“Leave all snacks on the bus!” our guide shouted over the intercom as we readied ourselves to go through security at the U.S. Capitol a few years ago.
“What about my gun?” a man in the back called out, prompting laughter from us all.
That he had brought his gun wasn’t surprising. I was with a busload of white conservative Christians who had come to D.C. from all over the country to learn a Christian nationalist interpretation of the history of the United States. They loved the Second Amendment almost as much as the First. The man reluctantly disarmed and disembarked with the rest of us, and we began the trek up Capitol Hill. What followed was a series of indignities that made most of the group long for the pre-9/11 days when visitors could simply walk into the Capitol and wander the halls of power at will. This was, after all, their house.
From 2014 to 2015, I spent two years observing and participating in Christian heritage tours in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in a white evangelical family, and even though I was no longer evangelical myself, I remained fascinated by conservative Christian politics. White Christian nationalism—a movement that believes the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should be ruled by conservative Christian values—was on the rise. For scholars, Christian heritage tours provide a rare window into the formation of certain kinds of nationalist ideas, including Washington, D.C.’s peculiar place in that ideology.
Some commentators have called last week’s insurrection at the Capitol a “desecration” of a national sacred space, if not of democracy itself. But to white Christian nationalists, this claim fundamentally misunderstands what is sacred. To members of this group—now a cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s political coalition—the Capitol has already been desecrated by lawmakers who fail to enact God’s will for the nation. The building may be full of relics from America’s Christian past, but real Christians and their God have long since been exiled.
When Trump’s insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, they were living the dream of countless frustrated white evangelical Christians on those tours. For a brief moment, they bypassed everything designed to keep them out, and claimed the Capitol for their own. They ran wild through the halls, toppling furniture and smashing windows. They sat in prohibited seats and snapped selfies of their rebellion. They lived out a fantasy of taking back the country, or at least its Capitol, for God.
At the siege, the presence of white conservative Christians was unmistakable. The Proud Boys stopped to pray to Jesus on their march toward the Capitol, and the crowd held signs proclaiming Jesus Saves and God’s Word Calls Them Out. One flag read Jesus is my savior. Trump is my President. In the Capitol, an insurgent stopped to pray outside a room where Senator Mitch McConnell’s staffers hid behind barricaded doors. She asked God for “the evil of Congress to be brought to an end.”
Not all of the January 6 insurrectionists were white Christian nationalists. Some represented themselves as pagan, while others were later identified as Orthodox Jews. Many came because they were inspired by QAnon conspiracy theories. But they were all united by the idea that the establishment should be overthrown and the nation returned to its founding principles, an idea white Christian nationalists have been promoting and normalizing for decades.
For white Christian nationalists, taking back the country is about more than just political power. They see themselves as faithful patriots fulfilling the American Founders’ covenant with God to maintain a righteous Christian nation. Their success means the nation will be rewarded with economic prosperity and military might, while failure will lead to divine wrath and, eventually, the demise of the nation itself. The stakes of the battle could not be higher. Washington is where this great battle must take place, whether in the streets or on the Senate floor.
The capital looms large in the imagination of many white Christian nationalists. On Christian heritage tours, guides dissolve any distinction between American icons and Christian imagery, spotlighting the countless statues and paintings of Christian leaders and the biblical inscriptions on buildings and memorials all over the city. To them, these symbols are proof of the nation’s Christian past, and a promise of its future restoration.
But many of the tour participants I spoke with hated how they felt like outsiders in Washington. The monumental scale of the nation’s capital is intended to make even those who like big government feel small. They came to resent being treated as suspect by security officers at every building. And their chief complaint was about the lack of “real Christians” in the federal government, as evidenced by lawmakers who supported abortion rights, prohibited school prayer, and failed to defend traditional marriage. In many ways, D.C. embodied what they saw as the nation’s decline from its righteous past.
Although not all of Trump’s white evangelical supporters embrace Christian nationalism, the ideology is prominent among a wide range of American conservative Christians. Since the 1970s, leaders of the Christian right have been calling for Americans to rise up and retake their country from the forces of evil. They have shared this message in many forms, including sermons, films, and art. Christian heritage tours, which draw a few thousand people to D.C. every year, are an ideal recruiting opportunity: As participants tour the city, they learn the key arguments of white Christian nationalism and are called to join the cause.
As they visit Arlington National Cemetery and the war memorials on the National Mall, they learn that their job is to step into the shoes of the soldiers who died for God and country. One guide connected these memorials to John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s what these soldiers did, she explained, and it’s what Christians are called to do to defend the nation. They were learning America’s Christian history so that they could set the nation back on the right course—even if they sacrificed their lives in the process.
One mother told me that she’d brought her two children on a Christian heritage tour to prepare them for what lay ahead: “I truly believe they will be persecuted in their lifetime,” she said, explaining that when that happened, she wanted them to know what they were fighting for. (Consistent with academic norms, I agreed not to publish the names of the individuals I interviewed.) To her, persecution was not something to be avoided. Persecution was a sign that Christians were doing God’s will, despite the oppression of a hostile world.
Some Christian nationalists believe that Christians should welcome persecution and the loss of political power, as did one leader of a conservative Christian nonprofit I met on a tour. “If we end up as a minority group without the power we once had, we will be stronger for it. We have to rejoice that a family member is chosen to die,” he said. “We are suffering for Christ.”
But white Christian nationalism also unites nostalgia for a lost age of Christian power with a profound sense of victimization, and it baptizes death as a heroic sacrifice for the nation. No one should underestimate how dangerous this combination is, particularly among those who decide that their faith requires them to retake their nation.
Adherents are right about one thing: The fate of this nation is at stake.