Listening to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s allies over the last few days as the ballots rolled in and his hopes of re-election dwindled, we were reminded of the ways in which religious history—which can sometimes feel distant and foreign to contemporary concerns—remains very relevant to the present. In their language of warfare spiritual and secular, Trump’s evangelical allies have been playing with a fire that may continue to burn long after they give up this contest. It is worth taking a moment to look closely at, and consider the consequences of, their preaching and shouting and, yes, tweeting, the rhetoric of holy war.
Paula White, the president’s spiritual adviser, for example, spent last Wednesday night leading a Pentecostal prayer service, engaging in “spiritual warfare” for the purpose of securing Trump’s re-election. The most sensational part—besides speaking in tongues—was the summoning of angels to fight for him, saying, “For angels have even been dispatched from Africa right now. . . . In the name of Jesus from South America, they’re coming here.”
White later said that “we come against people that are working at high levels right now with demonic confederacies” who were working “against the election, against America, against that who You have declared to be in the White House.” Behind her as she preached was a man pacing back and forth with a Bible, possibly engaged in a “Jericho March,” a prayer walk to intercede, protect, enact change, etc.
If this was the “spiritual” warfare to try and re-elect Donald Trump through holy violence, Trump’s former campaign strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon had something less incorporeal in mind. He said on his podcast that at the beginning of Trump’s second term, the president should execute Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray: “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put their heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats, you either get with the program or you’re gone.”
Bannon’s core political belief unites a clash-of-civilizations, defense-of-the-West conviction with a combative, ultraconservative Catholicism. While his legal battles in the United States tend to get the most attention, it’s worth noting that he has also been engaged in a long legal clash in Italy over the control of a 13th-century monastery that he reportedly wants to turn into the headquarters for a project to realize his theological-political vision.
Not only does Bannon play around with neomedieval notions of executions, he has made a habit of playing with violent tropes of the past. Addressing (virtually) the Catholic Identity Conference in Pittsburgh at the end of October, he said that traditional Catholics needed to engage in war against myriad enemies standing against Donald Trump’s re-election. Among the enemies: the “compromised Vatican.”
At that same conference, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò gave a speech saying that we are in the End Times and that a New World Order, the antithesis of Christian Society, exists and must be fought. Viganò connected the U.S. election to a major moral and spiritual conflict:
Allow me a brief word about the political situation in the United States on the eve of the presidential election. Fratelli Tutti [i.e., Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, published in October] seems to be a form of Vatican endorsement of the Democratic candidate, in clear opposition to Donald Trump, and come a few days after Francis refused to grant audience to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Rome. This confirms which side the children of light are on, and who the children of darkness are.
The conference’s main homepage image shows four armed Knights Templar kneeling before a priest—coyly violent religious imagery heading a religious conference in which speakers preached violence against those opposing Donald Trump.
Both Paula White’s spiritual warfare and Bannon’s call to the faithful to engage in religiously inspired physical warfare bring to mind the Crusades—the holy wars launched by the Church in 1096 onwards against various Muslim powers. The chroniclers of those wars recorded visions of saints, angelic hosts joining the soldiers on the battlefield, apocalyptic missions ending in the conquest of Jerusalem—referring to Revelation itself in the process. Those ideas then spread beyond wars in the Levant to wars in Spain, violence against Jews across Europe, wars against “pagans” and Orthodox Christians in the Baltic, wars against heretics and rival lords in southern France, wars against political enemies in Italy, wars against proto-Protestants in Bohemia. (Arguably the last of these conflicts was during the age of Napoleon.) Once the rhetoric of holy war is used, the idea, like a virus, spreads and mutates and never seems to die.
On Thursday, as President Trump’s electoral defeat seemed ever more inevitable, televangelist George Pearsons took to the airwaves to apprise the faithful of the horrific situation facing “God’s president.” Alternating between speaking directly as God and for God, Pearson warned that he (presumably God) was angry with what was happening to his ordained leader and that retribution was underway. It was a declaration that evangelical conservatism alone is the arbiter of who or what deserves divine sanction or retribution.
Pearsons hardly stands alone. History is a wasteland of religious justifications for political activism, identity, and violence. On the other hand, Christianity, and American Christianity especially, has arguably possessed more than its fair share of these unions of political thought and religious belief. Millennialism—essentially the idea that through constantly improving and reforming society, mankind could prepare and even accelerate the return of Jesus Christ and his physical kingdom on Earth—was a defining feature of Puritan thought, and after the Great Awakening, its influence could be seen in almost all the Protestant sects who dominated early American culture and politics. Flawed laws and leaders, sinful social behaviors, and even the toleration of practices and peoples of other beliefs were all seen as potentially hindering the literal second coming of Christ.
The quintessentially American variation of apocalyptic millennialism has had a range of consequences. On the positive side of the ledger: During the colonial and Revolutionary periods, when religious leaders were shapers of democratic and pluralistic political thought in the colonies, evangelicals embraced anti-authoritarianism and anti-elitism. They pushed to broaden political access and to question temporal rulers, and they established individual agency and freedom as the key ingredients to both good government and a godly society. Even at the time, many people saw this belief system as linked to the American Revolution, as clergy exhorted soldiers and civilians to regard the cause of American liberty as synonymous with the will of heaven. The early Republic saw this same merging of religious and political activism promote a variety of social reforms. And the long arc of major American social reforms—expanding the franchise, the abolition of slavery, public education, aspects of the welfare state, and even environmental conservationism—was connected to the belief that salvation depends on constant political activism designed to win God’s favor.
Yet the inability to separate political exigencies and actors from religious meaning also produced some of the darkest chapters in American history. Natives who refused Christian conversion did not fit into the architecture of a godly society and were exterminated, expelled, and displaced with near unanimous approval. At least part of the reason loyalists were treated roughly during the Revolutionary era—many were stripped of citizenship and had their property seized; some were killed in public lynchings; others were forcibly deported—is that their rejection of separation from Great Britain was seen by some patriots as hindering the creation of God’s kingdom. Fourscore years later, Southern religious leaders invoked God to defend slavery and, when civil conflict loomed, advocated a treasonous rebellion to defend it. In the 20th century, this alliance of religious conviction and political identity gave us potent conservative movements like the Moral Majority and its antiprogressive agenda of rolling back the rights of women and homosexuals—and led directly to today’s marriage of evangelicals and the Republican party, on which Donald Trump has depended.
Some of Trump’s supporters wanted him re-elected to help bring about that millennial kingdom. Some showed up to the Clark County, Nevada election department to kneel and pray “that righteousness prevails” while wearing red MAGA hats. Some cast the election in Manichaean terms. Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana, for example, tweeted about “Freedom or oppression. A free Republic or total government control,” essentializing to good and evil, before saying “Make your stand” and quoting George Washington. On Thursday, Higgins tweeted out Psalms 55:9-11:
You need not be an elite exegete to detect in Higgins’s tweet a call to holy violence, whether spiritual or physical, in service of Trump’s re-election. These themes from Christian history, be it the Crusades or colonial America, never really seem to go away; notions of sacred violence, and of apocalyptic millennialism, have a powerful and dangerous longevity. Of course, evangelical Christianity is not monolithic, and one of the compelling social conflicts of our time will be the battle to dominate the future and meaning of its apocalyptic strain. At the same time, with public tension and political extremism coming into full view surrounding Donald Trump and his coalition’s loss of the presidency, it is worth remembering that our leaders have a responsibility to consider their words and beliefs carefully. “God wills it” is an idea that can draw blood.