Dr. Lauren R. Kerby is the author of Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation’s Capitol and Redeem a Christian America (2020). She is the religious literacy specialist for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, and an instructor in religion and education at Harvard Extension School.
For decades, leaders of the Christian right have been calling for true Christian patriots to take back America. Their well-worn jeremiad decries the exile of Christians from power and demands they retake their place at the center of the nation.
On January 6, they did just that.
For hours, while the Capitol’s usual occupants sheltered in offices and basements, white Christian nationalists took over the center of American government. In the Senate chamber, a member of the Proud Boys led a prayer:
"Thank you, heavenly father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists. This is our nation, not theirs. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn."
The exiles had returned.
In 2014 and 2015, as part of the ethnographic research for my first book, I toured Washington, DC, with nine separate tour groups of white conservative Christians, totaling over 400 people. I listened to the stories they told, and I observed how they interacted with the city’s famous sites. What I saw and heard was a contradictory mix of emotions: They were excited to be in these “sacred places,” but they resented feeling like outsiders. “Real Christians,” they believed, were not welcome here. Where once conservative Christians had occupied the nation’s highest positions of power, now they watched from the balcony like everyone else.
'Real Christians,' they believed, were not welcome here. Where once conservative Christians had occupied the nation’s highest positions of power, now they watched from the balcony like everyone else.
This sense of belonging and yet not belonging was a constant feature of the tours I observed. It is also the feeling that was expressed in maximalist form on January 6 in the Capitol siege. Not every participant in the tours I observed would be classified today as a white Christian nationalist, but their stories are not so different from the narrative of restoration that justified the Capitol siege. Most importantly, the feelings evoked in both contexts are the same: possessiveness combined with outrage at being dispossessed.
When the tourists I observed visited the U.S. Capitol, they marveled at the Christian iconography of the building—“In God We Trust” engraved over the speaker’s rostrum in the House of Representatives, opposite an engraving of the face of Moses—but lamented the “lack of Christian character” in Congress. They resented their inability to wander freely through the building, as some of them remembered doing before 9/11. One woman told me as we exited the building that, as “magnificent” and “historic” as the building was, she wasn’t impressed. She saw it only as an opportunity to pray for our leaders.
At the heart of white Christian nationalism is a custodial relationship to the nation. In this view, it is the duty of Christian patriots to keep the nation on a righteous course. As the Christian right formed in the 1980s, its leaders issued a clarion call to these patriots. The nation was in decline, and salvation could only come from restoring things to the way they were in the past.
At the heart of white Christian nationalism is a custodial relationship to the nation. In this view, it is the duty of Christian patriots to keep the nation on a righteous course.
But not just any past would do. Leaders of the Christian right were not interested in peer-reviewed history that critically examined issues like slavery, religious diversity, or imperialism. They were interested in nostalgic accounts of the nation’s Christian heritage that justified a privileged place for white conservative Christianity in American laws, schools, and culture. A cottage industry sprang up to develop and disseminate this narrative, reimagining American history through monographs, textbooks, documentary films, and even Bibles.
Tours of Washington, DC, offered opportunities to tell this story and to point out the statues, inscriptions, and artwork that still enshrine Christianity in the capital. These Christian heritage tours began in the 1970s, and today they attract thousands of predominantly white conservative Christians from around the United States each year.
Tours of Washington, DC, offered opportunities to tell this story and to point out the statues, inscriptions, and artwork that still enshrine Christianity in the capital.
During each tour, I witnessed participants wrestling with simultaneous feelings of belonging and alienation. Tour guides cultivated these feelings with the nostalgic stories they told about the past, which they juxtaposed with scathing indictments of the present. Security guards inadvertently alienated tourists further each time they searched bags or asked for quiet. But these feelings did not depend on specific historical facts or personal experiences. Tourists expressed them frequently, supporting it with fragments of half-remembered stories from their guides.
George Washington, for instance, “was quite religious,” according to one tourist I interviewed. “Didn’t he, oh, I can’t remember now, but didn’t he read the Bible every day, and didn’t he preach some?” In all honesty, she could have been describing any of the great white men who dominated the stories of Christian heritage tours. But to her, the details were not what mattered. She had a feeling that Christianity had once been much more important to American leaders. “But it’s not anymore,” she added sadly.
The power of the Christian heritage narrative has nothing to do with its credibility among academic historians, who widely reject it. History is not just something scholars do. It is also something ordinary people do to make sense of their daily lives. I call this “lived history”: the messy, partial, and contradictory narratives we all tell about the past to make sense of where we belong and how we should act. On Christian heritage tours, I witnessed how someone’s lived history can be diffuse and fragmented yet still anchor their absolute conviction about what the nation was and ought to be.
What was the lived history behind the Capitol insurrection? What stories about the past did the invaders cobble together in deciding to storm the building?
What was the lived history behind the Capitol insurrection? What stories about the past did the invaders cobble together in deciding to storm the building? We know from their prayers and statements both before and during the events of January 6 that the Christian heritage narrative was a key component. As we seek to better understand the ideological formation of white Christian nationalists, we should pay attention to the history they deploy to justify their actions, just as we attend to questions about race, masculinity, immigration, and class. This lived history does not require names, dates, or citations. All it requires is a story that transforms a malcontent into an exile, and a terrorist into a savior.