Christian Nationalists Didn’t Seek to Desecrate the Capitol But to Purify It

Screenshot of Luke Mogelson's video for the New Yorker.

In her new book, Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation’s Capital and Redeem a Christian America, religion scholar Lauren Kerby details D.C.’s Christian heritage tour industry and its white evangelical clientele. These tours, Kerby argues, glorify the place of white Christians and God in American history, with guides pointing to Christian markers like “In God We Trust” to prove their point. Equal parts exaltation and warning, these tours suggest that the U.S. is straying from its godly past, begging for rescue through reformation. Our nation’s capital is, in other words, a Holy Land in need of Christian liberation.

If thinking about Christian heritage tours as dress rehearsals for January 6 is too hyperbolic, they can certainly help elucidate how those who stormed the U.S. Capitol could frame their undertaking as righteous, redemptive, or patriotic. Identifying at once as the nation’s founders, exiles, victims, and saviors, “all [white evangelicals] require to recreate themselves,” Kerby remarks in Saving History, “is a good story.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Willems: Sociologist Tamara K. Nopper recently tweeted that, rather than speak of the insurrection as a continuation of centuries of white supremacist, Christian history, there also needs to be an understanding of how this particular episode could come to fruition at this particular historical moment. 

Lauren Kerby: I love that dual look at it. The thing that has struck me most is that white Christian nationalism is not the sole driver behind this movement, or behind Trump, or behind the events of January 6. But white Christian nationalism—and, more broadly, the Christian Right’s discourse about the United States—is something that has legitimized this view of the government as illegitimate, as the enemy, as something to be overthrown so that a righteous Kingdom can be restored. In that way, I think it really is the product of those historical processes that were set in motion by the Christian Right and earlier 20th century processes that led to the Christian Right.

In terms of when Christian nationalist ideas started taking shape: I don’t think they were ever absent. This idea of the United States as a Christian country—inhabited by Christians, ruled by Christians, reflecting Christian values, reflecting that covenant with God—has always been present in some form. It has always informed the political activity of certain sets of Christians, whether it’s the Know Nothing movement in the mid-19th century, or conservative Christian businessmen in the early 20th century, or the Christian Right itself as it came to take shape in the mid-1970s. 

The thing that connects all of those is a sort of proprietary relationship to the nation that’s the product both of Christianity and of whiteness, and this idea that the nation and society need to be moral, and the only way to do that is to draw upon specifically Protestant Christianity. Among the groups I’ve mentioned, there’s not a lot of other options for creating a moral nation. That’s the continual thing that I see linking different moments even though those moments have been distinct in their own ways.

What do you think the place of a Christian heritage tour is within that continuum? To what extent can we trace a causal link between the insurrection and these tours?

I would not presume causality in the form of someone going on one of these tours and then deciding to join the insurrection. I think the relationship is at a more abstract level. Christian heritage tours and the whole Christian heritage industry have given legitimacy to, and popularized, this idea that the nation is under attack from within, that real Christians have to stand up and reclaim the nation. Literally. 

The Christian heritage industry more broadly really emphasizes D.C. It’s the axis mundi. It’s the place where white evangelicals come to re-enact the creation of the nation—which is ironic, because it wasn’t actually in D.C. [that it was created]. But, historical details aside, it’s a really powerful symbolic location. That’s why the tours go there. I don’t think the tours themselves created D.C. as a sacred center. I think that was already there. If we’re talking about causes and effects, they are the effect of this broader narrative about D.C. as a sacred center of the nation where everything good has happened—but now all this evil is happening. 

One of the ways I’ve been thinking about this since January 6 is by inspecting the way we talk about ‘unmarked Protestantism’ in a lot of American religious history. (Tracy Fessenden coined this term.) Has the big good-versus-evil-salvation-of-America narrative become so detached from Christianity, so unmarked, that it’s the dominant narrative legitimizing the actions of people who don’t even acknowledge it as Christian? I’m thinking of QAnon here. And I don’t really know the answer to that. But I think we’ve seen a lot of explicit displays of Christianity from people who were at the January 6 insurrection. There were also people who weren’t there [explicitly] to retake a Christian nation—but they were there to retake something. That idea of reclaiming something does have at least some of its origin in this Christian Right narrative about the country.

Some Christian critics who don’t agree with the beliefs and behaviors of many white evangelicals claim that those beliefs or behaviors aren’t “really” Christian. In Saving History, you argue that, when labeled extremist or inconsistent, an outsider or victim narrative further deepens. What do you think these critiques actually accomplish?

I think they make the person making the critique feel good about themselves. I think that’s all they accomplish. Let’s put it this way: Someone who isn’t themselves Christian or a conservative Christian telling someone who was on one of my tours You’re a bad Christian or You’re not a real Christian—or, my favorite Twitter comment yesterday, Jesus is rolling in his grave

Oh my gosh.

Is that not the greatest comment in the world? Please immortalize it for me. 

The kinds of judgments I just mentioned roll right off. I think that “traitor” one is really going to rile them up. It’s hitting right at that spot where white evangelicals feel that custodial relationship to the nation. To be seen as insurrectionists or traitors plays really, really well into their persecution narrative. 

Which is not to say that we should walk on eggshells around white evangelicals because the feelings of white Christian nationalists might get hurt. It’s more about the defenses they’ve constructed around themselves. They have this, like, magical shield around them that converts whatever insult is thrown at them into power. (I read a lot of fantasy novels.) 

This has developed since the 1970s. I trace this in the book. They’ve developed a whole script for responding to things that threaten them. It’s a script that draws on millennia of Christian tradition about martyrdom: what it means to be persecuted for Christ and what it means to die for Christ. They transmute that criticism into reassurance that they’re on the right path, that they’re doing God’s will. The people in the Capitol resisting them, this thinking goes, are not real Americans. 

I’ve heard a lot of people ask, How could they desecrate this space? “They” being everyone at the Capitol. We have to understand that for white Christian nationalists, and also just more broadly for the people involved in this insurrection, the Capitol had already been desecrated. It’s been desecrated because there are people governing the country from that space who aren’t enacting God’s Will or the will of the people according to myths about election fraud. They were going in to turn the moneylenders out of the temple. That was their M.O. in a really violent and terrifying way.

You note in Saving History that white evangelicals can identify with multiple narratives simultaneously as founders, exiles, victims, and saviors. How do you think something like “Stop the Steal” resonated with, or exacerbated, that kind of malleability? 

I think it’s a lot like “Make America Great Again” in that it concisely synthesizes all of those roles that white evangelicals—and, specifically, white Christian nationalists—play in this arena. The idea that the election has been stolen is just such a classic exile narrative, right? A classic victim narrative, too. It positions injustice at the center of the conversation; the idea that something has been done wrong and needs to be righted. 

You can say a lot of things about conservatives, but you can’t say that they’re bad at mobilizing people with language. Their slogan game is on point. It’s really effective. And I think this was a really effective way to play to the white Christian nationalist movement without an explicitly Christian hashtag that might have turned some people off or made some people feel unwelcome. 

“Stop the Steal” was really effective marketing. And I think that’s how this election is going to be framed in the long term [for them]. And white Christian nationalists will continue feeling this way, like they’ve been exiled from political power and need to reclaim it. It’s not going to be over on January 20 by any means. I think this narrative is just moving into a new phase that may be pretty dark, frankly.

Several of Saving History’s vignettes take place in “hallowed halls” like the Capitol rotunda. The anecdotes are both absurd and deadly serious at the same time. One moment someone makes a joke about leaving their gun on a tour bus, and the next a conservative Christian congressman tells eighth graders on a private tour that they’re going to have to die for the Christian nation. I was wondering if you could speak to that in relation to the insurrection. 

Jeff Sharlet had a wonderful piece in Vanity Fair about this last week, that it’s all a joke until it’s not. The absurdity and the theater of it is in part how it gets so far; it’s why we don’t take it seriously until we do take it seriously, which is usually after someone has died. 

It would be really comfortable for those of us who disagree with this movement to see it as just delusional or the product of political machinations at a very high level that have confused people. If we just show them the light, if we just give them the facts, they’ll go home and talk about President Biden as the real president. That approach underestimates people’s creativity and agency in thinking about the world, as well as the ability people have to resist dominant narratives and piece together things that make sense to them—and cling to them. I think it’s dangerous to dismiss everyone on January 6 as an outlier, crazy, or mad, as if they’ll get over it, they’ll get bored. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of conversation. And I think it’s not true. 

We’re just at the very beginning of the process of understanding the insurrection. Not to empathize, necessarily, but to make sense of it. I’ve encountered people who think that’s just a call for empathy—and Lord knows there is enough Hillbilly Elegy discourse in this world. I really have no interest in that. I didn’t write Hillbilly Elegy, I wrote Saving History. They’re very different projects with different goals for what we want to understand and why. 

In Saving History—not Hillbilly Elegy—you mention a Protestant tendency to forgive reformation, no matter how misguided. I know that you weren’t talking about, like, Nancy Pelosi. But do you think that that kind of proclivity impacts what, or whether, some kind of accountability could materialize?

I call this the “Amazing Grace problem,” which is that anyone can be redeemed, anyone can be lost and then found. But it’s only ever particular people who get to experience that narrative. In the white evangelical world, it’s usually wealthy white men who’ve committed some sort of sex offense. Sometimes, you know, financial problems, but usually it’s a pastor who’s had an affair. And then they start a redemption tour, and all is forgiven. 

We saw that with Trump very clearly; the idea that all of his sins were in the past and now he’s a “baby Christian,” as James Dobson put it. It can be a really powerful narrative in terms of erasing and washing clean whatever people have done in the past. That narrative only applies to people who are working for the benefit of the Christian nation as conceived by the Christian heritage industry and community. If you’re working for any other purpose, and particularly if you’re working against that purpose, like Nancy Pelosi, it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to get that same kind of forgiveness because there is no repentance. If you had repented, you would be working for the Christian nation. 

And the only way I think that narrative would come into play post-January 6 would be with people repenting of the violence because it was losing them sponsors or prominent positions in the media. Some of the white evangelical elites who spoke at the Jericho March, for instance, may repent of the violence that it caused, but I don’t think there’s going to be a call for repentance and redemption from what they did because it wasn’t a sin. They were doing God’s work. 

But I was even thinking about whether politicians would attempt to forgive the insurrectionists in the name of avoiding “division.”

I do see it playing into that We need unity! narrative. The interesting thing there is, politicians both right and left may be granting forgiveness that isn’t desired at all by the rioters. I do think that sort of redemption thing could come in. I also imagine narratives that Young white men shouldn’t have their futures ruined! may play into the response once we start seeing some prosecutions of the people who’ve been arrested.

More broadly, what do you think is next?

Ah, this is where I get to be oracular. This is the fun stuff. 

The question is for whom: For the country? For white evangelicals? For Christian heritage tours? I’m going to make you be specific because otherwise we’ll be here for another hour. 

I guess for white evangelicals and the way their political affinities play out in the national arena. 

I think there will be a lot of conversations on local levels: in families, in congregations, in local communities. And maybe at denominational levels, but probably not. Especially as generations shift, that conversation will continue. I don’t know how public that’s going to be. There’s a lot of white evangelical elites and academics who will write persuasively and compellingly on these topics. But to what extent that’s really going to reflect what’s going on at a grassroots level, I don’t know. 

Also, this week is not over. So it also depends on what happens in the next few days. I think it’s going to be a continuation, and January 6 will be a flashpoint for reflections on violence. The other thing you have to remember is, given Protestantism, it’s going to be about the individual choices of people who went to the Capitol that day, and everyone else is totally exculpated. 

White evangelicals might not necessarily be equipped theologically to think in terms of communal accountability in ways that other movements might be. So that will be interesting to see if that shifts at all in light of conversations about systemic racism, white supremacy, and the ways this really draws attention to communities and structures. 

We didn’t talk about martyrdom, but that’s another dimension of this; I’m actually surprised that Ashli Babbitt hasn’t been more prominent. That sort of faded out in part because Parler and other platforms were shut down. There were images going around of posters for a “Million Martyrs’ March,” which is absolutely terrifying if you think about it. I’m thinking about that connection between the congressman telling eighth graders that they should be willing to die for Christ and the idea of a million people descending on D.C. ready to die for the cause. That’s alarming, but that’s how extremists are made.