If you pay attention to the religious symbolism evoked by MAGA crowds during rallies, protests, and campaign events during—and since—the Jan. 6 insurrection, you’ll notice a few common themes: Donald Trump is a messianic figure, Jesus Christ is a Trump supporter, and the Bible inspires violence in the name of fighting agents of Satan.
But you can also find symbolic items that, in a realm of American politics that can veer dangerously near (and often, directly into) white supremacy and antisemitism, may seem strangely non-Christian. For example, the shofar.
The shofar, a ritualistic musical horn most often made from a ram’s horn, has been used in Jewish ceremonies and festivals for centuries. Today, they are blown during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. They are instruments that belong in a synagogue—not household items meant for personal use.
But starting in the 1960s and ’70s, Pentecostal Christians and other charismatic Christian groups began to use shofars to punctuate worship services and pro-Israel rallies, inspired in part by the Zionist movement and the charismatic Jesus movement. That appropriation may have irked many Jews, but at the time, the instrument was at least used to call on angels and plead for divine healing and inspire the gift of tongues, and not for anything more political. In the past couple of years, that has changed.
Conservative evangelical Christians have begun to adopt the shofar as a symbol of spiritual warfare, inspired by the biblical retelling of the siege of Jericho. According to the Book of Joshua, the walls of Jericho fell after the Israelites, acting on God’s instruction, blew rams’ horns and shouted. (For more of a refresher on the story, these ’90s kids have a superb music video for you.)
At the Dec. 12, 2020, “Jericho March” on the National Mall, which was held ahead of the Jan. 6 protests, Michael Flynn promised the crowd that, like the Israelites, an army of Trump’s supporters would bring down the deep state. There were shofars at this event, blown as a battle cry. (Confusingly, at one point at the Jericho March, two people also blew smoke out of their shofars.)
There were also shofars at Black Lives Matter counterprotests and at Sean Feucht’s COVID-related “worship protests.” Militia members in Oregon blew shofars as “battle trumpets.” (To be fair, more progressive groups also blew shofars to protest family separations.) Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race and a staunch Christian nationalist, announced his candidacy with a shofar blast (from a “Pastor Don”), and later complained that he was “lambasted” for “having too much Jewish symbology in our announcement.” Some of the shofars are decked out in patriotic colors. They’re blown in ways that just feel right to the users, not following any ritualistic script.
The story of how Christian nationalists linked “spiritual warfare”—winning souls for Christ—to actual violence on behalf of Trump is a serious one. But there’s something a little funny about the militarized shofars showing up at Stop the Steal events: They’re often unusually large.
Ashkenazi Jews—the majority of Jews in the U.S.—and Sephardic Jews use shofars made from the domestic ram. Yemeni Jews, working with different geography, have long, spiraling shofars made from the horn of a kudu, a type of antelope. It’s these long ones—some three times larger than the standard shofar—that appear again and again in pro-Trump events.
David Zvi Kalman at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America wrote in an email that he had noticed that Christians seemed to love the Yemeni shofar. “So maybe it’s fair to say that while Jews use a variety of shofar types, Christians have gravitated to the one particular version—perhaps because the shorter ones aren’t quite so photogenic.”
Hillary Kaell, a professor at McGill University’s religious studies and anthropology departments who has researched Messianic Jews, agreed that Christians were mostly using “jumbo-sized” shofars but stopped short of suggesting any kind of “mine’s bigger than yours” mentality behind it. (“How does any style catch on?” she asked.) All she could say was that the right-wing Christian shofar blowers seemed to be inspired by one another, probably through the internet.
Sarah Imhoff, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University who agreed that “the shofars that show up in these public Christian nationalist ways are much, much larger than what you’d see in a Jewish home,” said the drama of the large shofar was a natural fit for a loud, boisterous political rally. “As far as I can tell, when Christians are using shofars, they’re not connecting to Yemenite Jewish tradition at all,” she said. “They’re just impressed by the size. And I guess this makes a certain amount of sense, because if what you’re trying to do is call upon God’s might in a way that recalls armies fighting in the Bible, maybe you just want a bigger symbol.”
Online sellers of shofars seem to have picked up on this, as Kaell noted, and have begun marketing larger (and typically more expensive) products to Christian audiences. (Some Christians may also buy non-kosher shofars made in Chinese factories at tourist shops in Jerusalem.)
In all of this, it seems that American evangelicals have missed that the shofar, in Jewish tradition, is not an instrument of war. It is a ritualistic item that invokes penitence, spiritual inspiration, and other more complex elements of religious life. But Trump loves things to be big, strong, masculine, and military. And so do his supporters.