Jan. 6 insurrection was 'logical outcome' of extremism
Bradley Onishi, a religious scholar and former conservative evangelical, said the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol two years ago was not an anomaly, but part of a growing movement.
During the insurrection, supporters of former President Donald Trump breached the U.S Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Several politicians attended the Stop the Steal rally at the Capitol prior to the violence, including state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who left before the riot began.
One member of the far-right Oath Keepers group testified in October 2022 that the group stored weapons at a Virginia hotel the night before the riot. Chase also livestreamed a video with Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes the night before the insurrection, though she later denied knowing him.
In his new book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — and What Comes Next, Onishi maps the revolt’s origins.
Onishi recently spoke with VPM Morning Edition host Phil Liles about the growth of Christian separatism in the United States.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Liles: You said you could have been there on Jan. 6. What kept you from being there?
Onishi: When I converted [to Christianity] in the 1990s, I was a very zealous young man. I went from somebody who was sneaking behind movie theaters and doing teenage things to standing in front of the movie theater and asking people if they knew about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I was just so eager to learn as much as I could about the Bible and about the church and about Jesus. But the culture that I was part of in the 1990s was not one in which, at that point, you had heard about the call to overturn elections or to demonize your political enemies.
Those were times when we were told that we had to prepare for culture wars, where we had to prepare for battles along the lines of sexual ethics or believing in God, not those of insurrection.
When I watched Jan. 6, I wondered to myself, ‘If I had converted in 2019 … and the men in my church who I looked up to not only taught me the Bible but encouraged me that any God-fearing patriots would do anything they could to stand up to the demonic forces that had stolen the election...’
Well, I can very much see myself thinking the logical outcome is that I should be in Washington, D.C., fighting the good fight. And if for some reason I can't go there, then I should support those who are, pray for them, send them whatever I can and do what I can locally to support this movement.
When I saw Jan. 6, I was afraid for all those people who, like me, were trying to live out their faith, but were doing so in a culture that has really accelerated quite quickly over the last two decades.
You say in the book that Jan. 6 was a logical outcome to the white evangelical subculture's preparation for war. Can you explain that a little bit?
Since the 1960s, many white Christians, including evangelicals and Catholics, have felt like the country has been lost. It's been given over to religious minorities, racial minorities, queer people and so on. And so, they've been talking about extremism and taking back their country since then.
It has not always risen to the point of an attempted coup or physical violence, but that event, in my mind, was part of that history. It was not a break or some kind of aberration, it was a logical outcome.
You've studied what's called the redoubt movement, which involves right-wing survivalists migrating to Mountain West states. Tell me about that.
The redoubt states are Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. That region was carved out by Christian separatists who wanted to build the kind of theocratic society they desired: one that was free from all of the interlopers who were now running the federal government and populating the United States.
It's a Christian separatist movement that anticipates the collapse of the United States as we know it — another civil war. And it actively recruits people to move from blue states in order to join others who would like to build a society based on strictly Christian ideals and Christian principles.
I should also say it's a very white movement. For example, Idaho is 93% white. It really is a matter of white Christian nationalists separating themselves from the rest of society and preparing for what they take to be a calamitous period in the United States and a chance to rebuild it in their image.
Are you still a member of the church? And have you heard any feedback from your former church members?
I'm not a member of the church at the moment, and I have received much feedback — much of it disappointment and anger. And I guess my reaction has been what I always learned in church: We have to face hard truths, and we have to face the truth with open eyes. And that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not ashamed or in any way regretful.
How did these white Christian evangelicals balance the violence of Jan. 6 and faith?
For many of them, violence is part and parcel of their faith, which may sound strange to the uninitiated. But, for instance, the night before Jan. 6, there was the ‘Jericho March,’ which was billed as a prayer rally for Trump supporters and those who love the nation.
The Jericho story in the Bible is where the Israelites march around the city of Jericho, and God miraculously brings down the walls after seven circles around the city.
What's not usually told is that once that happens, the Israelites go into the city — and they slaughter every man, woman, child and animal.
Well, if you have a Jericho March, you're telling me that you're having a prayer rally, hoping that you have a chance to go in and annihilate your enemies. And so, when you think of the biblical interpretation that way, violence is not far from religious practice.
Is there still a lot of support for former President Donald Trump with all the investigations that are happening?
There is a lot of support for Trump. I would also say that we're in a kind of transition moment, where it appears that someone like Ron DeSantis is gaining quite a lot of popularity.
What has not changed are the principles and the ideals and visions for America that brought Trump to power. So, even if Ron DeSantis is gaining in the polls, he's doing so by running on Trumpian ideals and, in some cases, in ways more extreme than Trump. So, Trump may or may not be the nominee, but Trumpism will continue.
So, we're not at the end of this ‘war’ yet.
In my mind, I think that we're very much at the beginning. It's easy to conceive of civil war as North versus South, as a situation where there's a Mason-Dixon Line and two forces fighting over territory in one grand conflict.
I think we have small fires all around us that are signaling what's happening. In North Carolina, a power grid gets taken out by somebody who doesn't want there to be a drag queen story hour. … The Proud Boys invade the public square with violence and weapons to prevent gay people from having brunch, and so on.
These kinds of small skirmishes, when we have men with assault rifles sitting outside of ballot boxes in Arizona, tell you this is far from over. And that if we're not willing to see those as part of the ongoing “big lie” and attack on democracy, we're going to miss it and be caught off-guard when larger conflicts do erupt.
I have a friend who always says the best place to be in — if you're in a battle — is where your enemy doesn't know you're in a battle. And I feel like there are many folks out there who just don't realize the situation that we find ourselves in when it comes to facing anti-democratic religious forces in the United States.