Evangelical American Christians would be less inclined to believe QAnon conspiracy theories or support the Capitol Riots if more of them read the Bible, according to a former US Department of Homeland Security official.
“My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country – if everybody who calls themselves a ‘Christian’ had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 per cent of the Bible – they would not have been so easily deceived,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who resigned from the Trump Administration in April, 2020.
Neumann had been Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention and voted for Donald Trump in 2016. She voted for Joe Biden in the recent US election.
Speaking at length with Politico about a rise in the US of extremist Christians, such as those who invaded the Capitol, Neumann shared how her own upbringing in conservative evangelical circles sharpen her insights. “I personally feel a great burden, since I came from these communities, to try to figure out how to help the leaders,” said Neumann, who has described herself as “first and foremost a follower of Jesus”.
While the past two decades in the USA have seen Muslim communities focused to prevent possible radicalisation and terrorism, Neumann agreed that a dangerous form of “Christian nationalism” has been simmering to boil during Trump’s presidency. In particular, she said a number of factors in 2020 converged to where Homeland Security “knew we were going to see more radicalisation and violence” from some Christian circles.
Isolation during the pandemic combined with views about government overreach – as well as President Trump’s opinions about threatened democracy – fanned into flames what Neumann observed as a “strong authoritarian streak” in “conservative Christian movements”.
“They don’t believe in the infallibility of their pastor, but they act like it; they don’t believe in the infallibility of the head of the home, but they sometimes act like it; where you’re not allowed to question authority,” said Neumann.
“… they’ve been told: ‘You don’t need to study [scripture]. We’re giving you the answer.'”
“The authoritarian, fundamentalist nature of certain evangelical strands is a prominent theme in the places where you see the most ardent Trump supporters or the QAnon believers, because they’ve been told: ‘You don’t need to study [scripture]. We’re giving you the answer.’
“Then, when Rev. Robert Jeffress [a prominent conservative Baptist pastor in Dallas] says you’ve got to support Donald Trump, and makes some argument that sounds ‘churchy’, people go, ‘Well, I don’t like Trump’s language, but OK, that’s the right thing.’
“It creates people who are not critical thinkers. They’re not necessarily reading scripture for themselves. Or if they are, they’re reading it through the lens of one pastor, and they’re not necessarily open to hearing outside perspectives on what the text might say. It creates groupthink.”
Neumann told Politico digital editor Zack Stanton that Christian nationalism is “a huge theme throughout evangelical Christendom”. She referred to teachings in some US churches that America is “the next version of Israel from the Old Testament, that we are God’s chosen nation, and that is a special covenant — a two-way agreement with God”.
As Stanton writes, some Christians fear that if this covenant “is broken, the nation risks literal destruction — analogous to the siege of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible [see 2 Kings 25]”.
“In the eyes of these believers, [Neumann says] that covenant is threatened by cultural changes like taking prayer out of public schools and legalising abortion and gay marriage.”
Bible verses such as 2 Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” – are employed by Christians championing a nation state for God. (Not everyone who uses this verse to pray for blessing is a Christian nationalist, but it is used by those who believe their nation can be specially blessed.)
Neumann agreed that “cancel culture” [leftwing inspired censorship] was a threat to Christian expression and influence in US society, but said that those seeking to politically impose Christianity on the USA are not reading from Jesus’ playbook.
“Even if somehow you wanted to say that the American church is what [scripture is] referencing, [the Bible] tells us [to do] the exact opposite of what they’re talking about. We are told not to seek power. We’re told to be humble. We’re told to turn the other cheek.”
“Jesus, in confronting Caesar’s representative at his trial, says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ My fight is not here, basically.”
“Jesus, in confronting Caesar’s representative at his trial, says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’
Neumann admitted that “it took me a while to even discover” that beliefs she had grown up with were shaped more by church culture than the Bible. She suggested that it takes humility to recognise you might have misunderstood, or been taught incorrectly, about biblical truths.
“To fix that, you really have to go back to scripture. You can’t just be like, ‘Christian nationalism is wrong.’ You have to go back to what the Bible says, versus what you were taught as an American Christian, where it was so interwoven.”
As an example of how US evangelical Christianity has missed its mark, Neumann pointed to a survey conducted by US megachurch Willow Creek – founded by now-disgraced pastor Bill Hybels – about 10-15 years ago. Willow Creek had run a successful campaign to attract membership during the 1990s but survey results showed these newer Christians had a “lack of growth in their faith. They were not learning the scriptures. They were not engaged in community. They were not discipling anybody.”
“Willow Creek’s assessment was: We failed. We baptised some people, but they’re not actually maturing.”
Neumann can only speculate about how such a “failure” contributed to the inflamed, volatile state of evangelical Christianity in the USA. But she again points Christians – and their leaders – back to the Bible as the starting point for making real, meaningful change.
” … There certainly are pastors who are struggling with these questions: ‘How do I help somebody that has gone down the QAnon rabbit hole? Or, to put it in biblical terms, how do I help somebody who has made Trump an idol?'” said Neumann.
“… What they teach from their pulpits [is relevant], even going back to the basics. Scripture teaches us not to spend time in conspiracies … Teach the Ten Commandments and the fact that bearing false witness and slander are actually what conspiracy theories do: You are believing made-up sets of ‘facts’ about people you don’t have firsthand knowledge of.
“There are ways pastors can address it. But it’s hard, and they need a community where they feel safe to be encouraged to do this work.”
“Our purpose as believers is to be salt and light; it’s not to force everybody to hold our beliefs.”