History has its eyes on the Senate this week as it conducts the impeachment trial of former President Donald J. Trump on the charge of inciting insurrection. I forced myself to watch the 13-minute video that the House impeachment managers showed as a part of their case; though the video is jarring given the profanity and graphic violence, I think it should be shown in every high school civics class, maybe even to adults in every church. The video is damning evidence that Trump was directly responsible for inciting the criminal actions of the “Stop the Steal” rioters, which ultimately led to five deaths and more than 100 injuries.
I have already made the case that Trump should be impeached and that accountability is crucial to both safeguarding our democracy and to begin healing. This week, the House managers have been making a compelling argument that we can’t separate the siege of the Capitol from the “big lie” promulgated by former president Trump and his enablers before and after the election that the election was stolen — a lie rooted in our nation’s original sin of white supremacy. This lie has not gone away with a new administration; thanks to Trump’s co-conspirators and the silence of far too many within the church, it has spread. In fact, over 70 percent of Republican voters still believe the election was stolen.
This all could have been avoided: More prominent conservative Christian leaders and Christian media could have spoken out against the lie and reported the truth. Instead, many of them fanned the flames that led to this tragedy.
In December, Franklin Graham said, “when [Trump] says this election was rigged or stolen, I tend to believe him.” The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins signed a letter in mid-December that urged state legislatures to override the election results and appoint their own electors, claiming, “There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect.” A week before the Electoral College convened, Pat Robertson used his program The 700 Club to proclaim, “We must declare that God Almighty is not going to let this great nation of ours be taken over by fraud … the Lord himself will intervene before this country turns into something socialist.”
The Christian Broadcasting Network published stories weeks after the election with language like this: “Stunning revelations about the 2020 election: President Trump's legal team says it has evidence that software was used to steal the election and that the evidence is strong enough to overturn results in multiple states. Is it possible that President Trump won by millions of votes?” Christian network TheDove TV aired a segment the morning after the Capitol insurrection with a right-wing conspiracy theorist who praised the “restraint” of the insurrectionists and referred to members of Congress as “traitors,” saying, “it is amazing to me that patriots haven’t strung up these traitors already with the amount of evidence on the table of what they’re doing.”
While some media companies are facing consequences for their lies — as in the case of voting technology company Smartmatic’s lawsuit against Fox News for its egregious election lies, reportedly leading to the cancellation of Lou Dobbs’ show — we should also be holding Christian media that likewise peddle dangerous disinformation to account.
If not, the big lie will continue to infect our churches and our body politic, mutating into even more efforts to restrict the sacred right to vote, targeting communities of color and other vulnerable voters under the guise of preventing voter fraud. Since the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013, we've seen how GOP leaders have systematically disenfranchised Black and brown voters by restricting absentee voting, imposing new voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and legalizing voter purges, among other tactics. And the lesson they’ve seemingly learned from the 2020 election is that their only path to victory is to expand and double down on these efforts. According to a sobering Brennan Center report, historic voter turnout plus baseless allegations of voter fraud, have led states to already pursue more than 106 bills restricting voting rights in 2021.
At the end of the day, it is not just the health and future security of our democracy that is at stake in this trial. It is also the credibility of the church and integrity of the Christian witness. Whether we are conscious of it, history’s eyes are watching the church’s response. The Religious Right's blind loyalty to Trump has already inflicted lasting damage on the integrity of Christian witness. Our nation and the church must continue to grapple with why the majority of Republican voters, most of whom identify as Christian, remain loyal to a former president who so callously abused his oath of office. In 2020, a Pew survey found that 53 percent of U.S. adults say Christianity's influence on American life is decreasing; among that segment, 67 percent think this is happening at least partially because “Christianity is too closely associated with conservative politics.” It comes down to a desperate grab for power — the waning influence of white evangelicals is clear, as the U.S. share of white evangelicals dropped from 21 percent in 2010 to 15 percent by the end of the decade. Their alignment with Donald Trump achieved an illusion of power at the cost of the credibility of the Christian faith.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people, and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”
Christian conscience requires that we encourage the Senate to convict Trump and hold him accountable for impeachable offenses he committed while in office — and prevent him from ever holding public office again. It is also imperative that we speak out in our churches and circles of influence to reject the big lie that continues to pose a threat to the health of our democracy and to the witness of the church. History has its eyes on all of us. The most pressing question facing all of us this week is: What role will we play as this history is made?