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The Capitol Riot Revealed the Darkest Nightmares of White Evangelical America

How 150 years of apocalyptic agitation culminated in an insurrection

White evangelicals believe they see truths that you and I cannot.

While Americans around the country watched an inflamed mob overrun the Capitol on January 6, the evangelical participants in that mob saw something else: a holy war. Insurgents carried signs that read “Jesus Saves,” “In God We Trust,” “Jesus 2020,” and “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President.” One man marched through the halls of Congress carrying a Christian flag, another a Bible. They chanted, “The blood of Jesus covering this place.”

As law enforcement authorities and media outlets track down and identify these insurrectionists, we are beginning to understand who they are and what they wanted. Amid the QAnon adherents, antisemites, neo-Confederates, and revolutionary cosplayers were the evangelical faithful: those who see themselves as the vanguard of God’s end-times army. Their exultant participation in the riot represented some of the most extreme political action that any group of evangelicals has taken in recent history.

These Christians apparently believe that they had no choice but to try to overthrow the Congress. For months, various evangelicals have claimed in sermons, on social media, and during protests that malicious forces stole the election, conspired to quash Christian liberties, and aimed to clamp down on their freedom to worship and spread the Christian gospel. They felt sure that the final days of history were at hand and that the Capitol was the site of an epochal battle. As one evangelical from Texas told The New York Times, “We are fighting good versus evil, dark versus light.”

Much has been made about the evangelical community’s relationship to Donald Trump. And typically, observers tend to view this alliance as purely transactional, with nose-holding evangelicals pledging their support to this least Christian of men in order to get something in return—most notably, a trio of religiously conservative Supreme Court justices. This dominant interpretation also treats Trump as the apotheosis of a shape-shifting brand of grievance politics that unites and permeates all factions of the right, very much including the evangelical movement. But what is less understood—and what the Capitol riot revealed in all its gruesome detail—is the extent to which Trump channels the apocalyptic fervor that has long animated many white evangelical Christians in this country.

For the last 150 years, white evangelicals have peddled end-times conspiracies. Most of the time their messages have been relatively innocuous, part of the broader millenarian outlook shared among most major religious traditions. But these conspiracies can have dangerous consequences—and sometimes they lead to violence. Every evangelical generation throughout American history has seen some of its believers driven to extreme conspiracies that blend with other strains of militant political faith. This has meant that in the Trump era, with the destabilizing impact of a global pandemic and a cratered economy, white evangelical Christianity has become enmeshed with, and perhaps inextricable from, a broader revolution against the government.

And so an insurrection in the name of Jesus Christ broke out in tandem with the Trump voter fraud putsch. The action is also, in all likelihood, a prophetic foretaste of where this group might go once Trump is finally out of office.

Evangelical apocalypticism is grounded in a complicated and convoluted reading of the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, some of the most violent books in the Bible. When read in conjunction with one another, and overlaid with some of Jesus’s and Paul’s New Testament statements, they reveal a hidden “plan of the ages.” The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalypsis—an unveiling or uncovering of truths that others cannot see.

The effort in America to read the Bible as a code book that foretells the immediate future took off in the late nineteenth century, thanks to a confluence of factors: the death and destruction caused by the Civil War, massive immigration, growing religious diversity in the United States that threatened Protestant power, and new secularizing forces, such as Darwinian evolutionary theory. In response, a small group of evangelical preachers, businessmen, college professors, publishers, and laypeople began reading their Bibles with new eyes. They came from every part of the country and represented all economic classes and levels of education. Some lived in rural areas, but most lived in cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

What they saw in their Bibles was the end of history and exactly how it would unfold. According to evangelicals, the current age will climax with the restoration of Jews to Palestine and the emergence of powerful empires in Rome, Russia, and Asia. Seeking to unite the world’s nations and end chaos and war, a new leader will appear promising peace and security. Unwilling or unable to recognize that he is actually the prophesied Antichrist, most political and religious leaders around the world will cede their sovereignty and independence to him through an international agency.

Just before the tyrant is revealed for the threat that he is, all true Christians will vanish from the earth in the rapture, joining the resurrected Jesus in heaven. Shortly thereafter, the imposter will lead the world through seven years of tribulation, at the end of which Jesus and the saints will return to earth and battle the forces of evil at Armageddon (a literal place in Israel). Christ will defeat Antichrist and establish a millennial kingdom of peace and prosperity on earth.

Such convictions made evangelicals astute students of world events. They were and are constantly lining up global changes with their reading of prophecy.

It’s important to note that most believe that the U.S. is not described in the Bible’s end-times history—a complication that evangelical activists have long wrestled with. The U.S., like most of the rest of the world, might cede its independence and align with the Antichrist, and persecute the remnant of true Christians. Or it might be one of the few faithful nations, an end-times redoubt where true Christianity is practiced, the gospel is preached, and the power of the Antichrist is constantly challenged and subverted until the second coming of Christ.

Evangelicals hope for the latter but fear that, unless they act decisively, the U.S. could end up in the former camp. And so they act. In this way, they merge Christian universalism with American nationalism, remaking evangelicalism as a Christian nationalist movement.

This apocalyptic thinking has defined the evangelical movement for the last century and a half. It was central to the ministry of almost every major American evangelical megachurch pastor, radio preacher, or television pioneer, from Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell.

Evangelical apocalypticism creates a very particular ideology and a very particular form of cultural engagement. It fosters in believers a sense of urgency and certainty, and a vision of the world defined in absolute terms. Many evangelicals believe that they are engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil. They have no time or regard for incremental change or for reasoning with those who differ with them. They call for drastic and immediate solutions to the problems they see around them.

With time running out, they hope to shake the world. Their business is that of instant redemption, of immediate transformation.

The conviction that Armageddon is imminent has worked in concert, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, with other ideas and beliefs, in mutually reinforcing ways that structured the ideology and behavior of its adherents. Apocalypticism provided evangelicals with a framework through which to interpret their lives, their communities, and the future, which in turn often inspired, influenced, and justified the choices they made. It filled in blanks, rationalized choices, and connected dots, all the while making action more urgent and compromise unlikely.

Initially, white evangelical apocalypticism was conservative and anti-statist but not overtly partisan. Its impact on the broader American society was relatively benign, a useful motivation for Christians to act in godly ways. After all, judgment was imminent. Billy Graham, for example, during his major evangelistic crusades throughout the second half of the twentieth century, routinely preached on the second coming of Christ to assert that now was the time for people to be born again. Wait, and you might be too late.

However, apocalyptic thinking also regularly led some evangelicals to spin off dark, dangerous conspiracies.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some evangelicals embraced antisemitic plots and positioned them within biblical prophecy. They promoted the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion and articles on “The International Jew” published in Henry Ford’s virulently antisemitic newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. These publications claimed to expose a secret group of influential Jews who were scheming to take over the world. Minneapolis evangelist Luke Rader, for example, quoted extensively from the Protocols to demonstrate that a great global conspiracy was underway that would soon produce the Antichrist. Methodist minister Arno Gaebelein believed that the Protocols was published by “a believer in the Word of God, in prophecy,” a “true Christian.”

When Ford was attacked for his publication of “The International Jew,” some evangelicals rallied to his defense. When Ford finally apologized, the editors of one prominent evangelical magazine viewed the confession as additional evidence of the power of the Jewish conspiracy. “This pressure came from the Jews all over the world,” they concluded, “and in the face of it Mr. Ford was panic-stricken.”

Ironically, these very evangelicals were also some of the country’s most ardent Zionists. They believed that Jews needed to return to Palestine and reclaim their biblical homeland as part of the unfolding of last days prophecies—a legacy that resurfaced in 2018, as megachurch pastors helped persuade the Trump administration to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and cheered the expansion of Israel’s settlements. Evangelicals could be both Zionists and antisemites, and saw no contradiction between the two.

The United Nations represented another enemy for apocalypse-oriented evangelicals to vanquish. The existence of the organization confirmed their belief that increasing internationalism represented one more step on the road to Antichrist rule. The U.N., they speculated, could potentially serve as a tool for the devil to assert his power over the world’s nations. That Franklin Roosevelt had helped inspire it made them staunch critics of the president and his New Deal.

California preacher and writer Louis Bauman called the U.N. “the world’s first attempt to establish an ‘international organization’ with the power of a world-government since Caesar ruled the earth. Divine revelation plainly reveals that it will be the last.” Evangelical journalist Dan Gilbert called on “Christian Americans” to “let their members of Congress know that they oppose the use of tax-funds of the American people to finance this Christ-rejecting, God-dishonoring propaganda arm of Antichrist.”

The Cold War anti-Communist crusade provided evangelicals with another opportunity to link their religious beliefs with global events. Texas Baptist preacher J. Frank Norris predicted that the “loss” of China to Communist forces, and President Truman’s reluctance to escalate the Korean War, revealed that “we have been betrayed. We have been betrayed by our own government.”

In the 1970s, no one tapped into evangelicals’ fascination with Armageddon better than the heavily mustachioed Hal Lindsey. For Lindsey, a former Mississippi River tugboat captain, the global influence of the USSR and China served as important markers of the times, as did the increasing power of Arab nations, the rebirth of Israel, and the creation of the European Common Market. His The Late Great Planet Earth, which rehashed the many prophecies that had long mesmerized other evangelicals, became a huge breakout title—the decade’s best-selling nonfiction book—with nearly 20 million copies in print today. The book was so popular that, in 1979, Orson Welles narrated a popular film version. The many crises of the 1970s—ranging from environmental fears, overpopulation, Vietnam, and nuclear annihilation—all made apocalyptic evangelicalism palatable to the broader American public.

The other prominent popularizer of Cold War–era evangelical apocalypticism was San Diego minister Tim LaHaye. A member of the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society, LaHaye founded the Council for National Policy, another supersecretive organization that worked to advance an arch-conservative agenda in Washington. “I believe the Bible teaches that we are already living in the beginning of the end,” he wrote in the aptly titled The Beginning of the End. The minister cited wars, global travel, labor-capital conflicts, same-sex relations, Israel’s statehood, and the creation of the U.N. to support his thesis. By the mid-1990s, LaHaye had sold millions of books on prophecy and the Christian life.

However, he thought fiction might be an even more effective way to peddle his prophecies. He partnered with Christian novelist Jerry Jenkins to write Left Behind, the first book in what grew into a 16-volume series. The franchise was so successful—with over 80 million copies in readers’ hands, surpassed only by the Harry Potter books—that the publisher created numerous spin-offs, including a 40-book Left Behind series for youth, a run of graphic novels, and another fiction series targeting servicemen and women. There were movies, too: One of the Left Behind films stars Kirk Cameron, who recently led anti-mask public Christmas carol sings in California to protest Covid-19 restrictions.

The first novel begins with the rapture of all true Christians from the earth and the chaos that follows. Only the intervention of the U.N. secretary-general, a good-looking Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia, brings stability to the global situation. Carpathia, of course, turns out to be the Antichrist. He organizes a one-world government, a one-world currency, and a one-world religion. Meanwhile, a small remnant of Christians—a “tribulation force”—tries to save as many people as possible while challenging Carpathia and his henchmen. This tribulation force goes to war against the Antichrist government, much as last week’s insurrectionists did.

For much of evangelicalism’s post–Civil War history, the movement was political but not partisan. Evangelicals in the South tended to vote Democrat, and those in the North and West voted Republican.

In the 1970s, with a major political realignment underway in the wake of the civil rights movement, New Right activists—Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and other mail-order barons of modern right-wing messaging—recognized the potential in organizing evangelicals along partisan lines. As they sought to drive the Republican Party to the right, they partnered with preachers like LaHaye and Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority movement. Their work helped usher Ronald Reagan into the White House and gave birth to today’s religious right.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of white evangelicals in recent politics. They make up a quarter of the nation. In 2016, Trump earned 81 percent of the white evangelical vote—a higher percentage than George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or John McCain—and he appears to have earned nearly as much of that vote in 2020. And the most recent data indicates that end-times ideas still shape the beliefs of a majority of evangelicals. A Pew poll revealed that 41 percent of all Americans (well over 100 million people) and 58 percent of white evangelicals believed that Jesus is “definitely” or “probably” going to return by 2050.

While many evangelicals do not support Trump, and others who do readily acknowledge his electoral defeat in 2020, a significant number have blended apocalyptic theology with their understanding of recent events.

Like their predecessors who championed The Protocols, they eagerly embrace Trump’s conspiratorial lies. They believe that Barack Obama was born in Africa and is a Muslim. They partner with QAnon activists in accusing Democrats and Hollywood stars of secretly committing atrocious immoral acts that include cannibalism and pedophilia. They argue that George Soros is using his vast wealth to build a one-world government. They see lies as truth and truth as lies.

And in their world, Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump. A fake election pushing Trump out of the way means Satan can bring his plans for globalization and world domination, through the Antichrist, to fruition.

We don’t have to look hard to find influential evangelicals peddling Trump’s lies. Activist Charlie Kirk, who co-founded a think tank at Falwell’s Liberty University, and Franklin Graham, the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, have both fueled evangelical conspiracies about a stolen election.

Talk radio host and Trump ally Eric Metaxas summarized their views this week on Facebook. “When the left is THIS desperate, be sure their end is nigh,” he wrote. “They have pushed their narrative as far as it can go & many have been blinded to anything else. BUT GOD IS ABLE TO DELIVER. This is a spiritual battle. God alone can deliver from this Satanic conspiracy. He will do it.”

The apocalypse that evangelicals have been predicting for generations seems for some to have finally begun. A Biden administration, they are confident, is not only illegitimate but will also align with the forces of evil, from the U.N. to a cabal of international Jews, to persecute all true Christians.

This segment of white evangelicals sees itself as a besieged minority, surrounded on all sides by the forces of darkness, sin, and secularism. They believe that, in the last days, governments will turn against them and their religious liberty will be quashed. Their reading of current events, from Covid-19 shutdowns to alleged election fraud, tells them that the end times have begun.

They believe that the Bible demands that they go to war against the Antichrist and all of his minions. If Joe Biden and the other leaders of the U.S. government—now including even staunch Christian conservatives like Mike Pence—represent the forces of the Antichrist, the faithful have no choice but to organize against them. They need to stop the Antichrist by any means necessary. God demands no less than insurrection.