Steven R. Harmon is Professor of Historical Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He is author of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future and co-editor with Amy L. Chilton of Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
In November 2013 when our son was 7, we made a family trip to Washington, D.C. for me to attend the American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I took the train from Union Station to Baltimore each day of my meeting while my wife and son explored our nation’s capital city. One day upon my return to Washington we met up outside the Capitol, where my wife took a photo of me explaining to my son what went on inside that building.
On January 6, 2021, my now-14-year-old son and I again stood next to each other looking at the Capitol, this time on television, and talking in shock and disbelief about what we saw going on at that building. (In the next few days we began the ongoing process of learning that what went on was much worse that what we initially saw and imagined.)
One of the things I found most disturbing about the images we saw on our television screen was a prominent yellow “Jesus Saves” placard in the center of the crowd just outside the Capitol. While we watched, I snapped a photo of the sight on the TV screen and shared it to Twitter and Facebook, accompanied by the following statement I felt as a theological educator needed to be made:
“Minister friends, we must confront directly the baseless conspiracy theories and allegations that our own church members are embracing and passing along. They are not just wrong-headed ideas; they have consequences, and to tie these falsehoods to the salvation of Jesus is nothing less than blasphemy.”
That was the first thing that I had to say publicly as a theologian about the storming of the Capitol. I knew that I needed to say more, and less than 48 hours later I received the invitation to write these reflections as an American theologian. But then I suffered the most acute case of writer’s block I have ever experienced. On social media I passed along words others have written as Christians thinking about these events, but I struggled to contribute more extensive reflections of my own.
I am not normally at a loss for written words. As I told my wife one day when we were trying to figure out how to word something together, “I may not be good for much else, but I can give people words.” I probably write too many of them (as people who have read my content footnotes can attest). But I could not find the words to express the soul-crushing consciousness that pervaded my mind on the afternoon of January 6 and most moments of reflective awareness since.
Over breakfast on the fifth day of trying to find the words for fulfilling this writing assignment, I said to my wife, “I think the reason I can’t figure out what to write is that the only thing I have to say is that the American church is to blame for what happened.” She replied, “Then maybe that’s what you should say.”
So, here goes: the American church shares a great deal of culpability for what happened on January 6. (The writer has been unblocked—I’m already adding words of more nuanced qualification!)
The “Jesus Saves” placard was not an isolated token of overt association of Christianity with the crowd outside the Capitol and members of the crowd who stormed it. There were others. Other signs spotted in the crowd said, “Jesus Is My Savior and Trump Is My President.” Crosses in a variety of forms abounded. People flew Christians flags (I’m guessing no one doing so was aware of its origins in the ecumenical organization against which American fundamentalists had railed in the early 20th century, the Federal Council of Churches that was later succeeded by the present-day National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA). One intruder was photographed carrying a Christian flag into the chamber of the House of Representatives. As the insurrectionists ran through hallways lined with congressional offices, aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell barricaded inside one of them heard a woman praying loudly, in all probability to the Christian God, for “the evil of Congress to be brought to an end.”
Amidst these Christian associations were symbols of white supremacy that included a Confederate flag carried through the halls of the Capitol—in particular, a version of the Confederate flag that came to be more closely associated with the American South’s maintenance of what amounted to a regime of racial apartheid that began after the conclusion of the Civil War and with resistance to abandoning that regime when confronted by the civil rights movement.
What I cannot shake is the sad realization that most of the people who responded to Trump’s summons to come to Washington to do something about what he falsely (it must be said every time) characterized as a rigged, stolen election, who heard and heeded there his summons to march to the Capitol, and who from that crowd of thousands surged into the Capitol building considered themselves Christians and conceived of what they were doing as acts of Christian faithfulness.
They were formed to think and act in this way by expressions of the American church.
Not all expressions of the church are equally culpable, but there’s plenty of blame to be shouldered by the variety of Christian traditions that populate the American religious landscape. While the much-cited Pew Research Center studies of the religious demography of voters have shown that white evangelical Christians have overwhelmingly supported the candidacies and policies of Trump, they also revealed substantial support among Catholics and members of Protestant “mainline” denominations. There are even pockets of Amish Mennonite Trump supporters.
But what I am addressing is not simply support for a candidate or policies. Faithful Christians will have differences about such matters. I rather have in mind a religiously fervent form of Trump support that intertwines Christian nationalism, a theological anthropology marked by hierarchies of race and gender (see, for example, recent research correlating Trump support and the endorsement of “hegemonic masculinity”), a dispensational premillennial eschatology that inclines many of its adherents to be susceptible to conspiracy theories, the demonization of progressives and Democrats (who cannot possibly be Christian according to their definitions of true Christianity), an insistence that true Christians are increasingly persecuted in the United States, and a belief that God has providentially appointed Donald Trump to help Christians “make America great again” by restoring an idealized “Christian America.”
The collective force of such intertwined threads has predisposed these people to trust what Trump and his enablers in Congress and the “court evangelicals” have been (falsely) telling them about the outcome of the election and the need to fight and even die to prevent the defeat of their Christian vision for America.
Expressions of the church are responsible for intertwining these things in the formation of many Christian Trump supporters. They didn’t come up with these convictions on their own. They heard them in the sermons and Bible studies of Christian leaders they trusted. These commitments were also impressed upon them by forms of Christian media beyond the local church, including radio and television preachers who may be more influential for them than some of these church members’ own pastors.
To be sure, this malformation came also from sources not explicitly Christian in their connections, but nevertheless also woven into the fabric of the garments of this form of Christian identity. Many of these Christians and their ministers listen to right-wing talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and tune in to Fox News hosts with the sort of regular devotion people give to religious programming. But they understand all these sources, explicitly Christian or not, to be pointing them in the same direction.
As a theologian teaching in an institution of theological education, I am keenly interested in the theological formation of church members and of the ministers who form them. In the summer of 2016, it was apparent to me that the growing support for the candidacy of Donald Trump and even defense of his racist and misogynistic rhetoric by Christians was evidence of widespread theological malformation. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I and several of my fellow Baptist theologians began working on a collaborative project, published last year, that had the aim of assisting ministers of Baptist churches in the formation of their members through listening more intentionally to the voices of the whole church, past and present, in local church efforts to discern what the Spirit is saying about how to live as followers of Jesus Christ in a particular time and place.
Many of the voices that most urgently need to be heard by the Trump supporters among the membership of our churches are the voices that have been marginalized or even demonized by right-wing Christians: in particular, the voices of women, of non-white persons, of LBGTQ+ persons, of persons with disabilities, and of refugees and immigrants. As with the Spirit’s voice at Pentecost, the Spirit may speak today through these voices of difference by enabling hearing across differences without erasing differences.
One significant way in which the church may be shaped by such encounters with voices of difference is through reading the Bible in dialogue with others from the whole church, past and present, whose social locations differ from ours. This is especially important for Christians who have embraced the intertwined factors named earlier in these reflections because they have been told that this is what the Bible teaches.
Reading the Bible in dialogue with readings of Scripture by the fathers and mothers of the church in the first few centuries after the New Testament era, for example, can help Christians shaped by the dispensational premillennialsim that pervades popular American Christianity come to grips with the fact no one in the whole church read the Bible this way until the perspectives of John Nelson Darby in the middle of the 19th century began to attract followers in segments of American evangelicalism. Learning from Christians experienced in the practice of Reading While Black can reveal to white Christians the privileged position from which they have been reading the Bible, presuming that it supports the unexamined social structures that privilege them and remaining unaware of the way they oppress others.
A church that seeks to discern the voice of the Spirit in these disparate voices may discover other communities of Christians who have followed Christ faithfully even when large segments of the church have been unfaithful. Predominately white congregations, for example, may find new models for how to become more faithful communities of followers of Jesus Christ in predominately black congregations—as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Harlem at a time of widespread unfaithfulness in white German Christianity.
But this kind of formation through listening together can only happen in relationship, in community—which means that denouncing and demonizing our fellow church members will not accomplish it. The path to the realization of God’s creative intentions for community does involve “speaking the truth,” but doing so “in love” as we earnestly engage in dialogue about our current difference as a means growing toward the full maturity of the community that is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
I also cannot shake the thought that many of these people who seem to have such a radically different understanding of what it means to follow Jesus than I do nevertheless believe themselves to be followers of Christ and thus have some relationship to some expression of church. I must begin with that as something we have in common in order to speak what I understand to be truth to them, in love. If we do this, it may be that some people disappointed to discover that Trump does not really respect them with the respect they thought they were not receiving from other Americans but did believe they received from Trump may experience from us the respect for their humanity for which they long.
The events of January 6—and the four years that led to them—have been disheartening. But I have not lost hope, for as a theological educator I have also witnessed the inspiring faithfulness of many expressions of the church in America. I keep hoping that the fact that some of these persisting radicalized Trump supporters who claim Christian faith and allegiance to the authority of Scripture do have the Scriptures that bear witness to this radical way of Jesus means that they may at some point have their eyes opened by the Spirit to see that way and discern how they have strayed from it.
I think that the current situation for American Christians is comparable to the relation of Jesus and his followers to the Judaism to which they belonged as a renewal movement within it (with the distinction between Judaism and Christianity being a much later second century development). Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist minister with a research doctorate in New Testament from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who founded the Koinonia Farm as a multiracial intentional Christian community in rural Georgia in the 1940s, read the circumstances of American Christianity in the South in the 1950s and 1960s in that way. In the “Cotton Patch” versions of the Gospels that translated them into colloquial Southern American English idiom, Jordan had Jesus and the disciples go up to Atlanta for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where the convention leaders have Jesus taken out, beaten, and lynched between two black men.
Today as well, it is certain expressions of the community of the people of God that have failed to discern the radical way of Jesus as the way of truth and life. But as Paul in Romans 9-11 held out hope that his fellow Jews who had not yet embraced the way of Jesus might yet do so, since they had access to the same Scriptures and Spirit that had led the followers of Jesus to see his way as truth and life, so I have not abandoned the hope that American Christians might yet be formed more soundly toward faithfulness as communities of followers of Jesus Christ.
I’ve written more than I imagined I might be able to write a few days ago. Now I’m going to stop and get back to work doing what I can as a theological educator to contribute to this formation toward faithfulness, finalizing syllabi and other preparations for courses in a new term that begins in two weeks. I invite readers to pray for me, and for my students and their church communities, during this most interesting time for doing theology for the sake of the church and its participation in God’s mission in the world.