On January 6, 2021, at the behest of then-President Donald Trump, a right-wing mob lay siege to the US Capitol in an effort to overturn the ratification of the electoral college. Aligned with the broader right-wing movement to “Stop the Steal,” the attempted coup was driven by the false belief that Biden “stole” the election from Trump—a belief that both built on long-standing Republican conspiracies of Democratic electoral fraud and on claims by conservative charismatic and Pentecostal Christian leaders who had prophesied Trump’s divinely-mandated victory. The event epitomised the confluence of conspiracy culture, growing authoritarianism, and reactionary white Christianity in American political and public life. Banners declaring “Jesus Saves” and “In God We Trust” flew high; chants of “Jesus is my savior and Trump is my president” rang out.
The apocalyptic tones of the coup attempt have been well-remarked on, and the etymology of apocalypse as unveiling or uncovering has prompted reflections on 1/6 not simply as crisis or catastrophe but as a revelatory moment in contemporary American politics and culture. The revelation cut both ways. Driven by conspiracist narratives like those propagated by QAnon, the rioters went to Washington expecting a grand revelation, a secularised Last Judgment in which the diabolic agents of “deep state” would be punished. But the apocalypse they got was not the one they had anticipated. Many of Trump’s erstwhile supporters now grapple with both the legal consequences of their actions and the betrayal felt at the President’s denouncement of a coup he himself encouraged. Others, meanwhile, must face the reality that—despite claims that Trumpvangelicals have “remade their faith in his image”—the combination of Christianity, whiteness, and political power core to Trump-era white evangelicalism is core to the history of American religion and continues to exert a deep hold on the nation’s public and political landscape.
The mob that lay siege to the Capitol was not singularly Christian. Jacob Chansley, better known colloquially as “Q Shaman”, displayed amelange of beliefs drawn from wider conspiracy culture and New Age spirituality. However, Christian nationalism has had a key role in the legitimising discourses of the Trump presidency, and Christian nationalism was central to the events of 1/6. This is visible not simply in the slogans displayed on the day, in the symbiosis between QAnon and conservative Christian narratives of Satanic Ritual Abuse and New World Order, but in the events that presage it. Among the most immediate is one occurring less than a month before the attempted coup: on December 12, 2020 groups of conservative Catholics and evangelicals held a Jericho March also in solidarity for “Stop the Steal.”
Named for the biblical city that God instructed Joshua to march around seven times, blowing trumpets—after which the walls crumbled—a Jericho March is a form of contemporary spiritual warfare practice. Spiritual warfare is the process through which contemporary Christians codify beliefs about the reality of demons and develop and enact methods to combat their influence. While sometimes thought of as fringe, it is a prominent and growing dimension of both Pentecostal and charismatic Catholic practice. Since the 1980s, the practice has developed a distinctly territorial dimension that seeks to diagnose a given space—houses, neighbourhoods, cities, even countries—as demonically infested. The Jericho March is one response to such a diagnosis, as Christians engage in a blend of prayer, fasting, marching, and the blowing of shofars (Jewish ritual trumpets carved from ram’s horns) to spiritually sunder the demonic defences of the space and conquer and convert it in God’s name. According to the website of the 10/12 event—scrubbed after 1/6 but reported on in The Atlantic—the March was intended to banish “the darkness of election fraud” and ensure “the walls of corruption crumble” in Washington, DC. The capitol siege becomes justified as a struggle against supernatural evil.
The relation between constructions of supernatural evil and political movements that attempt to delegitimise and overthrow the government point to the centrality of demonology in American Christian nationalism today. By this, I do not mean only demonisation—the radical othering of individuals and groups, painting them as targets for direct and systemic violence—although this is also deeply present in these groups. Rather I mean demonology in a more traditional sense: the conceptualisation, classification, and comprehension of malevolent unseen entities locked in a ceaseless, if ultimately futile, conflict with God. As I explore in my recent book, Passing Orders: Demonology and Sovereignty in American Spiritual Warfare, demonisation and demonology “proper” feed and feed off one another. As the targets of social othering—socialists, Muslims, queer and trans people, activists for racial justice—change with the times, visions of the demonic realm similarly shift. At the same time, ostensibly secular systems of violence often rely on concepts drawn from the archive of Christian demonology: accusations of wilful deviance, invalidation of ways of being, and the denial of reproductive capacity and the possibility of futurity.
It is in the denial of futurity that demonology intersects most directly with apocalypticism. In its revelatory dimensions, the apocalypse is framed an unveiling of truth. But it is also the unveiling of all deemed untrue: of the false orders of the demonic, exposed in their ultimate transience and transgressive counterfeiture. In this way demonology and apocalypticism have long operated as discourses for the organisation and management of spatial and temporal order. In an article linking contemporary Pentecostal exorcism to earlier discourses of demonology, for example, Renaissance scholar Armando Maggi explains how the exorcism of demons mobilised a concept of dominion that worked to restore the order of time as much as to reclaim the order of space. Dominion here was linked to the dominion over the earth Adam had received from God in Genesis 1:28, and permitted a model of the universe in which “demons signified the present time dominated by decadence and pain, whereas an exorcist evoked the order of the past”—and, crucially, its apocalyptic restoration in the creation of a new heaven and new earth. Demonology and dominion here work together to suture prelapsarian past to postapocalyptic future.
It is in this relationship to dominion that demonology intersects not just with ideas of apocalypse but with the specific apocalypses of the capitol siege. This is not just due to the potential role played by “7 Mountains” Dominionism in the capitol siege itself and of dominionism as key to the broader landscape of conservative Christianity in America today, though these are critical components. Rather, through its logics of dominion demonology becomes a method of dictating what and who should be permitted to occupy space, to be given time, of which institutions are allowed to stand and which demolished. As I discuss in Passing Orders, demons are sometimes analogised to squatters, to undocumented migrants, and to invasive species. Through these and related analogies, conceptions of spiritual reality become bound to material histories of xenophobia, dehumanisation, and houselessness, and through these to the wider systems of racial capitalism and settler coloniality and the operations of whiteness as—in the words of W.E. DuBois—“ownership of the Earth forever and ever, Amen.”
The white Christian nationalism that underlay and suffused the capitol siege, and conservative Christianity in the Trump era more broadly, demonstrate the enduring truth of DuBois’ claim—and the danger it poses to the nation’s possible futures. Demonology is central to this danger, operating as a rubric through which alternative futures are decried and denied and those who strive for and embody them are cast as wilfully deviant and ontologically invalid. It renders those it is wielded to demonise as incapable of having legitimate possession of the future, their own or the nation’s. To this end, demonology buttresses a broader reactionary apocalyptic narrative that attempts to “unveil” the illegitimacy of the current order in order to reinstate a sovereignty claim over the future and reclaim ownership over the identity and destiny of the nation—one that was prominently displayed on 1/6 as the rioters sought to exorcise—spiritually and materially—the demonised present in the name of Making America Great Again.
S. Jonathon O’Donnell is a postdoctoral fellow in American Studies at University College Dublin and Visiting Scholar at Queen’s University Belfast, and the author of Passing Orders: Demonology and Sovereignty in American Spiritual Warfare (Fordham University Press, 2021). Their ongoing research projects focus on the intersections of evangelical demonology, ecological collapse, and the posthumanities and on the historical relationship between demonology and state sovereignty. They can be found on Twitter @demonologian and at www.drsjodonnell.com.