On Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Empire of Japan, an event that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a day of infamy.” On Jan. 6, 2021, the land of the free and the home of the insurrectionists experienced another day of infamy when thousands of white Americans broke in and took over the U.S. Capitol building, an act not seen in Washington, D.C., since the War of 1812 when the invaders were British soldiers.
This time, the president was Donald Trump, who told a crowd of some 40,000 supporters: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong,”
The crowd did as they were told; the rest is now an indelible part of American history. Today, I write as a historian of American Christianity, asking what it means that a substantial segment of American Christians has offered their willful support for the president who set that insurrection into motion.
That support, tragically evident in the Capitol takeover, calls to mind C.C. Goen’s masterful work, Broken Churches, Broken Nation, (1985) in which the Baptist historian wrote that events leading up to the Civil War were shaped significantly by “the way in which the division of the churches and their subsequent behavior reinforced a growing sectionalism that led eventually to political rupture and armed conflict.” Goen’s thesis prompts me to ask if parallel religio-political divisions in our own time anticipated and perhaps contributed to the debacle at the Capitol on Jan. 6, actions set in motion by a series of ominous events.
It started with a call to recalculate. On Jan. 2, 2021, the president of the United States told the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia: “We have won this election in Georgia based on all of this. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that, Brad. The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry. And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”
“Today, I write as a historian of American Christianity, asking what it means that a substantial segment of American Christians has offered their willful support for the president who set that insurrection into motion.”
In the history of this country, no other president has asked a state official to “recalculate” his election defeat into a victory. But Donald Trump did that during an hour-long telephone conversation with Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger. Often rambling between Republican collegiality and presidential threat, the chief executive urged the Secretary of State to take immediate action to correct Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that his supposed Georgia “landslide” had been stolen. Truth is, after three complete vote audits, Georgia certified the state’s election of Joe Biden for president.
“So, look,” Trump told Raffensperger, “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is more than we have because we won the state.” “Finding” that number of ballots would thus give Trump a one-vote margin over President-elect Biden. Throughout the laborious, sometimes confrontational phone call, Raffensperger, himself a Trump voter, was undeterred, repeating his own dramatic assessment: “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.”
Turns out Raffensperger recorded the entire conversation, releasing it only after Trump tweeted that the secretary was “unwilling, or unable, to answer questions” regarding the bogus claims of election fraud, concluding that Raffensperger “has no clue!” The Secretary tweeted back: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true.”
On Jan. 4, Georgia’s top election supervisor, Gabriel Sterling, offered a public, step-by-step rebuke to every accusation of election “rigging” raised by the current president.
The exchange between the U.S. president and Georgia secretary of state came only days before two major national events, the Jan. 5 Senate runoff election in Georgia between Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue and the Jan. 6 event when Congress would open and count the electoral college votes. That latter action was challenged by Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, James Lankford and some 12 other Republican senators joined by more than 100 Republican representatives who objected to election results already certified in at least six states that went for Biden.
Their objections had no basis in fact, certainly not in any way that would overturn the Biden-Harris victory in Trump’s behalf. Democrats and Republicans alike denounced these objections as detrimental to American democracy, promulgating the phoney idea that the election was “stolen,” further undermining trust in American election systems and bordering on sedition.
Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote that “Hawley, Cruz and their Senate cohort are the Constitution’s most dangerous domestic enemies,” insisting that their claims of fraud mirror earlier conspiracy theories whereby “the complete absence of evidence proved the conspiracy’s sophistication.”
“Trump urged the crowd to take their case to the Capitol; they did so, and the rioting began.”
Then came Jan. 6 when Trump’s call to recalculation became a call to rebellion. On that 21st century “day of infamy,” the nation exploded as thousands of Trump supporters in Washington D.C., began a protest in Trump’s behalf that became an insurrection. Trump urged the crowd to take their case to the Capitol; they did so, and the rioting began.
Faced with a strangely understaffed Capitol police force, the rioters literally took over the Capitol building. Members of Congress, gathered to open and count the electoral college vote, and, this year, to respond to the charges of voting irregularities posited by Sens. Hawley, Cruz and their Republican compatriots, were forced to flee their chambers. Insurrectionists took over the Capitol, breaking doors and windows, photographing themselves in congressional offices, trashing media equipment, and rifling through desks.
After numerous Republicans implored Trump to order the mob to desist, he finally tweeted: “These are the things & events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever.”
The Capitol was ransacked, the Congress displaced, but the president blessed the perpetrators and the lies he used to encourage their illegal break-in.
These divisions have implications far beyond the political sphere, extending the continuing fragmentation of American Christianities long split by a variety of religio-social issues and expanded during the Trump era with seven out of 10 self-described evangelicals voting for his 2020 reelection. Nonetheless, Trump’s post-election behavior has sparked growing evangelical divisions about his person and presidency.
In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, reporter Harry Bruinius focused on Eric Metaxas, evangelical populist, writer and an organizer of the “Jericho March,” a December 2020 Washington protest by Trump supporters dissatisfied with the election results. In an interview with conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk, Metaxas noted: “I firmly believe that Trump actually won and there has been massive fraud. So, let’s just stop. You believe that. So, my attitude is like, so, who cares what I can prove in courts? And I’m going to do anything I can to uncover this horror, this evil.”
Based on that interview, conservative writer Rod Dreher, a Metaxas friend, wrote: “Eric Metaxas is calling for violent bloodshed to defend Donald Trump’s presidency, and he doesn’t care that Trump’s lawyers have not been able to prove in court that Trump had the election stolen from him.”
A Dec. 22 article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram cited Texas pastor Greg Locke who declared: “I do not believe for one second that Joe Biden is going to be the president. God is NOT finished with Donald Trump and I refuse to shatter people’s hopes in that regard. It is far from over and we are still very much in this fight.”
Others disagreed. In a Dec. 13 tweet, Southern Baptist evangelist/writer Beth Moore commented: “I do not believe these are days for mincing words. I’m 63½ years old & I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.”
“Politics, religion and race collided in the Georgia runoff between Loeffler and Warnock.”
Politics, religion and race collided in the Georgia runoff between Loeffler and Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, with Loeffler labeling Warnock a “a radical’s radical,” and North Carolina Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn suggesting that he “does not represent what real Americans believe.” Fox commentator Tucker Carlson branded him a “fake minister, with a tax exemption.”
Writing in the Dec. 22 Christian Science Monitor, Patrik Jonsson said the Republican response to Warnock “has revealed the deep differences in the South between a white Christian tradition founded on personal salvation and a Black Christian tradition that preaches liberation and social justice. In that way, the political balance of power in Washington could hinge on how Georgia resolves tensions about faith that date back to America’s founding.”
Wake Forest School of Divinity Dean Jonathan Walton expanded that thought in a Jan. 4 Washington Post op-ed, noting that “the ease with which these attacks are deployed reflects an ignorance about the progressive Black church tradition: Preachers such as Warnock may strike the comfortable as offensive, but their critiques aren’t unpatriotic screeds. Rather, they proclaim a deep love for, and thus a deep disappointment in, a country that too often fails to affirm the self-evident truth in our nation’s creed, that all people are created equal and endowed by God “with certain unalienable rights.” (By the way, does anyone in the U.S. doubt what would have happened at the Capitol had the “protesters” been African Americans?)
Warnock was elected to the Senate on Jan. 5, becoming the first African American from Georgia to hold that office. The next day, Democrat Ossoff was declared the winner of his senatorial race. He will become Georgia’s first Jewish senator. And in the wee hours of Jan. 7, Congress finally certified the election of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
And what of American Christians? Diana Butler Bass sums it up like this: “There is no Christian political party. You might even say that political parties are made up of sinners who fall short of God’s righteousness. Political parties are not religions (although some seem to have forgotten that) or utopian communities. They enact policies to benefit the common good — or not. There’s only one Savior and he’s not running for president. You should automatically discount any candidate who claims to be one.”
A substantial number of Americans who identify as “evangelicals” hitched their political, and by implication, their theological wagon to Donald Trump and his entourage of enablers. In these latter days, Trump is demanding a “recalculation” of the elected will of the American people. Given the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump has compelled the nation to decide what kind of republic it wants to be. His policies and behavior also compel American “evangelicals” to decide what kind of “church” they wish to be.
That’s a recalculation we’d all better take very, very seriously. For Christ’s sake.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.