Crisis of faith
How can Christians prevent political passion from turning to unholy furor?
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On the morning after the Capitol Hill riots, preacher Jeremiah Johnson posted a public apology on his namesake ministry’s website: “I would like to repent for inaccurately prophesying that Donald Trump would win a second term as the President of the United States.”
A month before the 2020 elections, Johnson said he had a dream with three parts: Amy Coney Barrett would be confirmed to the Supreme Court, the Los Angeles Dodgers would capture the World Series, and Donald Trump would win the White House. When the first two events happened, Johnson thought the third seemed certain.
But on the day after Christmas—12 days after the Electoral College confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory—Johnson told his 324,000 Facebook followers that he might soon retract his prophecy.
A follower replied: “Hold fast … God waits till his people stand at the shores of the sea before he parts them … too many prophecies are of one mind … that God will expose the wicked and Trump will prevail to God’s glory.”
On Jan. 7, the day after Congress certified that Biden prevailed—and after a mob of rioters stormed the Capitol in protest—Johnson posted an apology for being wrong about Trump. He rejected the notion that Trump didn’t win because people didn’t pray enough. And he refused to say Trump actually did win but the election was stolen: “I want to go on record: I was wrong, I am deeply sorry, and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Johnson says the response was brutal.
In an update on Jan. 10, he wrote: “Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. … I truthfully never realized how absolutely triggered and ballistic thousands and thousands of saints get about Donald Trump. It’s terrifying. It’s full of idolatry.”
Meanwhile, the nation still reeled from terrifying scenes at the Capitol that included mobs beating a police officer outside. Inside the rotunda, photos showed a pair of men wearing military-style fatigues. On one arm, a patch affixed read, “Armor of God.”
Plenty of Christians voted for Trump without idolizing him, and the majority didn’t riot. But the religious fervor—and sometimes furor—surrounding Trump’s defeat raises questions for evangelicals across the theological spectrum: How can Christians promote good policy without losing gospel perspective? How can we remind ourselves—and others—that politics is important, but not ultimate?
Johnson, who still insists modern-day prophecies are legitimate despite the massive error regarding Trump, says he’s asking himself, “Have I traded the prophetic spirit for the political spirit?”
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for the spirit outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to go from raucous to riotous, even as Christian symbols and language popped up in the crowd.
Earlier in the day, thousands attended a rally where Trump told the crowd that the radical left is “ruthless, and it’s time that somebody did something about it.” A chunk of those crowds streamed to the Capitol after the rally, though Trump didn’t follow them. A February impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate will center on whether Trump incited mobs to the mayhem that afternoon.
The images near the Capitol were jarring: One group constructed a makeshift noose in clear sight of the Capitol building. On the National Mall, another man leaned into a giant wooden cross, apparently praying. One photo showed a demonstrator hoisting two giant flags, one reading, “Make America Godly Again,” and the other showing a doctored image of Trump brandishing a machine gun.
The crowds forcing their way into the Capitol were jarring too: Some people snapped selfies, but others beat on the House doors where congressmen and reporters took cover before evacuating to secure rooms. A bare-chested devotee of the QAnon conspiracy theory bellowed from behind his face paint and horned, fur hat. Another man toted a Confederate flag through the halls.
Leo Kelly seemed surprised he wound up on the Senate floor shortly after Secret Service rushed Vice President Mike Pence from the room. In an interview with LifeSite News, the Cedar Rapids man said he walked to the Capitol after the Trump rally. He was disillusioned by the outcome of the election, and says he thought: “None of my institutions are working. What am I supposed to do?”
On the floor of the evacuated Senate, he watched a group pray behind the speaker’s desk, and said they “consecrated it to Jesus. … That to me was the ultimate statement of where we are in this movement.” A reporter’s video from the Senate floor shows a group of rioters purporting to pray after an expletive-laden romp through the room: “Jesus Christ, we invoke Your name.”
Joshua Black of Leeds, Ala., said he wanted to make a similar prayer, according to investigators. Authorities said Black acknowledged posting YouTube videos of himself from the Senate floor. An affidavit quoted Black as saying in one of the videos: “I wanted to get inside the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.”
Leo Guthrie Jr., of Cape May, N.J., also cited religious motivations. Guthrie said he didn’t enter the Capitol building, but authorities arrested him for breaking through a police barrier outside. He told a local news station he thought the people who went into the Capitol were wrong, but said, “This was about revival, it wasn’t about threats.”
Law enforcement used Leo Kelly’s online interview in a statement of facts about the incident, and the FBI arrested him on charges that included knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building without lawful authority. Officials filed similar charges against Black.
In the online video, Kelly said he didn’t cause damage, but he felt conflicted. He said in some ways it felt wrong to “violate someone else’s space.” “God will judge us for what we did,” he said. “I’m redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. There’s no judgment that stands against me—perhaps I did something wrong. ... What are Americans supposed to do?”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the accused rioters using Christian language have roots in local churches, but the answer to Kelly’s question isn’t complicated: Praying for elected leaders is Biblical, and peaceful protests are lawful. But invading the seat of government as part of a spontaneous mob is antithetical to Scripture.
Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) lamented the mixing of Christian notions with a brute grab for political power. “The sight of ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘God Bless America’ signs by those violently storming the Capitol is about more than inconsistency,” Moore wrote. “It is about a picture of Jesus Christ and of His gospel that is satanic.”
That’s not because the Bible doesn’t allow patriotism. In an interview, Moore said he wasn’t calling on Christians to stop serving their country or advocating for policy or participating in politics: “But if our country becomes ultimate, then we’re really not able to be patriots, because our country can’t deliver on being a god.”
THE VAST MAJORITY of Christians don’t riot at government buildings, but devotion to politics does grow intense. That’s not a new phenomenon, but it was particularly pronounced after Biden declared victory and Trump declared fraud in the November elections.
At a “Jericho March” in December, Christian author and radio host Eric Metaxas emceed an event for Christians to pray for Trump to prevail. Controversial radio host Alex Jones offered a theological twist: “This is the beginning of the great revival before the Antichrist comes! Revelation is fulfilled!” He added: “I don’t know who’s going to be in the White House in 38 days, but I do know Joe Biden is a globalist, and Joe Biden will be removed one way or another!”
The crowd roared.
“They’ve undermined the faith of believers, and they’ve made it more difficult for Christians to share the gospel going forward.”
Paula White, a Florida-based charismatic preacher and a chief evangelical adviser to Trump, held a prayer service the day after the election, attempting to declare victory for the incumbent. White called on angels from Africa and South America to intervene. She spoke in tongues. She chanted: “I hear a sound of an abundance of rain, I hear a sound of victory.”
The video went viral, provoking scores of parodies and online skewering. White grew noticeably quiet about allegations of election fraud and didn’t persist in bolstering Trump’s claims that the contest was stolen.
Neither did Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and a fervent Trump supporter and evangelical adviser. (At a “Celebrate Freedom” rally in 2017, the choir from Jeffress’ church sang an anthem dubbed “Make America Great Again.”) Jeffress didn’t disavow Trump after the election, but he also didn’t show up at rallies to protest the outcome.
Other Christian leaders did persist: On Jan. 4—three weeks after the Electoral College confirmed Biden’s victory—televangelist Pat Robertson told his audience: “I believe something dramatic is going to happen before Congress votes on those electors. Something very dramatic that will change the outcome of that vote.”
The dramatic riot two days later didn’t change the outcome of the vote.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Johnson wasn’t the only self-proclaimed prophet apologizing for his predictions. In Northern California, Kris Vallotton of the charismatic Bethel Church—home to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry and the widely popular Bethel Music—apologized in November for predicting a Trump win.
After followers questioned Vallotton, he removed the post. When Vallotton reposted the apology on Jan. 9, a follower replied: “The Red Sea didn’t part until the Egyptians were right on top of them. It isn’t January 20 yet.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on Jan. 20.
Johnson, Vallotton, and other self-identified prophets contended their errors about Trump didn’t make them false prophets. But Vallotton admitted: “It’s obviously humiliating. … This is the beginning of me cleaning up my mess.”
It’s not clear what that cleaning up of the mess entails, but Holly Pivec, co-author of A New Apostolic Reformation?—a book about Christians claiming to be modern-day prophets—says the failed prophecies surrounding Trump brought “shame” to the Church: “They hurt its witness to the watching world, they’ve undermined the faith of believers, and they’ve made it more difficult for Christians to share the gospel going forward.”
Pivec thinks theology unmoored from the clear teaching of Scripture also makes followers vulnerable to the kind of conspiracy theories that have proliferated in movements like the QAnon fantasy.
That’s not just a problem in one theological branch. Russell Moore at the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC said the No. 1 question he’s been getting from pastors is “how to deal with these social-media-generated conspiracy theories and cultish ideas—and trying to differentiate between ideas that are just flaky, and ideas that are truly dangerous.”
IN SOME QUARTERS, fervency about politics stems from fear of the alternative.
Some Christians look at a changing national landscape and perceive legitimate threats on important issues.
Andrew Walker, a professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Christians should confront erroneous theology while also upholding faithful Christian teaching.
“Instrumentalizing religion for the sake of political power is indeed wrong,” Walker wrote in a column for Public Discourse. “Where theological systems or historians assert that Christianity is divinely fused with American destiny, correction is warranted.”
But Walker says it’s also unfair to use the faulty theology of some to characterize the beliefs of all Christians—or to banish Christian thinking from the public square: “The solution to bad examples of Christian political theology is not to reduce all modern examples of Christian statecraft to simplistic, self-serving narratives.”
Evangelicals disappointed in Trump’s loss should look for ways to work with the Biden administration, particularly on bipartisan issues like criminal justice reform and international religious freedom. On issues where disagreement is inevitable, it’s helpful to emphasize how policy that reflects Biblical teaching promotes the common good, not just self-interest.
Whatever the outcome, Moore says how Christians approach political engagement is key: “We have to be engaging in policy as people who know that our very survival as a church is not dependent upon whether we succeed or fail in civic initiatives.” He compares it to the posture of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in exile: “We’re asking God for help in this scenario. But even if not—we’ll trust Him. And we’ll be obedient to Him.”
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