Valerie Hobbs and Helen Paynter

Dr. Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. Her book, An Introduction to Religious Language, is available by Bloomsbury in January, 2021.
Valerie has also recently been a guest on our podcast series Guns and God.

Helen Paynter is Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She has written on Christian nationalism here and spoken on it here.

In the wake of the violence carried out by a white supremacist mob at the United States Capitol last week, fascist rhetoric has multiplied and spread across an eager audience. In a video on iconnectfx.com, viewed 55,000 times since its online release on 10 January, an unnamed man in a t-shirt sits in a hotel room somewhere, releasing live breaking news from his secret source deep inside in the White House.

Based upon DC insider information, President Trump has allegedly signed and activated the Insurrection Act! This means martial law will be instituted, and arrests made. In other words, if this is true, the enemy is about to receive a fatal blow!

Assertions like these are appearing in more legitimate places as well. On 8 January, a letter appeared on the official website of the Central Committee of the GOP, NYE County, Nevada. In it, the chairman of the committee states confidently,

Let me be clear: Trump will be president for another four years. Biden will not be president.

But of course, such rhetoric was already well in place before 6 January, fueling the violence, fear and horror at the Capitol on that day. On 1 January, on Parler and Youtube, popular QAnon conspiracy theorist Matthew Scarboro posted his 3-minute contribution to the discourse of Pro-trump America, Scarboro’s latest in at least a year of similar videos. Viewed close to 100K times before being removed from multiple sites after the ‘Capitol siege’ on 6 January, this video is perhaps one of the most shocking examples we’ve seen in a growing body of extremist rhetoric. 

Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Using this video, in this post we’ll discuss some of the ways members of a movement like white supremacist nationalism can co-opt religious language and imagery to stir an audience’s deepest held convictions. We’ll look at examples demonstrating how this movement deceitfully interweaves, within their own propaganda, what their audience holds most sacred. All this they employ to convince sometimes unwitting, often very willing converts to participate in acts that serve the movement and its leaders, even acts of extreme hate and violence. The result is a white supremacist Christianity that we find in the hearts, minds and actions of people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ, both laypeople and church leaders, in churches all over the United States.

The video in question includes footage and voice clips from a range of Trump’s speeches; it’s his voice that is prominent throughout. The clips appear alongside images of Trump supporters at rallies and marches, interspersed with 14 short messages from the video maker set against a dark screen that gives way to light, the faint image of an American flag waving in the background. 

The footage and voice clips are taken from a small selection of Trump’s presidential speeches, including his commencement speech at Liberty University, his inaugural address, a speech to the UN, and to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. But having removed the clips from the context in which they appeared, the video maker repositions them in the context of a particular enemy and a particular urgent threat: Deep state.

Deep state is a conspiracy theory part and parcel to QAnon. It posits that the United States government is made up of secret and unauthorised networks tainted by cronyism, collusion, and paedophilia rings. Like most conspiracy theories, ‘deep state’ is deeply rooted in anti-semitism, drawing from notions of Jewish control involving figures like George Soros and the Rothschilds.

The focus on this perceived enemy is abundantly clear from the video’s opening and closing sequence. The video begins with audio of President Trump’s speech to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea on 7 November, 2017.

The time for excuses is over. Now is the time for strength.

For a Christian audience, even one who might not remember the exact Biblical reference, Trump’s words call to mind the language of Ecclesiastes: “A time for everything.” But who determines such times in the narrative of the video? Not the God of the Bible. Instead, the video supplies the answer as Trump’s call to strength is positioned next to these words which appear on the screen, in all caps,

THE DEEPSTATES [sic]
TIME IS OVER.

This message is brought fully home at the video’s end, where an unknown male voice reads out the Lord’s Prayer. This is of course the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, as recorded in the Bible’s gospels. But this time, the prayer appears with a profound difference, cut short after the invocation to God to “Deliver us from evil.” God’s kingdom, power and glory excluded, the message that the video maker presses is clear, conspiracy-laden incitement to insurrection, infused with deeply sacred meaning: The United States government is the Evil One.

But of course, there’s more. The video’s central message, made clear at its start and finish, becomes even more potent, more urgent, claiming even greater sacred authority, by using multiple other explicit and implicit references to the Bible. These include narratives of righteousness and peace, courage and strength against impending evil, holy war, revival and rebirth, baptizing the rest of the video’s message with its sacred significance.

We’ve seen how the video pulls the alarm bell straightaway, in the reference to time at the beginning. The video reinforces that same theme quickly, 15 seconds in, when we get another quote from Trump’s inaugural address, amplified with more words in bold on the screen, “THE HOUR HAS ARRIVED.”

The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.[1]

Again, though a Christian audience might not know the exact reference, Trump’s words are likely to activate a memory from some Sunday sermon, some blog post, some Sunday school lesson, some cultural reference, in which they heard these words of Jesus:

But Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

John 12:23

But where Jesus speaks here of glory through His own impending death, Trump and the video’s maker here speak of another death, not of Trump nor his supporters but of their enemies.

To demonize the enemy and rationalize their death, the video maker next activates the audience’s self-righteousness and moral superiority. The video here begins drawing its viewers into a story of “rebirth”, “the greatest adventure of your life”, “a great awakening.” The latter references a key Protestant period, reappropriating it to create the sense of a spiritual revival. On January 20, the video prophesies using the voice of Trump, “we the people” will become “the rulers of this nation again.”  You “came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen.”

Here again, in these words, Trump and the video maker reappropriate sacred Christian meaning, this time from the Biblical prophet Isaiah, who said,

You have heard; look at all this.
And you, will you not declare it?
I proclaim to you new things from this time,
Hidden things which you have not known.

Isaiah 48:6

This is language Trump and QAnon conspiracy theorists[2] have trained their followers to tune to, as one tweeter demonstrated a few years ago. But here again, Trump’s use of the sacred text of Christians is not to glorify the Jesus of the Bible but something altogether different. For against the backdrop of people marching and rallying for Trump, we hear his voice say this,

If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few. then evil will triumph …
When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.

The wicked may be few, but they are growing. They are coming. PUT ON THE ARMOR OF GOD, the video’s text commands us, reappropriating more of the Biblical text (Eph. 6), creating more fear of impending threat from the ‘Deep State’ and the holy war at hand.

But let’s get more specific. We are learning who the enemy is. We are gaining a sense of the righteousness of those who oppose them. But just who are these righteous many? The video footage shows us. It is crowds of people at Trump rallies and marches. It is white men with construction hats, white mothers cradling their children, old white men raising one arm in power, veterans, all holding up pro-Trump placards, waving Trump flags, wielding Jewish ritual instruments, wearing MAGA hats, t-shirts denouncing the vote and proclaiming “Jesus Savior” alongside an image of an American flag. It’s the occasional young black man in the audience, a few short frames of a Hispanic woman, a quick shot of diversity. The Bible’s multitude comes from every tribe and nation (Rev. 7:9). In this video, Trump’s warriors are mostly white and male.

“Do not underestimate us,” we hear Trump say. His words may have been spoken originally to the leaders of North Korea. But the video’s context directs the audience to see that Trump is now talking to anyone who stands in his way. In ‘our’ way. The enemy is no longer ‘out there.’ It is ‘in here’. “And do not try us”, Trump says. “This will be a fatal miscalculation.”

This threat of certain death carries forward to the next few frames, where the video again acknowledges that among Trump’s following are those with military expertise. We see footage of men holding up ‘Veterans for Trump’ placards, our fear of the enemy calmed by this promise, 

We are protected. We will be protected by God.

Note the verbs here. You are safe both now and in times to come. Don’t be afraid, HAVE FAITH, TRUST GOD, the video reassures you, again in all capital letters. Your saviour Trump knows that there is strength in your multitude, that “each of you will be a warrior for the truth, will be a warrior for our country and for your family.” When? The video has already given us the date: January 20. It now pans across individual faces at Trump’s rallies, all turned in devotion towards Pence, then Trump. “Each of you will do what is right.” 

What is right? What should we do on that day? “Our answer will be the rebirth of devotion to defeat the enemies of humanity.” According to the video, our answer will be to stop at nothing to ensure the survival of this “very different administration than the United States has had in the past,” this champion of “the rulers of this nation,” “we the people.”[3]

And as a male voice reads the Lord’s Prayer, as the video leaves its audience with the threat of evil in their hearts, the video presents a view of earth from space, America at its center, the United States shaded with the colours of the ‘true’ vote outcome, all slowly turning red. And then that QAnon rally cry, WWG1WGA. Where we go one, we go all.

Use of the Bible, and Christian tropes like these, to attempt to incite violence is not new, of course. When Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade in 1095, he told Christian warriors, “It is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites”.[4] A similar argument was used later, by the New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who described Native Americans as “these Ammonites who perceived that they had made themselves to stink before the New-English Israel”.[5] Many similar examples could be offered.

But our familiarity with such tactics does not make them less dangerous. Rather, the film’s sometimes subliminal use of religious language and imagery reflects a cynical attempt to harness the power of religious fervour, by coupling the political goals of Trump’s movement with the religious goals of white evangelicals.

As we have outlined above, the film’s use of imagery and language evokes recollections of scriptural texts of cosmic eschatological battle, a theme dear to the hearts of many white American evangelicals. Such texts speak of the final battle between good and evil, of the Dragon and Beast who will wage war against the Lamb (Jesus) and his saints. The book of Revelation speaks of ten kings,

united in yielding their power and authority to the beast;they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

(Rev 17:13-14, NRSV)


Now, Trump and his devotees assert ownership over such power, proclaim their knowledge of secret things, the time of the Lamb’s coming. As one convert commented beneath the hotel room Insurrectionist Act video we mentioned at the start,

God is speaking to you in these last days through His heavenly lighthouses and announcing that He is coming back very soon for you!

The video’s apocalyptic words and images polarises the world into “us” and “them”, inviting the viewer to believe that America is under existential threat. On one side sit a multitude of righteous “warriors for the truth,” “we the people,” under God’s own protection. Led by God’s chosen president, Trump, this group will usher in a great transformation through courage, faith and the “armor of God,” a government the likes of which the world has never seen.

And on the other side is the existential threat itself, the “wicked few”, the “forces of destruction,” bringers of “carnage”. These are those of whom Jesus taught his followers to pray, “deliver us from evil”. 

But such apocalypticism is misguided, dangerous, and blasphemous.

First, the New Testament makes it clear that the cosmic battle imagery it uses should be understood in spiritual, not physical terms. 

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”

(Eph 6:12, NRSV)

Ironically, as we’ve seen, the visual text of the film quotes this very passage, “PUT ON THE ARMOR OF GOD”. But this is not the spiritual weaponry of the Bible, as became abundantly clear on the steps of the US Capitol and inside its walls on 6 December.

Further, it is supremely presumptuous to view oneself as wholly aligned with the forces of good, and unbelievably dangerous to regard another as aligned with the Beast. Even the explicitly military texts of conquest from the Old Testament book of Joshua [6] caution against such presumption of divine endorsement. 

When Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”” (Josh 5:13-14, NRSV) 

Indeed, the Old Testament is replete with cautionary tales about the danger of attempting to appropriate divine power for a human cause.

A further problem with making totalising claims such as the ones we are describing is that it encourages the listener to believe that all means are justifiable in the cause of the greater goal. The book of Revelation does indeed represent a cosmic struggle, but one that is waged with bloody violence by the evil empire on the one hand, and with self-sacrifice by the Lamb and his saints on the other. 

They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”

(Rev 12:11, NRSV)

The use of religious language, the wielding of its sacred power, require care and close, critical attention. One means of measurement is the words of Jesus, who Himself offers us a yardstick against which to evaluate the behaviour of Trump and his supporters. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9, NRSV)

As the voice of Trump tells us on the film, it is indeed time. Periods of crisis and conflict prompt us all to reassess and rearticulate what we hold sacred. But we must take care. For the Christian, violent insurgency, pseudo-Christian dog-whistling, and blasphemous claims to God’s special favour and guaranteed victory – these have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now is time for all Christians to re-read the Sermon on the Mount. It is time for us all to pray for peace.


NOTE: For ethical reasons, we have chosen not to link to any of the videos we mention in this post. A transcript of the main video we discuss can be found here. Excellent analysis of QAnon and other far right groups is offered by the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.

[1] Similar words were uttered by Venezuelan president and successor to Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, in 2017, during a period of unrest (Source).

[2] “QAnon for Beginners: Discover the Hidden Secrets and the Main Conspiracy Theories,” one book claimed to offer in December, 2020.

[3] Trump directed his audience clearly towards what he believes is the ‘right thing’, saying at a rally on 6 January, 2021, “I hope Mike Pence does the right thing, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” also repeating the claim that that Democrats used “theft” to win the election. (source).

[4] Jenkins, P. (2011) Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses. New York: Harper Collins, pp.133-4.

[5] Quoted in Jenkins, 2011, p.114.

[6] The battle of Jericho is a theme dear to the cause of the revolutionaries who invaded Capitol Hill last week. There are multiple accounts of shofarim being carried and blown (as used in the battle, see Josh 6) , and one of the groups represented there styled itself the ‘Jericho March’.


QAnon, Christian apocalypticism and the threat to US Democracy
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