Last Thursday, Donald J. Trump was found guilty on all 34 felony counts levied against him by a jury of his peers in a New York courtroom, marking the first time in our 248-year history that a former President of the United States has been held accountable to the law. The exact consequences of that conviction, legally, culturally, and electorally are still unknown – our frayed social contract and crumbling institutions being what they are – but there is always righteousness in holding the mighty to the same standards as the meager.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees.

As anyone with an internet connection, a carrier pigeon, or an uncle knows by now, conservatives are apoplectic about the conviction. Members of the “lock her up” crowd are clutching their pearls at the mere thought that anyone would prosecute a politician for crimes. Mouthpieces for the party of law and order are flocking to the nearest television studios to decry this imposition of law and order upon one of their own, and to deem the land of the free a “banana republic” and a “Third World country” – never mind the fact that prosecuting powerful politicians for crimes they have actually committed is a hallmark of virtually every other developed democracy on earth. 

The verdict as it appeared in the New York Times on May 31, 2024

But I am less interested in the predictable hysterics and staggering hypocrisy of rank-and-file Republicans than I am in the reactions coming out of a subgroup within the conservative movement in the United States: Christian nationalists.

As I’ve written about at length, American Christian nationalists are adherents to a right-wing movement which seeks to merge American identity and Christian identity, making the United States a “Christian nation,” where Christians are favored – and even privileged – citizens. Sociologists like Dr. Sam Perry and others, along with organizations like the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Pew, have done extensive work to measure and define the movement and elucidate its core beliefs. Though most Christians in the United States do not qualify as Christian nationalists under the definitions and data assembled by Dr. Perry and others, the overwhelming majority of white evangelical protestants do. Animated by large numbers of white evangelicals, the contemporary Christian nationalist movement seeks to “return the country to God.” Support for the movement’s core beliefs is heavily correlated with support for Donald Trump. 

In the week since Trump’s conviction, national and local leaders in the Christian nationalist movement have produced condemnatory statements at an astonishing rate, seizing upon their earthly savior’s conviction on 34 felony counts as a means to raise money and rile up their followers by castigating the lawful verdict as nothing less than an attack from Satan. The rhetoric emanating from movement leaders in the wake of the verdict has ranged from run-of-the-mill to fire-and-brimstone – with some of the reactions on the latter end of the spectrum pushing the accepted range of political punditry into outlandish, and possibly even dangerous, territory. 

The response from House Speaker Mike Johnson – arguably the most powerful Christian nationalist in the country at this moment – came in on the run-of-the-mill end of the spectrum. Johnson referred to the day of the verdict as “a shameful day in American history,” and urged the Supreme Court to step in and overturn the jury’s decision. Though Johnson’s personal beliefs are deeply troubling, including his supposed belief that Donald Trump was anointed by God to lead the United States, his demeanor is the definition of ‘milquetoast,’ and it’s not surprising that his response to the verdict, though inflected by his Christian nationalist beliefs, was so tame. 

Like Johnson, Ralph Reed also came in on the more tepid end of things. Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and the religious right’s go-to power lobbyist and political consultant, called the verdict “nakedly partisan” and “as shameful as it was predictable.” In a post for his Faith & Freedom Coalition, Reed asserted that the entire trial “was based on hatred for Donald Trump, revenge for his successful conservative presidency.” As I wrote last month, Reed’s current preoccupation seems to be with not upsetting the apple cart when he is so close to ushering the Christian nationalist movement across the finish line and into serious power. Reed doesn’t need to incite his followers to war: he’s currently running a $62 million operation to get them to the polls.

Outside of the Beltway, though, the responses put forward by Christian nationalist leaders took on a darker tone, laden with warnings of civil war, demonic possession, and the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric which too often precedes inhumane behavior.

Mario Murillo, a Tennessee-based preacher and self-identified prophet who frequently appears alongside other movement leaders like David Barton and Dutch Sheets, greeted the verdict by unleashing a holy screed titled “Jesus was a convicted felon.” Written as a letter to the nameless, faceless Democratic Party monolith Murillo assumes was behind Trump’s prosecution, the piece argues that the verdict will “backfire.” “You have made a huge mistake,” he wrote. “Far from diminishing our numbers, many have gotten off the fence. You have enlarged the ranks of the patriots, and energized them.” Murillo, who has shared the stage with Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert and is a frequent guest speaker at the mega churches of El Paso County, wrote that Democrats – who he believes were responsible for the choices made by a district attorney in New York – will get “the polar opposite of what you wanted. Whatever victory you think you have won is a fantasy. Whatever traction you think you will get from this is an illusion.” Murillo has previously asserted that both Joe Biden and Barack Obama receive guidance from demons.

Lance Wallnau, a traveling preacher who made his name by prophesying in 2015 that Trump would be elected President, told his audience in a video posted Monday that “the left” plans to persecute them, too. “These people are already at civil war,” Wallnau claimed. “They plan on locking you up.” In the video, Wallnau said that those opposed to Trump were operating “under the spirit of that principality” – one of his ways of referring to demonic control – effectively telling his audience that Democrats are not fellow humans created in the image of their God, but that they are demonic forces intent on waging civil war and jailing innocent Christians. 

Perhaps the most alarming Christian nationalist reaction to the verdict I saw, though, came less than 24 hours after the jury weighed-in, on last Friday’s Truth & Liberty call-in show. Based in Woodland Park, Colorado, the Truth & Liberty Coalition is a Christian nationalist media operation with a nationwide reach. Co-founded by Wallnau and charismatic faith healer Andrew Wommack, Truth & Liberty produces thousands of hours of video content promoting a specific interpretation of both Christianity and conservatism, and hosts a live call-in show daily on various social media platforms, featuring mini-celebs from across the Christian media sphere.

Last Friday’s episode was hosted by frequent guest host Janet Folger Porter, who, in addition to being a vocal advocate for various anti-abortion causes, also served as a spokeswoman for Alabama judge Roy Moore’s ill-fated 2017 Senate run, which was derailed when Moore – a longtime hero in the Christian nationalist movement for his efforts to display the Ten Commandments in courtrooms – was accused of sexual assault by several women.

“We’re looking, right now, at a banana republic,” Porter told the audience at the beginning of the broadcast. “I am wearing black purposely today, because it is a very dark day in American history. We have those running the Biden administration who will stop at nothing to, not only raid a former President’s home, to put on a sham trial which breaks all kinds of rules – including the statute of limitations – and a gag order, which is also illegal, in an attempt to imprison their political opponent. That is where we are right now.”

“By the way, if they can go after President Trump, they can go after you. They can go after me. Nobody is safe,” Porter solemnly intoned.

But it was not Porter who made the commentary on last Friday’s Truth & Liberty call-in show so striking. It was her guest, pastor Chris L. Reed. Reed, the head of MorningStar Ministries in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has made a small name for himself in certain Christian circles in recent years by proclaiming that he has the gift of prophecy, and then releasing prophecies tailor-made to please his audience.

In 2022, for instance, Reed prophesied that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would soon fall from power (in March 2023, Xi received a third term in power and is currently the longest-serving Chinese leader since Mao). In his list of prophecies for 2022, Reed prophesied – albeit, somewhat cagily – that President Biden would “slump over in his chair” and Kamala Harris would become president. 

Janet Folger Porter and Chris L. Reed on the Truth & Liberty Live Call-in Show, May 31, 2024

Last week, when Porter hosted Reed on the Truth & Liberty call-in show, Reed applied the gift of prophecy to the task of punditry and ultimately cobbled together a jumble of predictions and pronouncements which verge on incitement.

“You have a track record, we could do the whole show on things you have spoken which have come to pass,” Porter told Reed on air, before asking him to tell the audience about a prophetic dream he had, and share prophetic wisdom on what will come from Trump’s conviction. With that prompting, Reed proclaimed that God had given him a vision that there will be “something serious happening in the nation before the 2024 election. This event will cause absolute chaos and affect the elections in the US in November 2024. It seemed like an epic ‘October surprise’ and pandemonium ensued, though I’m not limiting this pre-election event to being in October.”

Reed went on to share that the “pre-election event” he prophesied will “intensify the division [in the country] to a very scary and intense level.” When Porter asked Reed if God had given him any idea what the prophesied “pre-election event” might be, Reed heavily implied that it would be an attempt to assassinate President Trump. 

“I had a clear vision…and I saw President Trump either getting out of a vehicle or stepping in, and someone attempting to assassinate him,” Reed said. “I saw him getting in – it was like he was stepping out of his vehicle, and someone tried to take his life, and they would say it was a lone terrorist or lone murderer but I knew that it wasn’t.” The good news, he said, is that Christians can stop it.

In other words, Reed alleged that there will be a Democratic conspiracy to assassinate President Trump unless Christians prevent it, and he cloaked his violent fantasizing in divine raiment. He said, in fact, that God told him about the conspiracy.

“I think we need to pray against an assassination attempt,” Porter replied.

When studying and engaging with extreme ideologies, I often find myself preoccupied by the same question: who is being fooled, and who is doing the fooling? Sometimes it’s easy to tell. When a twice-divorced adulterous conman like Donald Trump sells himself to the masses as some sort of evangelical, it’s obvious who is doing the fooling. Most of the time, though, the line between fooler and fooled is harder to parse. I do not know, for instance, whether Lance Wallnau actually believes that Democrats are controlled by demons, or whether Chris Reed actually believes himself to be a prophet, or whether they simply understand how to gain an audience. What I do know, though, is that it does not actually matter: whether they are in on the con or not, they are spreading dangerous beliefs which are all but certain to put real people in real danger.

If that sounds hyperbolic to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

A few weeks ago, I urged Christian nationalists to step down from the high places and engage in earthly politics with the rest of us; to stop sanctifying their position by declaring that their political preferences are an exact facsimile of God’s political preferences. 

The reaction from Christian nationalist circles to Trump’s guilty verdict highlights this need: the sanctification of partisan, earthly politics is not only absurd, it is actively dangerous. Mario Murillo, Lance Wallnau, and others all explicitly either associated their political opponents with demons, or claimed that they are literally demons. Wallnau told his followers that these demons – their neighbors, the other parents at their kids’ schools – are going to start a civil war and throw them in jail. Chris Reed told his followers that their political opponents are orchestrating a deadly conspiracy to kill Donald Trump and subvert American democracy, and he claimed that God personally delivered those revelations to him, effectively giving them the same weight as scripture. 

If a listener were to take Reed or Wallnau literally, how might they be compelled to act? If you believe that your political opponents are not merely people with different values and different views on marginal tax rates, but are quite literally the embodiment of the supernatural forces of evil, how might you be compelled to act? Scholar and author Matthew D. Taylor makes a compelling case that the answer to that question might be “violently.” Taylor, author of the upcoming book The Violent Take it By Force (a reference to Matthew 11:12), has already linked supernatural beliefs in spiritual warfare with the violence on January 6th.

If you believe that politics is not, in fact, an earthly thing, but is actually a proxy battle in a grand spiritual war, how many more shoves does it take before you become willing to kill for it? After all, what are a few lives when you’re fighting on God’s side? Especially if those killed were not humans, but demons. This is not supposition on my part: research by PRRI shows that Christian nationalists are already roughly twice as likely as their fellow Americans to condone political violence, and that willingness is underpinned by a belief in spiritual warfare.

I’ve studied and written about Christian nationalism for long enough that this is not a revelation to me – but it is, nevertheless, a truth which concerns me more with each passing day. Millions of Americans are being convinced, or are convincing themselves, that they are on the side of the angels, and that the rest of us are not. Dozens of Christian nationalist leaders and influencers are fanning those flames daily – some who have been fooled, others who are doing the fooling, but all equally culpable – even as our sclerotic republic enters territory which would be dangerous enough without the inclusion of holy war.

There is no longer any question as to whether there is a homegrown religious extremist movement blooming from the American soil. There is. As uncomfortable, unprecedented, and unappealing as that reality is, it is reality nonetheless. Christian nationalists are here to stay. The only question to concern ourselves with now is how far they are willing to go, and what the consequences might be.

“At some point, if you really believe that the election’s being stolen by demons and that demons are inspiring these other people to stop that,” Taylor said, “it makes sense that you would try to take it over.”