Nikki Toyama-Szeto, executive director of the advocacy group Christians for Social Action, is still deeply disturbed by the way her religious tradition was distorted during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some rioters carried crosses, Christian-themed flags and signs. A group that stormed onto the Senate floor bowed their heads for a prayer led by a conspiracy theorist who thanked God for “filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ.”
“It scared me because I know the ways that people have twisted faith to fuel violence and justify all kinds of behaviors,” Toyama-Szeto told HuffPost.
“I just felt like I needed to stand up and bear witness that this is not what all Christians believe and, more specifically, that I think that those actions grieved God’s heart,” she added.
On Wednesday, Toyama-Szeto joined more than 200 Christian leaders who released a letter denouncing the faith-linked nationalism displayed at the insurrection and pledging to work toward quelling far-right extremism within evangelical circles. After the letter went public, more than 900 pastors, professors and other Christian leaders added their signatures.
“Just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith, we feel the urgent need to denounce this violent mutation of our faith,” the letter states.
The initiative was organized by Christian activist Shane Claiborne and Pastor Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a faith-based voter mobilization group that spent much of the last election cycling making a Christian case against Donald Trump’s reelection. Claiborne and Pagitt convened a series of virtual meetings in mid-February among leaders from an array of Christian traditions. The letter addressing Christian nationalism emerged from those meetings.
Sociologists have been tracking the rise of Christian nationalism in America for several years. Researchers say this faith-fueled movement seeks to codify America as a Christian country by leveraging the religion’s influence in the public sphere. Christian nationalists tend to believe that America’s success is part of God’s plan and that the federal government must promote Christian values.
The signers of Wednesday’s statement ― theologians, musicians, megachurch pastors and other leaders from a range of backgrounds ― claim this is a flagrant distortion of their faith. Pagitt said Christians have a responsibility to speak up.
“In the past, the Church has responded vigorously to distortions of our faith ― holding emergency councils in order to affirm the core values at the heart of Christianity, and to denounce distortions of Christianity inconsistent with those values,” he said in a statement announcing the letter. “The dangerous rise of extremism in our communities merits this sense of urgency, and I look forward to partnering with these leaders and others to address it.”
Among the signees were Rev. Joel Hunter, a former spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama; Walter Brueggemann, a prominent biblical scholar; Jerushah Duford, Billy Graham’s granddaughter; Rev. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and popular author; and Rev. Rob Schenck, a former anti-abortion activist.
Rev. Micah McCreary, president of New Jersey’s New Brunswick Theological Seminary, was one of several seminary presidents who signed. He told HuffPost it was important for religious educational institutions to speak out.
“I signed the letter because I felt the need to address the entanglement of religion with systems of oppression in America,” McCreary said.
The letter explicitly called out white evangelicalism as being especially susceptible to Christian nationalism “because of a long history of faith leaders accommodating white supremacy.” It condemned Christians’ support of conspiracy theories, such as those spun by QAnon, as well as their participation in extremist groups. Some rioters were later identified as members of far-right organizations, such as the Proud Boys ― an anti-immigrant and misogynistic group whose members were spotted kneeling during a prayer for “reformation and revival” before marching to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“We urge faith leaders to engage pastorally with those who support or sympathize with these groups, and make it clear that our churches are not neutral about these matters: we are on the side of democracy, equality for all people, anti-racism, and the common good of all people,” the letter stated.
White evangelicals have grown increasingly loyal to the Republican Party in recent years. Trump’s hard-line stances on issues such as immigration pulled some even further to the right ― creating a common values system between average Republicans and white supremacists, experts say. This has made white conservative evangelicals particularly vulnerable to the grooming techniques of right-wing extremist groups.
A recent study from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, found that more than a quarter of white evangelicals believe that the QAnon conspiracy theory about a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles at war with Trump is completely or mostly accurate. In addition, according to Religion News Service, nearly half (49%) of white evangelicals believed that anti-fascist activists were “mostly responsible” for the attack on the Capitol ― a claim the FBI has debunked.
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, president of the progressive faith organization Sojourners, told HuffPost that conspiracy groups like the Proud Boys are “antithetical to the Christian faith and values.”
This week’s statement may not reach those who remain sympathetic to the insurrection and are deeply loyal to Trump, Taylor said. But he hopes it can influence what he believes is “a far larger group” within American Christianity who may have liked or voted for Trump but who have a hard time reconciling that support with the violence displayed at the Capitol.
“Jan. 6 was a wake-up moment for many within the church about the poisonous danger of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, including among many more conservative Christians,” Taylor said.