As the first members of the pro-Trump mob waltzed into the U.S. Senate chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, they looked for “evidence” of wrongdoing. A few made their way to the podium, where one shouted, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” That declaration inspired Jacob Chansley—nicknamed the “QAnon Shaman” for pushing conspiracy theories while wearing face paint and a furry hat with horns—to lead the group in prayer. After some removed their red caps and Chansley took off his furry hat, he prayed through a bullhorn.
“Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn,” he declared in his prayer. “Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen!”
While numerous reporters and commentators rightly point to Chansley’s prayer as evidence of Christian nationalism’s presence during the insurrection, that narrative misses an important detail that we, as Christian ministers, couldn’t help but notice. Chansley wasn’t the first to pray from that spot that day.
Christian nationalism, which seeks to fuse religious and national identities to preserve the power of a narrowly defined Christianity within America society, didn’t merely break into the Capitol on Jan. 6; it had already been invited in as part of the official business of Congress.
Both the Senate and House had previously heard prayers from Christian ministers elected to a government role and paid to pray before lawmakers. Additionally, those prayers of the official chaplains are transcribed and included each day in the official journals recording the work of the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
This reality raises an important question. Which is more representative of Christian nationalism: a man breaking into the building one day to offer one prayer, or someone standing there each day with the authority of the government to pray on behalf of the nation?
“Wise rulers still seek you,” the Rev. Margaret Kibben, a Presbyterian minister serving as House chaplain had prayed as part of the congressional session that morning before lawmakers started the process of certifying the 2020 presidential election. “So help us, God, to serve you and this nation with godliness and dignity.”
Kibben, praying on just her third day on the job, baptized the formal work of the government as she asked for God to help the legislators serve God so that God “would be revealed and exalted among the people.” She wore a mask instead of face paint and a pastoral collar instead of a furry hat, but her presence and practice still depicted the U.S. as a Christian nation.
While Kibben uses inclusive language in her prayers, she is still a Christian minister using Christian language to perform a Christian spiritual practice—all while speaking on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s why James Madison and some clergy during the founding period of the U.S. argued against congressional chaplains as an establishment of religion.
Although Kibben is the first woman to serve as a congressional chaplain, her denominational affiliation is more mundane. Her two immediate predecessors were the only Catholics to serve as House chaplains, but before that Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants—like United Methodists and Episcopalians—dominated the list.
A similar story exists in the Senate. Although current Chaplain Barry Black is the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve, he followed three Presbyterians who held that job in succession from 1969 until 2003. Episcopalians and Methodists often filled that role before then. To date, all House and Senate chaplains have been from Christian denominations.
A year after the insurrection, congressional and religious leaders showed they still didn’t fully grasp the dangers of Christian nationalism despite the horrendous events of Jan. 6, the investigations that ensued, and the relentless media coverage documenting it all. For the first anniversary commemorations, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi organized a prayer vigil—that is, a government-endorsed religious service. But this wasn’t an interfaith service reflecting the pluralism that defines America’s public life.
The only faith leader who spoke at the congressional event held on the steps of the Capitol was the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Although Curry has spoken out against Christian nationalism, his presence and his words that day unwittingly gave the ideology breath on the anniversary of when it almost helped kill our democracy.
“We need your help, Lord, now, to be the democracy you would have us to be,” Curry prayed before closing with a line that flirts with Christian Nationalist themes. “To be the nation you would have us to be—one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The prevalence of the mainline denominations in these government roles and ceremonies shouldn’t surprise us given they once numerically dominated Christianity in the United States and defined wide swaths of American culture. Historically, these traditions enjoyed higher social status than evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals, while also holding more moderate-to-progressive theological and political views in contrast to these other strands of Protestant Christianity. Although now in a period of decline, it is hard to overstate the influence mainline Protestants wielded during much of the twentieth century. They inadvertently used it to aid the cause of Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism did not suddenly appear in U.S. culture in the last couple years. As sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry noted in their book The Flag and the Cross, this ideology traces its lineage all the way back to the Puritans. What’s often ignored in contemporary denouncements is how mainline Christianity fueled its rise.
Consider that when the National Council of Churches, of which the mainline denominations have long exercised leadership within, released the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1952, its leaders prominently gave the very first copy to President Harry Truman at the White House. Similarly, when work began on the Interchurch Center in New York City (often referred to as the “God Box” for its historical housing of mainline Protestant denominational offices and ministries), President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone.
In both instances, the presidents ritually affirmed and legitimated the work and witness of mainline Christianity. At the request of mainline leaders, Truman and Eisenhower signaled that their particular version of church and American identity reinforced each other. If Donald Trump had christened a conservative church building while president or made time to receive the first version of a new Bible in the Oval Office, it would be counted as evidence of his support for Christian nationalism—even more than when he held up a Bible outside “the church of presidents,” an Episcopal church located next to the White House. It should be no less so when discussing the actions of Truman and Eisenhower or the role played by the mainline denominations in their critical era that shaped our nation.
Then there’s the pesky issue of the American flag. Brought into mainline church sanctuaries in response to the wars of last century, Old Glory represents a powerful symbol of patriotism that makes for an odd fit in a sacred space devoted to worshiping a God who ostensibly rules over all the nations. To make matters worse, the U.S. Flag Code requires the banner to be placed in a “position of superior prominence.” This rule means that if a church decides to fly a Christian flag as well—in a nod to a two-kingdoms theology—the U.S. flag will by placement be the one of first allegiance. Even in moderate and progressive mainline congregations today, many preachers proclaim the word of God with the Star-Spangled Banner as their backdrop, helping to merge Christian and American identities.
Undoubtedly, many mainline Christians saw this kind of soft nationalism as harmless civil religion. Yet as the Boy Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance on Scout Sunday during worship, as the U.S. flag stood near the cross in the sanctuary each Sunday, and as congregants turned to the patriotic hymns section of their songbooks on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, they were discipled into a version of Christian nationalism that still affects how people today think about church and state. Mainline Christians, both past and present, arrived at church each week seeking to celebrate both God and country.
The events of Jan. 6, 2021, revealed what this legacy has wrought. The insurrectionists performed religious rituals, carried signs with Bible verses and Christian imagery, and prayed to Jesus as they desecrated the Capitol in their quest to “take the country back.” The long history of uncritically blending spiritual and temporal loyalties had unintentionally fostered an uncivil religion that threatened American democracy.
Evangelicals often rightly get critiqued for pushing Christian nationalism. But the historical events and symbols such preachers and politicians point to as “evidence” the U.S. should be a Christian nation are often the very things mainline Protestants either helped implement or encouraged.
It was in the golden era of mainline cultural influence in the years after World War II that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the nation’s official motto. Mainline chaplains in Congress prayed as mainline Protestant politicians voted for these changes. Eisenhower, who was baptized as a Presbyterian while president, oversaw this effort to sanctify the nation locked in a conflict with the atheistic Soviet Union. Mainline Protestants assured a worried nation that God was on our side.
Mainline Christianity is not solely responsible for Christian nationalism’s rise nor was it the primary religious enabler of the insurrectionists of Jan. 6. But the disease infecting our body politic historically and currently finds milder expression in many mainline and progressive Christian churches—even in sanctuaries where those in the pulpits critique the Christian nationalism of their evangelical counterparts. This should spark some soul-searching.
As pastors, one of whom belongs to a mainline tradition, our plea is for mainline Protestantism to help combat Christian nationalism by getting its own houses in order. Let’s take the flags out of the sanctuaries, stop conflating the reign of God with one particular nation, and offer an authentic witness in the name of Jesus that counters Christian nationalism’s intensifying threat to both church and state. For the sake of our democracy and the witness of our churches, mainline Protestants need to address our own sins first.
The Rev. Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in political communication, is president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way. The Rev. Beau Underwood is a contributing editor at Word&Way and is also pursuing a doctorate in public affairs.