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On Jan. 6, thousands of Christians came to Washington to support President Donald Trump and to pray. Later, however, many unwittingly found themselves in a large crowd that would march on the Capitol and eventually breach the building, leaving two dead and more than 100 police officers injured.
Videos surfaced later showing members of Congress praying out loud for protection and many in the building that day would describe the scene as a place of spiritual warfare.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said "I just felt a real darkness over this place, like a real evil."
What confused many watching from their screens as the riot took place: the mob's use of Christian symbols like a Jesus flag draped over the side of the Capitol and a "Proud American Christian" flag waving in the crowd, as well as a shocking prayer in the Senate.
Video from The New Yorker shows a group breaching the chamber, rifling through papers on desks and then calling out "Jesus Christ, we speak your name. Let's all say a prayer. Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us this opportunity."
Christian leaders have been quick to condemn the display.
"There is no such thing as a righteous riot. It is the equivalent of robbing the bank and asking God to bless the heist," said NHCLC president Rev. Sam Rodriguez, who described those in the mob as political extremists. "This is a fringe radical group with a religious zeal that comes with a myopic world view."
To understand how and why faith became an element in the Capitol attacks it's important to understand Christian nationalism says Dr. Paul Miller, a Georgetown University professor and national securities expert who is also writing a book on the topic for InterVarsity Press.
Miller says it was a key influence on Jan, 6th along with QAnon conspiracy theories and the pervasive belief that the Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump.
Christian nationalism is a political ideology. Miller says it's not drawn directly from the Bible but does use Christian words and symbols and rhetoric which is part of why it's confusing for many believers.
Miller, a vet, and others, like Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, distinguish it from patriotism or love of country.
Miller warns that Christian nationalism, in an attempt to define America as a Christian nation, seeks to make Christianity the official culture of the country which can spell trouble for other faith groups.
"Christian nationalism tends to treat other Americans as second-class citizens," Miller wrote recently in Christianity Today. "If it were fully implemented it would not respect the full religious liberty of all Americans."
Miller says the movement also professes that it alone is the political litmus test for true believers. "It is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda," he explained.
The ideology of Christian nationalism is also held by mostly white Americans which can exacerbate racial tensions says Miller.
Mohler warned about it on a recent broadcast, saying that nationalism infused with any form of racial superiority violates the Gospel. "That kind of nationalism, even though it may claim a religious identity upfront," he said, "will eventually show itself to be idolatrous."
The Bible, he said, tells believers to place their allegiance to Christ first. "If it requires me to deny Christ or forbids me to follow Christ obediently then I will no longer pledge allegiance to that flag," he said.
Conspiracy theories can also fuel Christian nationalism and there are signs that these theories have begun to seep into the church.
In January, Lifeway Research found that almost half of US Protestant pastors report they're seeing it in their churches.
It's why leaders are calling on their flocks to search out the truth.
On January 12th, Trump faith adviser Pastor Tony Suarez exhorted his Facebook followers to accept Joe Biden as the president-elect. He called out specific conspiracy theories and encouraged believers to unfollow those spreading fear and fake news.
Dr. Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, says Christians who spread political misinformation also compromise their ability to share their faith.
"When we're gullible and easily fooled, when we're the people who are posting conspiracies and the next thing saying 'oh the resurrection is true—all those conspiracies are too' – it undermines our witness," he told CBN News.
Miller encourages pastors to help their congregations focus on their heavenly citizenship above all else.
Suarez says that can apply to the prophetic world as well.
"I need to make sure that as a believer, as a Christian, that I'm more kingdom-minded than I am American-minded," he said. "We need to as a prophetic people to examine and wonder, why is it that we're only getting prophetic words about American elections? What about Singapore, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and other countries of the world? Why are we so US-focused?"
Ultimately, the local church can provide what many have lost, which is part of what's fueling political extremism.
"There are many people in America who feel lonely, isolated, alienated and in that isolation, they're gravitating towards conspiracy theories," said Miller. "They're gravitating towards perhaps militia movements, towards extremer ideologies like nationalism because it gives them a sense of belonging and purpose."
That belonging is harder to find in a pandemic when Covid restrictions have shut down so much normal social activity. But it may be more important than ever in a world filled with distorted truths and misinformation.
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