Yesterday, January 6, 2021, domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in a horrific attempt to install Donald Trump as a de facto fascist despot of America. Clearly it failed, but it did not do so comically. It went further than most thought possible, and the repercussions will be felt for years. It also isn’t over. It likely won’t be over for some time, if ever. These actions weren’t “unAmerican;” they are, tragically, exactly what America has always been. She hid away this side, but, emboldened by the rhetoric of Trump, this side of America, one that is much bigger than many of us would care to admit, felt empowered to come out. Yet, how we got here precedes Donald Trump. He is merely the latest step in what logically could have (and should have) been predicted by America’s unholy union of Church and State.
The seed for what happened in America dates back at least to the end of the nineteenth century. John Nelson Darby re-introduced the concept of “Premillennial” theology as part of his sweeping framework for biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism. While Premillennial interpretations of the return of Christ date back to at least the second century Church (that Christ would come back visibly and then establish his 1000-year or millennial reign on earth), Darby’s interpretation was a little different. In addition to the “second coming,” Dispensationalist though also began to speak of a “secret coming” that was not as visible. The effects would be visible.
The “secret coming” that predates Christ’s second coming is loosely based on a passage in 1 Thessalonians describing how Jesus will come “like a thief in the night” and “we will be caught up in an instant.” This text, coupled with Darby’s particular reading of Revelation, led not only to the idea of a rapture and a great tribulation, but also to reading all of Revelation, after the letters to the churches, as a text exclusively describing future events.
The “beast” and the “anti-Christ” thus became synonymous with some individual who would trick non-believers (and possibly some believers) into following after him (usually a man) often with economic implications tied to the “mark” of the beast. This interpretation also started the obsession with supporting Zionism and many other tropes now prevalent in evangelical Christianity.
Suddenly, the world was a much more terrifying place. We are living at the cusp of the end times and must be ever vigilant for the “beast” and “anti-Christ” and careful we don’t accidentally accept his mark. Politics were no longer just politics, they were an extension of an unseen spiritual warfare that would culminate in the very real battle of Armageddon and very soon.
Americans did not rush immediately to Darby’s interpretation, but, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cyrus Scofield published a version of the King James Bible with his notes and headings added, making it one of the first study bibles. Since the format was relatively new, and Scofield had a matter of fact style of writing, many of those who purchased or received these early editions, read them unquestioningly. It was especially the premillennial dispensationalism, or apocalyptic prophecy, that held the attention of what comprised the fundamentalist movement in American churches in the early 20th century.
It is difficult to overstate how influential Fundamentalism was in the early days of the twentieth century. The doctrine that distinguished Fundamentalism in those early days was premillenial dispensationalism, but most Americans who were not part of the Church, especially those who were not part of the churches in the American South, first encountered Fundamentalism through the now famous “Scopes-Monkey Trial.”
While the teacher who taught evolution was found guilty, the radio broadcast of the trial made William Jennings Bryan, and with him the Fundamentalist movement, look like fools in the eyes of most Americans. However, because he claimed to stand for historic and unblemished biblical Christianity, many, especially in the South, lifted Jennings Bryan up as a hero. Clarence Darrow became the embodiment of the villain: well educated, well spoken, northern liberal.
The knock-on effect of this trial was a guarded mistrust of most scientific investigation and a sudden unease at any form of higher education because it had birthed the villain of Darrow. Scientists weren’t just presenting findings in a neat paradigm when they discussed evolutionary theory. To the contrary, in the minds of many, they are agents of Satan, part of the same spiritual warfare mentioned above, conspiring against Christianity and her city on a hill: America. Academics are perceived to be working a nefarious agenda to subvert Christian life through outright deceit. The Fundamentalist ideology of the mid-twentieth century has morphed into the core belief system for nearly all evangelicals. Today, this is the root of much of the anti-science and anti-vaccine rhetoric in many churches (couple the anti-science the fear of the mark of the beast and there is an even stronger anti-vaccine group).
In the 1990s, evangelicalism had created a full blown sub-culture complete with their own bookstores, TV shows/stations, movies, music and concerts, complete with kitschy clothing lines. This was created with the intent of sheltering children from the ugliness of the “secular” forces that sought to upend Christianity. At the heart of much of this, were the Christian “super-groups”: Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay, Newsboys, and, in particular DC Talk.
One of the best selling Christian Albums of this era was “Jesus Freak.” It. Was. Everywhere. The album was so popular, not only did it make DC Talk known outside of the evangelical Christian subculture, it spawned books, other music groups, and a nationwide tour before sold-out crowds. The tour took over both churches and major concert venues alike. It was huge.
One of the more popular off-shoots was a republication of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, rebranded as “Jesus Freaks.” Christian radio stations frequently played clips of a DC Talk band member reading an historic martyr’s account, rebranding him a “real life Jesus Freak.” The message to the “youth” (church word for teenagers) of evangelical churches was clear: they, too, should seek after martrydom. The only problem was, it’s really hard to be a Christian martyr in an overwhelmingly Christian culture.
So the message was massaged just a little: to be a Christian, a real Christian, meant you must be persecuted. It was too hard or scary (or maybe their parents stopped them) for a teenager to leave and venture into an actually dangerous territory. Plus, even if you did, you were unlikely to be literally executed for your faith. So the response was that Christians need to find another way to signal to others that they were being persecuted.
Couple this with the now pervasive belief that the “secular” culture was trying to attack Christianity and the next logical leap is that Christians were being persecuted. Right here in America.
The result of romanticizing persecution was that evangelical Christians began to look for persecutions everywhere. The universities and their professors were out to get Christians and make them renounce faith. Politicians sought to marginalize the Christian voice. In response evangelicals sought out politicians on their side, accounting for the two terms of George W Bush. They saw persecution everywhere:
There was a “War on Christmas.” The sight of “X-mas” was meant to remove Christ from Christmas (ignoring the historic roots of the Chi Ro). Secular forces wanted to remove prayer in schools. Country Music began to play up the “traditional” values of God and Country in response. After 9/11 it was easy to see the religious warfare. The attackers hate me because I’m Christian and American. If you don’t fall over yourself for the flag, you hate America and thus hate Christ. America, as a whole, became the city on a hill. At the same time, secular centers within it, LA and New York, became the Babylon to fight against.
American evangelical Christians had found their persecution. The longer they bore that styrofoam cross, the more they craved its false splinters. The prophetic readings of Revelation weren’t enough. They went to other apocalyptic books: the book of Daniel and the exact future telling in Isaiah, where Isaiah declares Cyrus the Lord’s annointed. This was God’s political people, Israel, against the wicked nations. Into this milieu entered Donald Trump. Trump definitely played to this side that felt persecuted and marginalized. Evangelicals found in him the new Cyrus. He clearly wasn’t morally upright enough to be the righteous prophet. They looked to the theme of the old testament where God used ungodly kings to bring about his will.
They looked for those evil forces who would stand against him. Trump was America. If you disliked Trump you were unamerican. If you disliked Trump, you were working against God.
For many, if not most, of those who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, this was the beginning of Armageddon. They were engaged in a spiritual war, but one they could see. Trump had supported Israel, working to restore it to their Zionist vision. Trump had given voice to their deepest uncertainties. He was endorsed by their religious leaders. Voting for Trump was a religious act. Coming to the Capitol was a pilgrimage some took at great cost. Most of those who marched were not the wealthy (the wealthy need stability to keep their wealth and power), they were the everyday Joes. They had been given a taste of power by Trump; he had been their voice and he was in the Presidency and that was being taken away. This was a fight for the soul of the nation.
What happened on January 6 is the result of a long history. It should not be surprising. Horrifying, yes. Disheartening, absolutely. Terrifying, sure. Even shocking (because we are often shocked by things we nevertheless expect). But it was not surprising. It has been building to this point for well over a hundred years. What’s worse, this is the work of religious zealots. It’s not over, not by a long shot. The center of this group is emboldened, more than anything. They will try again. They are not afraid of death. This is a battle for their eternal soul, and the souls of the nation.