Radical beliefs in 'spiritual warfare' played a major role in Jan. 6, an expert argues

Religious scholar Matthew D. Taylor says the rhetoric of Christian nationalist pastors can tip over into actual violence.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the Capitol
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
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Two weeks after President Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, a group of Christian pastors stood on stage inside a nondenominational church in a suburb of Phoenix, whipping the congregation into a frenzy of prayer mixed with violent and bloody imagery.

After 45 minutes of singing, and a request for money, and another 45 minutes of remarks from a featured speaker, the real show began: A rock band began playing anthemic background music while a procession of self-proclaimed “prophets” came to the stage to weave a tale of war between good and evil.

It was emotional, it was exhausting and it was relentless.

“Let there be the roar from the army of God!” yelled one Florida pastor named Donald Lynch, pumping his fist as hundreds of people stood around the stage jumping up and down, raising their arms in the air and crying out. “Release the roar! Release the roar! Out of your belly!”

Trump supporters inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump supporters inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Lynch spoke of a vision he claimed God had given him of an evil giant — symbolizing Biden and the Democrats — and of instructions he claimed God had given him to deal violently with that giant.

“God said, ‘Do you have the stomach to finish the job? Put your foot on his chin and expose the neck. Pick up that weapon and find you are strong enough to wield it,” Lynch said, his husky voice straining. He began to shout. “Finish this! Finish this! I say finish this!”

It was pandemonium. It went on for over an hour. And this same scene was repeated in churches over the next month in seven states then-President Donald Trump was trying to throw out millions of legitimate votes in a bid to stay in power: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.

Roughly two dozen religious leaders traveled to these battleground states over the course of a month, holding revival meetings where they mixed the rhetoric of violent spiritual warfare with prayers for the reinstatement of Trump in the presidency.

Donald Trump
Trump speaking to supporters from the Ellipse near the White House on the day of the Jan. 6 riot. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

On Dec. 1, in Pittsburgh, an Atlanta-based “apostolic leader” named Jacquie Tyre kept her voice at a steady, constant yell around the halfway point of a nearly three-hour political rally and religious service.

“There is rising up a militia, that is connecting to the battlefield states, that will uncover, even beginning this night, the fraud, the corruption, the infiltration of evil from Pennsylvania to Georgia, from Georgia to Nevada, from Nevada to Arizona, from Arizona to New Mexico, from New Mexico to Wisconsin, to Michigan,” Tyre roared.

“God, we declare, that the militia men, the minutemen of the kingdom of God, are rising up in this hour,” she howled. “And, Father, we declare and decree in this place that there is no demon in hell and there is no voice out of government that can topple the kingdom of our God.”

And it was all at the behest of Republican political officials in Washington, D.C, according to the leader of this effort, a pastor from South Carolina named Dutch Sheets. Little known outside his movement, Sheets would later meet with Trump administration officials at the White House on Dec. 29, 2020, a week before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.

These meetings — and the religious philosophy that animated them — were a much bigger part of Jan. 6 than has previously been realized, argues Matthew D. Taylor, a scholar of Protestantism at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

Person holding rosary
Getty images

Taylor has produced a podcast series titled “Charismatic Revival Fury” that explains the roots of a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation, which Taylor says became “the backbone ... of Christian Trumpism” and then ultimately one of the driving forces behind the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.

“It’s really a movement that's only been around for less than 30 years,” Taylor told Yahoo News, and was “seen as fringy, was seen as the realm of hucksters, seen as kind of low-brow and populist and extremist,” until Trump turned to its leaders to help him consolidate evangelical support during the 2016 election.

The NAR has also been “very hard to track,” Taylor said, because of the intentional way in which its founders were anti-institutional, anti-denominational, and built a “mesh network” centered around individual leaders with large followings across the country and on social media and the internet. These leaders were organized by a man named C. Peter Wagner in the 1990s to form a governance structure that Taylor labels a “spiritual oligarchy.”

Taylor estimates that there are at least 10 million independent charismatic Christians in the U.S., based on his analysis of the U.S. Religion Census conducted in 2020.

And Taylor shows that some of the Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 had been told by this network of religious leaders that Trump’s defeat was the work of actual demons, and that the Capitol itself was occupied by literal evil spirits.

Supporters of Trump after stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021
Supporters of Trump after having stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

On Jan. 1, Sheets told his roughly 300,000 followers on YouTube that a friend had a dream in which a “huge hand ... from the sky” — which he also called “the hand of God” — “flicked the dome open” on top of the Capitol. “A very thick black smoke began rising up out of the building. The smoke was so thick it was almost solid, and actually it resembled a living thing ... the darkness is an alliance with evil spirits,” Sheets said.

“We then heard a cavalry bugle playing the signal to charge, and we began moving toward the Capitol, not at a full gallop, but at a steady determined fast trot. As we started, on the ground in front of us, written in white letters, were the words ‘Don’t Stop,’” Sheets said. “God is coming to clean our government. Many in our Congress need to go.”

It is rhetoric like this, and the belief system that undergirds it, Taylor argues, that provided some portion of the emotional and psychological fuel for the violent and nearly calamitous effort to stop a democratic peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6.

And this is why, he says, so many religious symbols and rituals were displayed that day — including the shofar, a horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies that has been adopted by Christian nationalists.

Taylor also specified that it was not simply a belief in “spiritual warfare” that inclined Trump supporters to lean toward real-world violence, but a more intensified and specific form of this belief system that he calls “strategic spiritual warfare.”

Many Christians around the world believe in “spiritual warfare,” Taylor said, but there are many different definitions of what this means.

At its most basic level, spiritual warfare simply means praying against evil. But the most radicalized versions Taylor believes are potentially dangerous include the belief that evil spirits take over and possess whole cities and institutions and can only be defeated by the physical presence of Christians — including some who call themselves “spiritual warfare generals” — engaged in intense prayer, singing, prophecy and other rituals.

Protesters clash with police at the Jan. 6 riots
Protesters clash with police at the Jan. 6 riots. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For weeks leading up to the Capitol riot, Sheets and others in this network of self-proclaimed oracles told their followers that they needed to be physically present in D.C. on Jan. 6, to help wage this “strategic spiritual warfare” against these evil spirits, so that Trump could be reinstated.

This message was augmented by so-called Jericho Marches, held in many of the swing states, in which Trump supporters walked in circles around government buildings to reenact a story from the Old Testament. In that tale, the Israelites marched around the walled city of Jericho, conquered it with help from God and “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” as it says in the Book of Joshua.

There was also a Jericho March around the Supreme Court on Dec. 12, followed by a bizarre rally of religious and political leaders that equated Trump’s return to power as God’s will.

The rally showed that Trump supporters were “willing to tear down the country for a belief that they cannot prove, but that they will not believe is disprovable,” wrote Rod Dreher, a staunch conservative himself.

“Based on what I saw today,” Dreher wrote later in his dispatch, “the Christians in this movement do not doubt that Trump is God’s chosen, that they, by following him, are walking in light, and whatever they do to serve Trump is also serving God. They have tightly wound apocalyptic religion to conservative politics and American nationalism.”

And hours before Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Sheets told his YouTube followers that people had “gathered in Washington, D.C.” for “a Jericho March around the Capitol and Supreme Court grounds.” The indication is that some of the Trump supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 thought of themselves as participating in another Jericho March.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces
Another view of the scene on Jan. 6. (Oliver Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Taylor, the religious scholar, told Yahoo News: “What you see breaking out and coming into the open on Jan. 6th is all of this rhetoric, all of this vocabulary of spiritual warfare, of mobilization, of battling demons. 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 — well, then it makes sense that you would try to take it over.”

And Sheets himself said he was asked to lead this crusade about a week after Biden had been declared the winner of the election.

On Nov. 23 — the day Sheets and other radical pastors gathered outside Phoenix — he told the audience how he had been called by “government leaders” in Washington, D.C., just after returning home from meetings with those same leaders in the nation’s capital.

“They said, ‘You can't wait. You can’t plan this for two or three weeks,’” Sheets said. “And they said, ‘If you're gonna do this and really do any good, you’re going to have to start now.”

“I was in shock for a few minutes,” Sheets said. “Here's civil government leaders prophesying to me, a spiritual leader, what we need to be doing to help turn this thing.”

Sheets had already been invited by Trump adviser Paula White Cain, in the fall of 2019, to be a part of an official White House effort to organize and mobilize Christians to pray for Trump’s presidency.

A "Stop the Steal" rally in front of the Supreme Court, Jan. 5, 2021. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Taylor says that leaders like Sheets — who he calls “independent charismatics” rather than evangelicals or Pentecostals — never directly called for physical violence. But Taylor said he has identified about three dozen prominent leaders in the independent charismatic subculture who were either at the Trump rally on the Ellipse before the attack on the Capitol, or at the Capitol itself.

He has not found any evidence that any of these leaders went into the Capitol or engaged in violence themselves.

But religious rituals and symbols connected to NAR-style beliefs were part of the syncretic stew in the crowd outside the Capitol during the riot: the blowing of shofars, prayer circles, “Appeal to Heaven” flags, and the singing of religious songs with violent spiritual warfare imagery.

One of the rioters who unlawfully entered the Capitol and trespassed into the Senate chamber itself said he was there to “plead the blood of Jesus on the Senate floor.”

“I praised the name of Jesus on the Senate floor. That was my goal. I think that was God’s goal,” said Joshua Black of Alabama, who was convicted of five federal charges last month and faces up to 10 years in prison.

A man calls on people to raid the Capitol building
A man calls on people to raid the Capitol building. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

And one of the most prominent NAR “prophets” — a woman named Cindy Jacobs — had obtained a permit to set up a sound system on the east front of the Capitol where she and others prayed, prophesied and sang songs as the mob invaded the Capitol.

Taylor is concerned that these religious leaders continue to hold significant influence over their followers and he has seen no reevaluation or introspection about the way this movement has blurred the line between religion and politics, and no moderating of the literal demonization of those with whom they disagree.

“They absolutely do not see the connection between what they collectively did in the lead-up to January 6 and what transpired that day,” Taylor said on his “Charismatic Revival Fury” podcast.

“There has been, so far as I can tell, no internal reckoning among the New Apostolic Reformation leaders with what they did that fed directly into the Capitol riot, because they believe that they were simply there to pray and do spiritual warfare. And they blithely dismiss the truth that the rhetoric of violence stokes literal violence.”

“At some point, spiritual warfare tips over into actual warfare. You can only point to a group of people or a political party and say that they’re possessed by demons so many times before someone decides that those people need to be violently attacked,” Taylor said.

And major public figures on the far right have, at least since the 2020 election, begun to use violent and dehumanizing rhetoric about American politics.

“This is a war that we’re in, this is a big spiritual war,” Michael Flynn, a Trump loyalist who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at an event in the spring of 2022 for Republican candidates in Oklahoma.

Retired United States Army Gen. Michael Flynn
Retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn. (Dustin Franz/Getty Images)

Flynn’s next sentence was, “I mean people like Nancy Pelosi, she’s a demon.”

Taylor said this kind of rhetoric from Flynn is part of a trend on the right, in which opponents are demonized, figuratively and sometimes even literally.

Law enforcement experts increasingly worry that this kind of rhetoric raises the likelihood of incidents like the attack on Pelosi’s husband, Paul, at his home last October.

The attacker, who espoused many baseless conspiracy theories common in the QAnon belief system, told law enforcement that he believed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the “‘leader of the pack’ of lies told by the Democratic Party,” according to an FBI affidavit.

“As the rhetoric of violence, the rhetoric of demonization, in a society rises and rises and rises, somebody’s going to pop off and do something. Somebody’s going to take that rhetoric very seriously and go and do something,” Taylor said.

Sometimes this kind of language is more subtle.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has recently started to quote from a well-known passage in the biblical book of Ephesians, Chapter 6, which says to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” But in DeSantis’s version, “the devil” is replaced by “the left.”

“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” DeSantis said last year.

Taylor said that if the 2024 presidential election is close, and there are legal challenges after Election Day, “if you have politicians who are willing to activate those animal spirits in the American populace, I would not be surprised if you saw mobilization of spiritual warfare campaigns that can tip over into actual violence again.”