I watched the footage until midnight and didn’t sleep afterward. The images wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t just the overturned barricades and broken windows that were keeping me awake. It was the interviews with insurrectionists wiping their red, leaking, tear-gassed eyes and proclaiming their righteous victimhood. So sure of themselves they gave their names and hometowns to reporters who seemed alternately horrified and bewildered.
I told myself: “That wouldn’t have been me. It wouldn’t have.”
But I’m not so sure.
It has been five years since I left evangelical Christianity. I became born again during my adolescence attending a megachurch that regularly had more than 2,000 people turn out for services each week. There, each Sunday, I learned the teachings of God: One’s identity should be in Christ only (Colossians 3:1-3); premarital sexual acts were the same as a dog returning to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11); homosexuality was an abomination to God (Leviticus 18:22-24); evolution was a lie (Genesis 5:1-3) and abortion a genocide (Job 31:15). Anyone who did not accept Jesus would be tortured for all eternity in hell (Matthew 25:46).
I was warned that the devil prowls like a roaring lion, looking for people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). That he preys on Christ’s followers specifically, waiting to snatch their souls from salvation. I learned that the world was full of people who had rejected God, and that those people hated followers of Christ as they hated Him (John 15:18).
What I wasn’t told was that these lessons, once internalized over the decade-plus that I was in that church, would make me hate the world back. And hate it I did. I hated it for not accepting my God’s offer of salvation, for mocking me for my belief, and for offending God so thoroughly and unrepentantly.
On Jan. 6, the world watched as a horde of furious Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of a free and fair election. They destroyed property, shouted epithets, and demanded that various politicians be hanged for treason. They erected a gallows outside the Capitol building.
What does Christianity — specifically white American evangelical Christianity — have to do with that?
There’s a reason that many in the throng who appeared on my TV screen brandished crosses and Bibles and wore t-shirts and waved flags emblazoned with the name JESUS. Evangelicals were among those who broke windows, carried the Christian flag through the halls of Congress, and hoisted the Confederate flag there, too.
This subset of Christianity and the culture it spawned originated in the South, a region founded on the plantation class and slavery. So it’s no surprise that the entwined history of white American evangelical Christianity and white supremacy is long and symbiotic, that the two flags fly together — because they are not entirely separate movements. They never have been.
Even their messages are similar: You are special, yet oppressed; you are always right in a world that is always wrong. Both enable hate by cloaking it in justice, divine will, and unquestionable truth. Both movements favor authoritarianism while believing themselves a ruling class.
The church has long been on the wrong side of history. Its handling of race has been abysmal: It has defended slavery and segregation and police brutality. So I wasn’t surprised to see Christian symbols at the Capitol. I remembered what it felt like, to believe like that. I’ll never forget it.
At the height of my fundamentalism, I possessed a clarity unlike anything I’d experienced before, or since. There was no gray, there was no ambiguity. My world was an inexorable binary: The Bible was the inerrant word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). In it, I found all the answers — how to live in the world, and how to ensure eternal life beyond it. There wasn’t anything left to say, or think. I knew who I was because I didn’t have to be anything at all. I was God’s. He must increase, so I could just disappear (John 3:30).
I think I wanted that. I had always been insecure and anxious, and evangelical Christianity gave me a safe place to exist, a neat box drawn in black and white. There is no cure for self-doubt like being the daughter of the King: Chosen, righteous, and certain that anyone who wasn’t Christian was wrong (2 Corinthians 6:14).
I read Christian books and listened to Christian music and followed Christian social media pages. I voted against same-sex marriage and abortion rights by default; it wasn’t even a question. You couldn’t be a liberal Christian and still go to heaven, any more than you could be “living a gay lifestyle” and be saved. That message was clear. I didn’t even think to argue with it.
That always gets me: How I didn’t fight it, didn’t question, didn’t wonder. But then again, why would I have done so? I benefited from it. Anyone harmed by my beliefs was out of sight, out of mind. I didn’t see the damage I was doing, because the hate I was indulging created for me a shield of self-righteousness, an armor (Ephesians 6:10-17) against a world I knew to be evil (Genesis 6:5).
My house was built on the Rock (Matthew 7:24-27). All other ground was sinking sand. There was no in-between. Which leads us back to the sacking of the Capitol. What we saw is not out of line with the teachings of white evangelical American Christianity: Obey authority, give up your life for the cause, hate the world. It is Abraham leading Isaac up the mountain (Genesis 22): How much do you love God? Prove it.
I can’t count the sermons I listened to about your treasure being in heaven; about God shaming the wisdom of the wise; and about Jesus coming back in fire and vengeance because He has not brought peace but a sword.
When you are a soldier in God’s army, you relish the fight for your definition of justice, because you know you are on the side of the angels. Those who are against you, on the side of the enemy, will not stand (Romans 8:31).
Of course, not all white evangelical Christians think like this. My devout Christian father loathes Trump and all he stands for. He sees Jesus as a Bernie Sanders figure who cared for the poor with no exception and hated wealthy religious leaders.
There are also those like Peter Wehner, a former official in the George W. Bush administration and a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center think tank, which applies “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy,” according to its website. Wehner, author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump,” has been among the 45th president’s most outspoken critics.
He has even dropped the label of evangelical in his disgust for the movement’s connection to Trump.
Many Christians in America today disavow Trump and find the attack on the Capitol detestable. There are those that support housing the immigrant, feeding the poor, and healing the sick. But there are many — more than can be dismissed as outliers or fringe — who do not. And therein lies the problem.
There is something about Trump that speaks to the modern evangelical Christian in America, more than Bush or McCain or Romney ever did. There has been a debate among followers as to which king in the Bible Trump most resembles. Is he King Herod — power-hungry, paranoid, and inept — or King Cyrus, an outsider who will deliver his people through the divine will of God, regardless of his own imperfections?
I think, had I stayed in the church, Trump would have spoken to me, too. He reminds me of a pastor at the megachurch, promising to put God first — regardless, in Trump’s case, of whether he believes it. And if God is first, then Christians are next in line, and that is a very appealing message. One that some may find hard to question. Especially if they have been told there is only one question left to answer: How much do you love Me? Prove it.
Or maybe it’s the church asking. Maybe it’s your family. Maybe it’s Trump. Maybe, for some people, you can’t tell anymore after all the years of being told you are chosen and special and right, that you are a victim, that there is only one answer, one truth, one way (John 14:6). These messages have warped the coils of your brain to a rigid tension, have flipped something around inside of you. There’s a point, I think, when the tables turn. When you want to lead Isaac up the mountain and God is just your excuse for the climb, for the knife in your hand.
As I watched the footage from the Capitol, I couldn’t help seeing the ghost of the girl I had left behind. The girl who had a million fears and believed a million lies. I would have done anything for God. Anything to keep His wrath at bay and to ensure my own salvation.
I’m 29 now. It’s hard to know the exact date when I stopped being a Christian, when the angels in heaven crossed out my name in the Book of Life, that tome that Revelations tells us was God’s list, before He created the world, of all who would live forever in Heaven. (My tone on this point, for the record, is half sarcasm, half lingering terror.)
Deconversion is a long and painful process. I’m lucky: My parents never threatened to disown me. My husband didn’t divorce me. I had the freedom to leave. Not all do.
What if I hadn’t been as fortunate? What if I had stayed? Would I have been at the Capitol?
Asking myself that brings back the lights of Sunday service as they swept up and down the walls, casting quick, long shadows, the music rising timbre by timbre until it felt like it was inside you, coursing through your blood, every fiber of your being vibrating with conviction, goosebumps erupting up your arms, hands raised in triumph to the living God, and yes, you will do anything, anything He asks of you.
Or anything you think He is asking of you.
Looking back is painful. But as I watch my country under siege, I have to speak out, if only to tell others there’s another way to be. I know because I chose it. Some will call me damned, but I couldn’t stand the person salvation made me. So I gave it up. I laid down my armor as a soldier of God and, in doing so, realized that none of the monsters were real.