting them in. They were like tourists in the Capitol. People had their feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.
Arianna Evans: We were all looking. Like, “Wow. We would’ve been dead on the stairs.” They’d have been spraying our blood up with a water hose if we even made it into the rotunda. We wouldn’t have made it into either chamber.
Arianna Evans: I couldn’t help but think about June 1st. I couldn’t help but think about the time that we did protest at the Capitol, and we got teargassed and pepper sprayed. I couldn’t help but think about the time that I was leaving a protest, and I got arrested by five police officers and I had done nothing wrong. And they all kneeled on my back and bruised my ribs.
Arianna Evans: But yet, all of those white people left. They went home. We don’t get that luxury. After really understanding that this country only really uses force against you when you’re fighting against white supremacy and not upholding it, that is when everything for me changed.
Arianna Evans: So Black people, we need to be scared because we’re going to be the first ones that get affected by their violence if they decide to do things like that. And that’s what people are really missing. This is what happens when you constantly erase history. This is what happens when you tell people that everything that their country’s ever been is amazing and great and fantastic when you have nothing but blood on your hands. This is who we are.
Arianna Evans: My view of DC and all these monuments completely changed over these past eight months. They don’t actually tell the full story of what this country is or or how this country came to be. I thought that’s for my whole life marveling at the beauty of the city up until I started protesting in it. So my politics and everything completely changed over this past eight months because I really saw what this country thinks of me.
Anjali Kamat: Before the protests this summer, Arianna saw herself one day working on Capitol Hill. These days, with all that’s happened, she’s now an activist with the racial justice group, Freedom Fighters DC.
Al Letson: That was Reveal’s Anjali Kamat. Her story was produced by Najib Aminy.
Al Letson: Like Arianna, Charles Allen also lives in Washington, DC. He represents Ward 6 on the city council. That’s part of the city that’s home to the US Capitol. We talked to him a few days before the Inauguration, and he said the attack on the Capitol was also an attack on the neighborhood that he and his constituents call home.
Charles Allen: There’s a tree over by the Supreme Court that my daughter walks to to read a book under. These are parts of our community and our neighborhood. The violence and the assault that took place, not just on democracy but on what feels like our neighborhood is deeply hurtful to all of us, and it hurt in a very raw and real way for a lot of people.
Al Letson: I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to try and manage the city right now. What’s an example that shows just how difficult this is in the moment?
Charles Allen: If I go back to January 6th, I think that’s the inability for the District to be able to deploy the DC National Guard. We’re the only place in the country that is treated like this, where our executive, our mayor but would be a governor in a state, is unable to deploy the National Guard. What we saw happen was hours and hours of delay from the federal authorities to let us be able to deploy and activate the National Guard to help save the Capitol and protect the city.
Charles Allen: It should tell people how important something like DC statehood is. It’s not just a, “Wouldn’t it be nice?” It is a necessity that we be treated as a state, and here’s a real-life example of how lives were at risk, democracy was at risk as a result.
Al Letson: I’m curious. Seven hundred thousand people in the District. What’s the racial breakdown of that?
Charles Allen: Oh, my gosh. One of the biggest reasons we don’t have statehood is we’ve been a majority Black city for so long. I don’t have the exact percentage, but I think we are around 48% Black, 45% white, somewhere in that ballpark. We just can’t ignore that. People have thought that the District is too liberal or too Democratic.
Charles Allen: But let’s make no mistake and just call it what it is. There is institutional and systemic racism; there’s overt racism in not having the District be a state because there are white members of the Senate in Congress who are afraid of what that would mean. Let’s just call it what it is.
Al Letson: I think that what gets lost a lot in the conversation that we’re having now nationally about what happened with the insurrection is that the weeks leading up to the insurrection, the Proud Boys were roaming through DC having marches, and a lot of violence broke out then. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Charles Allen: In December, we had a couple of the rallies. They tried to wreak havoc in our city, and in many cases incited a lot of violence. They went to many of our historic Black churches and ripped down Black Live Matter banners, poured gasoline on them, lit them on fire and danced.
Charles Allen: The type of hate that we saw on display in December was deeply troubling, deeply. It is what we have seen rooted in the insurrection that took place as well as the movements that we’ve seen. Is this white supremacist hatred that gets spouted from the top down, from the president’s voice and megaphone all the way down, and it emboldens and empowers them. It’s the exact same thing we saw from Charlottesville, and it has deadly consequences. And we saw that play out right here in DC.
Al Letson: Yeah, I would say that I have friends in DC and the way that they look at it, they’re pretty bitter about the way the police department treats Black and brown communities on a day-to-day basis. And then the way they treat, say, the Proud Boys, when they’re marauding through the city and causing havoc, it just seems like two really different responses. And that it’s not just the federal government that has different response to these guys; it’s also the local police department.
Charles Allen: That’s the disparate reality that we have seen, and the data backs that up. One of the things we’ve done at the council, we’ve pulled all the use of force data, for example, to be able to try to highlight that disparity. And what do we find when we look at it?
Charles Allen: That the use of force incidents by our Metropolitan Police departments are almost exclusively against Black residents. We look at marijuana arrests. While marijuana use is largely even across the city, we look at marijuana arrests and we see, again, a wildly disparate treatment.
Charles Allen: So then when we watch images of Proud Boys being able to burn Black Lives Matter banners, rampage through the streets and assault people and have violence like they did in December, and yet when there’s peaceful protest over the summer, people are rounded up in mass arrests and rioting charges, those incidences are with the Metropolitan Police Department.
Charles Allen: Those things are really hard to stomach, and it’s pretty clear there’s disparate treatment. Then you layer it on top of that, what took place on the 6th. There is a bitterness. There’s a rawness over the way in which policing doesn’t work for a lot of Black and brown communities in our city.
Al Letson: In normal times, an inauguration is great for the city’s economy. But this year, the mayor’s asking people to stay away. So what’s it like to have to turn down all that revenue at the time when the city is suffering financially because of the coronavirus?
Charles Allen: I would love to have the revenue that comes with hotel stays and restaurants, purchases and everything else that goes with a typical inauguration. But this, this is not a typical inauguration, and I think we all recognize that. We have to be able to put our community, our city, our neighbors’ safety front and center and make that be what drives our decision making.
Al Letson: Are we entering into a phase where the baseline has changed? I mean, are we in a new normal now, where we’re going to have to see troops constantly stationed around the Capitol to trample down any kind of insurrection?
Charles Allen: As a country, we have not taken as seriously as we need to the domestic terror threat, the far right and militia and extreme threat. I’m concerned about our state capitols all around the country. We’ve seen, for example in Michigan, the threats to the governor there, and in Arizona the flouting the open-carry laws and thinking that it’s a good idea to be marching your state grounds with AR-15s on your shoulder. It’s scary stuff, and I think that we are going to see that moving forward. And we’re going to have to plan appropriately for that.
Charles Allen: But I think we also, from an intelligence community, have got to do a better job of recognizing and treating seriously the domestic terror threat that comes from these white supremacist groups, these hate groups, these militias. They’re a real and present danger to our country and our ability to move forward.
Al Letson: Councilman Charles Allen, thank you so much for coming in to talk to me.
Charles Allen: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. Stay safe.
Al Letson: Charles Allen represents Ward 6 of Washington, DC. Our story was produced by Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren.
Al Letson: When pro-Trump supporters rallied at the Capitol on January 6, many of them displayed symbols of the far right, also the Christian church. When we come back, why Trump’s true believers think God is on their side.
Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson: (singing)
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. On January 6, when Donald Trump incited his supporters to attack the Capitol, there were a mix of far right symbols in the mob, from QAnon shirts to Confederate flags.
Al Letson: There were other symbols that were also impossible to miss, Christian ones. Some people carried Bibles and wore Crusader-like crosses on their chests. That day, one of the loudest voices from the Christian right, Pastor Paula White, spoke to the crowd just an hour before Trump called on them to march on the Capitol.
Paula White: So 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.
Al Letson: Pastor White has been a close advisor to Trump since before he was president. Trump connected with her after coming across her show on cable TV. Evangelicals have supported Trump because of his stand on abortion and for making good on his promise to put conservative justices on the Supreme Court. But many people wonder what else do evangelical Christians have in common with Trump?
Sarah Posner: Well, they’re both hostile to democracy and democratic values.
Al Letson: That’s Sarah Posner. She’s covered the Christian right for years.
Sarah Posner: Trump campaigned for president running on a platform of antagonism towards democratic institutions and democratic values. This is what the religious right likes about Trump.
Al Letson: Sarah’s most recent book is titled, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. I asked her what Paula White’s rise to Trump’s inner circle says about where evangelicals are today.
Sarah Posner: Well, it says a few things. One is that evangelicalism has been pervaded by this sort of magical-thinking prosperity gospel, the idea that God wants you to be rich. The idea that God will make you rich if you give money to a televangelist, if you sow a seed that you’ll get a supernatural return on your investment. That you can receive direct revelations from God, that God’s people should be engaged in spiritual warfare against demonic enemies.
Sarah Posner: This kind of idea that evangelicals need to be close to power in order for God’s will to be done. And even if it means aligning with a figure like Donald Trump, who has many, many, many moral failings, it doesn’t matter because they’ve convinced themselves that God might use an unlikely figure like Trump to carry out His purposes. Which in their view are restoring a white Christian America that has been lost to political correctness or other social changes that have taken place that they feel are an infringement on their rights or on their prominence in American public life.
Al Letson: You said something that’s really interesting, but I don’t feel like we talk about it enough out loud. You said “white Christian America.” Now, this is really wrapped up in race as well. Like their view, it really is wrapped around the idea of white America as well.
Sarah Posner: Yes. Evangelicals talk often about the need to restore Christian America or that America was founded as a Christian nation. And that liberals have ruined that with their various policies that go against what they believe is God’s intention for a Christian America. So they more frequently point to things like LGBTQ rights, which they claim infringe on their religious freedom. Or abortion, for which they believe is a sin for which God will punish America.
Sarah Posner: But when you look at the history of the modern religious right, the founding of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, which is really the movement that we’re talking about here, the linkage of white evangelicalism with the Republican Party, they were motivated not by their opposition to abortion, but rather by what school desegregation meant for their private Christian schools.
Sarah Posner: So there’s a lot of racial grievance that’s wrapped up in the formation of the religious right from the late 1970s, early 1980s. And Donald Trump knew exactly how to tap into that.
Al Letson: I grew up in a very strict Baptist home, and I’ve been hearing the term “spiritual warfare” my entire life. When we were talking about spiritual warfare as a child, we were talking more on a personal level as in like you’re wrestling with sin on a personal level.
Al Letson: But it feels like now, spiritual warfare, it sounds actually like war with other people that have a different spiritual philosophy than you. I mean, once people believe that they are fighting a spiritual war and there literally is a person that can embody that, it seems like that ideology is going to stick around, and also the temperature’s going to rise because of it.
Sarah Posner: I agree. I would argue that this idea of spiritual warfare has actually mutated in a way in the age of conspiracy theories like QAnon, so that evangelicals who believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory believe that there are deep-state satanic-worshiping pedophiles who drink the blood of children who are being sex-trafficked. If they’re told that they need to be in spiritual warfare with not only their own enemies but really America’s enemies and America’s enemies are within, America’s enemies are in the government, how do you get people to let go of that when they’ve been told for years that they should be engaging in that kind of spiritual warfare?
Al Letson: What’s going to happen in the long term with evangelicals? Are these grievances that Trump has stirred up going to fade away?
Sarah Posner: I am afraid not because they’ve been brainwashed with these false narratives about voter fraud. I fear that they’re only going to become more angry and more aggrieved, feeling like the president that they believed was anointed by God to restore the Christian nation, Donald Trump, had the election stolen from him. So I fear that their grievances will become even more accentuated.
Al Letson: Sarah Posner, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us.
Sarah Posner: Thank you so much for having me, Al.
Al Letson: How white evangelical Christians act on their grievances depends a lot on the messages they receive from their spiritual leaders. Evangelical preachers have a massive audience in the US. One of the most prominent is Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas. He reaches millions of people every week on his radio and TV shows, plus appearances on Fox News. He was an early supporter of former President Trump and a close advisor. I talked to him two days before the Inauguration.
Al Letson: Pastor Jeffress, thanks so much for joining me.
Robert Jeffress: Oh, thank you for having me.
Al Letson: I want to dive right into it. Some of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 have said that they were following President Trump’s instructions. I’m going to quote from the president’s speech that day, the “We will stop the steal” speech.
Al Letson: He said, “We’re going to walk to the Capitol. We’ll fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have this country anymore.” And he finished with, “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” In saying those things, did President Trump incite an insurrection?
Robert Jeffress: Well, let me tell you what I said in my sermon yesterday. I talked about those who assaulted our Capitol, assaulted police officers, killed a police officer. I said what they did was absolutely despicable, full stop. Those people, especially the ones who were carrying a banner that said “Jesus saves,” they are the most despicable people in the world. They were not doing the work of God. They were doing the work of Satan.
Robert Jeffress: But I believe it’s wrong to blame President Trump for it. Look, the president believes that the election was stolen. Somebody asked me, “Why does he keep saying that?” I said, “He actually believes that.” He has a right to believe that. His followers have a right to believe that.
Robert Jeffress: What he or nobody has a right to do is to directly call people to commit acts of violence. My personal belief is he did not do that.
Al Letson: Pastor, respectfully, I would say that like when you’re in the pulpit, you’re totally thinking about how your words are going to shape the people who are listening to it. I think the president has to have an even higher standard of thinking about how his words shape the people that are listening to it.
Al Letson: It seems to me extremely irresponsible to use the type of language that he was using when you have people who you know specifically are going to take whatever you say and use that as fuel to create violence and havoc.
Robert Jeffress: Well, Al, I’m going to practice what I just preached. And that is I’m going to respect your right to hold that belief, and I think we can respectfully maybe disagree on the president’s level of responsibility for that.
Al Letson: When you’re in the highest office in the nation and you are saying that an election was stolen from you, you are corroding the basic foundation of our democracy, that the vote is sacred, that the vote is how we figure out who we want to lead us and how we move forward. So when you say that he has the right to think that way, maybe he does have the right to think that way. But it feels irresponsible to say it out loud if there’s absolutely no proof of what he’s saying.
Robert Jeffress: Well, he would answer, I think, that in his mind there is proof and so forth. And the fact is, people were trying to get him to validate the election before the first vote was cast. He was asked in debates, “Will you accept the results?” And he said, “It depends.” I mean, I think that’s a logical response: “If we have a fair election, I’ll accept it.”
Robert Jeffress: So I’m just saying I know it’s politically incorrect to say that an election was stolen or there was fraud in it. He has a right to believe that if he wants to believe it.
Al Letson: Most presidential candidates, whether they are in office or out of office, when asked if there’s going to be a peaceful transition of power, most of them without equivocation say, “Of course,” because that’s what our democracy is based on.
Robert Jeffress: You’re very smart, very clever there, Al, because you changed it. The question was: “Are you going to accept the results of the election?” That’s different than rather saying whether there’s going to be a peaceful transfer of power. I think you would admit the difference.
Al Letson: Mmm. I think we’re going to have to have a difference of opinion on that one because I think we’re talking about the same thing.
Robert Jeffress: He is not not transferring power peacefully. He’s not calling for the troops. He’s not chaining himself to the Resolute desk. I mean, the power is going to be peacefully transferred. But I don’t think that he’ll ever concede that he lost the election.
Al Letson: I would disagree in the sense of what we saw on January 6 was not a peaceful transfer of power. He told this audience that they have to stand up and demand that they, quote/unquote, “Stop the steal,” is exactly that. It’s a violent eruption. It’s not a peaceful transfer of power.
Robert Jeffress: And he did say “peacefully march to the Capitol.” I think he has every right to say “peacefully march.”
Al Letson: What do you say to fellow evangelicals who continue to insist without any credible evidence that Biden’s election was a result of widespread fraud? Is it enough to condemn the violence at the Capitol and not the lies that fueled it?
Robert Jeffress: Well, look. I think we have to talk about what we know about, and I never got into all of that Dominion voting machine stuff and all of these conspiracy theories and so forth. I mean, they sounded really farfetched to me. But I’m not going to make the claims about things I don’t know that much about.
Al Letson: Do you believe that the election was stolen?
Robert Jeffress: Look, first of all, I believe there’s fraud in every election. Was there enough fraud in this election to swing it? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do accept that Joe Biden is the president of the United States. And I think we ought to pray for him and pray for his next four years.
Al Letson: So there’s an overlap between QAnon followers and evangelicals. In their work, QAnon-
Robert Jeffress: Well, look, look, look, look. And let me stop there.
Al Letson: Okay.
Robert Jeffress: There’s an overlap bet QAnon followers and those who eat breakfast, but I think that doesn’t necessarily make them the same.
Al Letson: That is true. I don’t disagree that there’s a huge overlap between QAnon followers and people who eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. I agree with you there. But we’re talking about this specifically. QAnon followers were in the Capitol, and they were praying to Jesus Christ. They were saying that this was basically ordained by God. Respectfully, they weren’t in there eating breakfast, right?
Robert Jeffress: Maybe, maybe. Who knows?
Al Letson: Right. So someone might’ve brought a sandwich, but we don’t know that. But they were specifically bringing up Jesus and talking about God the same way evangelicals do.
Robert Jeffress: And I would call that blasphemy. To me, that is the ultimate of taking God’s name in vain. I cannot denounce them strongly enough. Those people are not Christians who committed that kind of assault and especially assaulted other people and killed that police officer.
Al Letson: Trump said that he didn’t know a whole lot about QAnon but he hears they’re great people. There’s a direct line from him not disavowing to them showing up into the Capitol during this insurrection, and so I think the two things are connected and related.
Robert Jeffress: I don’t know much about QAnon, but the part I do know and have read is very disturbing. I just don’t think people who are Christians ought to have any part embracing lies and fantasy. I think those who are Christians have a real responsibility to make sure anything they’re speaking, anything they’re tweeting or posting is based in truth and not in fantasy.
Al Letson: Have you been able to address this to your congregation?
Robert Jeffress: Yes, I have.
Al Letson: What have you said to them?
Robert Jeffress: I’ve said exactly what I just said to you. I’ve preached that from the pulpit in the last few weeks.
Al Letson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you’ve stuck with President Trump through many scandals and policies that, to me, seem unchristian. I just want to go through a couple of these and get your reaction to it.
Robert Jeffress: Is this going to be a trip down Memory Lane?
Al Letson: A little bit. I mean, I feel like in order for us to go forward, we have to reconcile the past. So you’ve stuck with President Trump through many of these scandals.
Al Letson: One of them, I think the thing that stands out the most where we are right now is this disastrous handling of the pandemic, ignoring science at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives. I think it was announced today that we’re looking at seeing over 500,000 people dead because of the coronavirus by March. So I’m wondering how that squares up with your perception of President Trump.
Robert Jeffress: Well, look. I think it was unprecedented, this pandemic. I do think it is real. I’ve never thought it was a hoax. I’ve always been one who has supported the wearing of masks. We promote that in our church, social distancing.
Al Letson: Which is responsible leadership. But that’s not what we saw from the president.
Robert Jeffress: Yeah. Well, again, I think it’s easy to look in the rear view mirror and see how it all unfolded. I do think he ought to be credited for pushing through the development of this vaccine in record time. I do think it was a good example of government/private business partnership, and I think he gave leadership to that.
Al Letson: Yeah. So you’re saying the fact that the vaccine has come out as fast as it did should be credited to President Trump. But in the same breath, are you saying that he should not be held responsible for the overwhelming amount of deaths that happened if he had taken the pandemic seriously?
Robert Jeffress: When you have him on he can talk about that and why he did what he did.
Al Letson: I think he will never come on because I’m going to ask him these hard questions.
Robert Jeffress: Oh, no. Never say never, Al. You never know.
Al Letson: Well, hey, listen. If you put in a call to him and tell him to talk to me, I would love to. But I don’t know if he has the intestinal fortitude like you to talk to me.
Al Letson: People often ask how evangelical Christians can support Donald Trump when many of his actions seem at odds with Christian values. I asked Pastor Jeffress about that and specifically what he thinks of Trump’s policy that separated migrant children from their parents at the border.
Robert Jeffress: Up until the last four years the Democrat position has been to have a wall and protect the border. I mean, that’s what we want: to protect our country. We need to protect our country from those who would enter illegally.
Robert Jeffress: I don’t think Donald Trump is an evil person who gets his kicks out of watching children being separated from their parents. He is a human being. He has feelings. That is not his intention, and I think God looks at the intention of our heart. I mean, do you think his intent in the border policy is he is trying to inflict as much pain as he can on children and parents?
Al Letson: I can’t speak to what his intent is. I can only speak to what he’s done, and what he has done has inflicted a lot of pain on parents and on this country. When he first ran to be the president of the United States, he came down that gold escalator and the first thing that he talked about was some Mexicans crossing the border were rapists. So I think that the language he uses and the policies that he put in place, I think that tells you a lot about what his thought process is.
Robert Jeffress: Well, I mean, my personal observation, I do not believe he is a racist. I’ve said to people: “Donald Trump, if you like him, he embraces you. If you oppose him, he hates you regardless of your skin color.” I mean, that’s just that’s the filter through which he sees things.
Al Letson: Why are evangelicals loyal to Trump?
Robert Jeffress: It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out. I mean, it really doesn’t. I mean, when you look at his positions on the sanctity of life, what he’s done with Israel, what he’s done with religious liberty. He called me last week and I said to him, I said, “You will go down as the most pro-life, pro-religious president in history.” And I believe that’s true, and that’s why evangelicals are attracted to him.
Robert Jeffress: Somebody asked me: “Do you endorse everything in his life?” I said, “I don’t endorse everything in my life. How can I do that?” I mean, we’re all sinners. We all need a savior. But our basis for supporting President Trump was in his policies.
Al Letson: Are you worried about the future?
Robert Jeffress: Not at all. Not at all because as I said in my sermon Sunday about how Christians should respond to President Biden, there’s some things a Biden presidency or a Trump presidency or whoever’s president cannot change. God’s sovereignty hasn’t changed, and, by the way, God’s promise of Christ’s return hasn’t changed.
Robert Jeffress: The good news is Christ is coming back again to make everything right, and that’s our ultimate hope. Not what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington, DC, but in the return of Jesus Christ.
Al Letson: Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist in Dallas, Texas, thanks so much for coming on to talk to me.
Robert Jeffress: Oh, great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Al Letson: One administration ends, another begins. Our job stays the same: to hold the powerful accountable, to push to uncover when our leaders stray from their oath. Today we end the show with some words of inspiration from Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who delivered her poem, The Hill We Climb, at the Inauguration.
Amanda Gorman: Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to look up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all of the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare. It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
Amanda Gorman: We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy, and this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
Amanda Gorman: This is the era of just redemption. We feared it in it’s deception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves. So while once we asked how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
Amanda Gorman: We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generations. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain: If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
Amanda Gorman: So let us leave behind a country better than one we were left. With every breath of my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west. We will rise from the windswept northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the middle western states. We will rise from the sunbaked south.
Amanda Gorman: We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country. Our people diverse and beautiful, we will emerge battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there was always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.
Al Letson: Chris Harland-Dunaway produced our story on Trump’s evangelical supporters, and Jennifer [Goran 00:50:40] was the editor. Taki Telonidis and executive producer Kevin Sullivan also edited this week’s show. Thanks to Ashton Marra, Jesse Wright and Dana Coester of 100 Days in Appalachia, as well as Addison Post and P. Nick Curran of Loroto Productions. We also want to thank Virginia Public Media.
Al Letson: Our editorial team this week includes Sumi Aggarwal, Jen Chien, David Rodriguez, Jonathan Jones, Esther Kaplan, Brett Myers, Michael Schiller and Ike Sriskandarajah. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson and Najib Aminy. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our theme music is by Kamarado, Lightning.
Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Audio: From PRX.