DALLAS — Sunday sermons at the First Baptist Dallas Church, a megachurch that boasts a congregation of 12,000, don’t shy away from mixing faith with politics. The church’s pastor, Dr. Robert Jeffress, has been an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump and frequently appears on Fox News. Vice President Mike Pence visited the church this summer for a patriotic prayer service celebrating the Fourth of July.
But this Sunday’s theme will be a change of course for the church’s leadership. Jeffress’ sermon topic will be "How Should Christians Respond to President Joe Biden?"
The sermon comes just 10 days after rioters wielding Trump flags, Confederate flags and signs with phrases such as “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President” stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent rampage that resulted in five deaths. Some rioters were dressed in camo and carrying zip tie cuffs prosecutors said were intended for use in restraining lawmakers. One rioter caught on video raised a Bible in the air as others around him chanted, “Hang Pence.”
The presence of white evangelical Christians mixed in with Trump loyalists, white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and militia members in the storming of the Capitol was a confusing sight for many Americans watching the violent scene unfold on television.
The riot drew quick condemnation from some prominent leaders on the religious right, many of whom had been part of one of the most loyal factions of Trump’s base.
“Last Wednesday’s assault on our Capitol was absolutely despicable,” Jeffress said last week. “It violates every basic teaching of scripture, and nobody who claims to be a Christian should have had any part in that whatsoever.”
But the phenomenon of white Christian nationalism among pro-Trump extremists is one that has been building up for years during the Trump presidency, experts say.
Trump, early on in his first presidential campaign, tapped into evangelical support by playing into their fears that their white, conservative Christian culture was under attack in America.
When he became president, Trump emboldened the religious right by giving them close access to his administration by way of appointments and advisory councils.
“Empowered by Trump’s embrace of his evangelical base, the Christian right told its followers that they were in a battle between a Godless secular society, in which Hollywood, the elites, and academics look down on Christians,” said Peter Montgomery, a researcher for the religious right for Right Wing Watch, a project of the People for the American Way.
Christians were urged to support Trump because God had sent him to defeat the enemy’s plans to destroy religious freedom in America, he said.
“This narrative of them as a prosecuted group really helps bind them together, and Trump was their fighter,” Montgomery said.
All this, even though the religious right had close access to Trump during his administration. Trump appointed Paula White, a televangelist who has urged Trump supporters to conduct “spiritual warfare” on behalf of the president, to his religious advisory council.
“That kind of rhetoric wasn’t just happening on fringy radio shows. This is happening from the very top,” Montgomery said.
“If one’s world view is already that U.S. politics is a reflection of spiritual warfare between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and that Trump is on the side of God and his opponents are therefore agents of Satan, maybe it’s not hard to see how they can then be drawn into QAnon conspiracy theories of a satanic cabal full of pedophiles,” Montgomery said.
Jenna Ryan, a Frisco real estate broker who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, recorded a video of herself in Washington that day saying, “If it comes down to war, I’m going to be there. I’ll be fighting on the front lines," according to the criminal complaint.
“God is roaming to and fro, looking for people,” she said as she recorded a 23-minute long video of herself and others making their way toward the Capitol building that day. “He says ‘whom should I choose?’ And I say, ‘God, send me! Send me! I will go.’ And just like the vaccine is a prelude to the chip, protesting like this is a prelude to when we are going to go to war. We’re going to pack up our bags and we are going to have to fight.”
U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged Ryan in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol. In an interview with Spectrum News 1, Ryan said she only got to the “door frame” of the Capitol.
“There are always some people who take words, whether they be from a religious leader or from the president, and will twist those words or take those words to a long extreme,” Jeffress said when asked if religious leaders had contributed to enflaming the riots on Jan. 6. “We can't be held responsible for what these nut jobs do with our comments.”
Jeffress said on Sunday he will urge his congregation to help Biden be a successful president, saying that his successful administration would be a success for America.
“I do think there is a war going on. It's a spiritual war from the beginning of time between good and evil and right and wrong, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness,” he added, pointing to legislation in the last 70 years that has been legalized abortion, taken prayer out of schools and “redefining marriage.”
Christians have a right to speak up against that, but “we need to talk about the right way to express that anger and concern. It's at the ballot box and not through violence,” Jeffress said.
Other evangelical leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the involvement of white Christian nationalism in pro-Trump rallies prior to the riots on Jan. 6, including a "prayer rally" held in Washington D.C., on Dec. 12 aimed at showing support for Trump’s fight to overturn the election.
Participants in the rally waved Bibles and Trump flags and listened to speeches from conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones and former security adviser Michael Flynn, who told Christians to "pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity,” saying that they had reached a "crucible moment" and "there has to be sacrifice." The crowd included thousands of Proud Boys, a militia movement that has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-Semitic and misogynistic messages. The rally turned violent that night when members of the Proud Boys clashed with counter-protesters.
Beth Moore, a prominent voice for evangelical women in America, condemned the blatant Christian nationalism on display in the name of Trump at the rally, saying, “I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive and dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.”
The statement from Moore, who has almost 1 million followers on her Twitter account, immediately drew praise from some thanking her for not condoning the actions. Still, others railed against her, saying she had embraced Biden and what they saw was the destructive socialism that the Democrats would use to ruin the U.S.
I do not believe these are days for mincing words. I’m 63 1/2 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.— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) December 13, 2020
There are other evangelical Christian voices who have continued to push their followers to pursue Trump’s fight to overturn the election. On the Sunday following the mob riot on the Capitol, a pastor in a Frisco megachurch told his congregation that they had an “executive order” from God to make sure Trump served another four years.
Citing “prophetic voices,” Brandon Burden, the pastor at Kingdom Life Church, said, “Yahweh will bring a miracle” in the coming week, according to the video posted on the church’s Facebook page, which has now been removed. He warned his congregation to prepare for the worst between now and Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, including stockpiling food, water, gas, and ammunition.
“I think that is just fantasy land,” Jeffress said about the Frisco pastor’s speech. “We aren't of help to anybody when we encourage them to live in fantasy rather than reality. If we are going to be effective witnesses for Christ and this world, we've got to acknowledge what is not what we wish was and deal with reality.”
In an op-ed for Fox News last week, Jeffress argued that if the nation is ever going to heal, we must set aside the bitterness tearing the country apart without surrendering deeply held convictions.
“I think we've got to respect other people the right to be wrong in their beliefs to hold beliefs that may be an offense to us, but we cannot continue to engage in this cancel culture if we are going to heal as a nation,” Jeffress said.