In the crowd of insurrectionists who seized the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Christian imagery was rife. Alongside Confederate flags and white supremacist symbols, protesters shouldered crosses, waved “Jesus Saves” signs, and hung oversized “Jesus 2020” banners. One rioter who made it inside the building carried a “Christian flag.” Outside, on the National Mall, people chanted, “Christ is king.” As the reporter Jack Jenkins noted, some in the crowd referred to the neo-fascist Proud Boys as “God’s warriors.”
There was no denying the religious right’s role in Wednesday’s events. In the aftermath, many evangelical leaders condemned the violence—rarely to a warm reception. Prominent Donald Trump supporters who offered stronger denunciations of the events were met with accusations of “too little, too late” from liberals and charges of abandoning their president and their principles from conservatives. And not all leaders took that tack: A smaller number of religious leaders grasped for conspiracy theories
There are a number of ride-or-die Trump supporters among prominent evangelicals. Eric Metaxas, an author who has caused soul-searching among some evangelicals because of his vociferous support for Trump’s election fraud claims, was eager to pin the blame on antifa. He later insisted that the day’s violent events made no difference—that even still, “we must do all we can to expose” the fraudulence of the election.
He was not alone among evangelical public figures. The televangelist Mark Burns called the assertion that Trump supporters were responsible a “lie from the gates of hell.” And while the evangelist Franklin Graham warned that “our country is in trouble” and called for Christians to pray for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, he also speculated that the people “who broke the windows” were “most likely” antifa. “To tell people to go home, it’s not for me to decide that,” he said.
But most Christian leaders in prominent or formal positions of power either stayed quiet or spoke out against the violence—and a couple even came close to disavowing Trumpism itself. Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear on Twitter asked the president to “condemn this mob” and called the peaceful transition of power “part of honoring and submitting to God’s ordained leaders whether they were our choice or not.”
Adam Greenway, the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was less verbose: “Violence is never the answer. God have mercy on and help us all.” The Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, a Trump critic, called the rioters’ actions “inexcusable” and Trump’s response to the crisis “shameful beyond words.” Turning to his followers, he expressed grief and rage and urged them to accept that Biden was lawfully elected. “If Christians are people of truth, we ought to be the first to acknowledge reality,” he wrote.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, spoke at length about the day’s events and made the boldest statement against the president, calling “the cult of personality” the “greatest danger to the American experiment.” Mohler, who had opposed Trump four years ago, supported the president’s reelection bid.
Rick Warren, one of the most influential evangelical pastors in the country and someone who has voiced concerns about Trump’s policies, also pleaded for Trump to speak to his supporters. “Armed breaching of capitol security behind a confederate flag is anarchy, unAmerican, criminal treason and domestic terrorism,” he said on Twitter.
The televangelist Pat Robertson, a prominent Trump supporter who criticized the president for living in an “alternate reality” after he lost the election, directly turned on Trump, accusing him of going “mad.”
Even some of those in the president’s orbit, such as Trump spiritual adviser Paula White, urged people “to do this without becoming violent.” Extreme conservatives attempted to distance themselves from the violence. Jim Daly, the evangelist heading the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family, defended Vice President Mike Pence against Trump’s attacks and called violence “despicable.”
Some evangelical figures attempted to dampen the support for the insurrectionists by equating Trump’s supporters to Black Lives Matter protesters. An unofficial evangelical adviser to Trump, Jentezen Franklin, declared that “violent protests and breaking the law is always the wrong choice no matter who does it … liberals or conservatives.” The inflammatory radio host Todd Starnes called both BLM and the pro-Trump riots “criminal.” Sean Feucht, the Christian recording artist who has been criticized for holding mass worship events in protest of COVID restrictions, tweeted that opposition to violence “should be a shared and CONSISTENT value,” citing incidents in Portland, Oregon; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis. Robert Jeffress, another influential pastor, told his followers that “disobeying and assaulting police is a sin whether it’s done by Antifa or angry Republicans.”
Silence, in some cases, spoke volumes, as when Truett McConnell University president Emir Caner made no comment on the protests but took to Twitter to grouch about Facebook’s Trump ban and urged his followers to use Parler instead. Meanwhile, other pastors tried to offer solace in an awkwardly apolitical way, posting prayers for a country in turmoil, with no indication of who might be responsible for that turmoil.
And finally, there were less conservative evangelicals who found that this moment only reinforced previous stances they had taken against elements of Trumpism—stances that often alienated them from their supporters and community. As Beth Moore, the founder of Living Proof Ministries, tweeted, “I don’t know the Jesus some have paraded and waved around in the middle of this treachery today. They may be acting in the name of some other Jesus but that’s not Jesus of the Gospels.”