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Protester at the US Capitol brandishing a shofar, January 6, 2021 (photo by Elvert Barnes)
Traditions

The Trump Shall Sound: Politics, Pentecostals, and the Shofar at the Capitol Riots

Almost a quarter of a century after that night in Pensacola, Trump supporters brought their shofars to a “Jericho March” at Washington D. C. in a manner resembling that decades-old revival meeting. Like the Brownsville attendees who cheered for Gideon’s victory, the Jericho March called to mind a biblical story of Joshua at Jericho, another conquest with the sound of a shofar.

On May 29 of 1997, five thousand plus worshippers crowded into Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida for a revival service.[1] The intergenerational, mostly white, middle class revivalists had been gathering several nights a week since June 18th of 1995, when a Sunday service had turned into an ecstatic meeting that “put the ‘roll’ back in ‘holy roller.’” Evening services typically included hours of enthusiastic dancing, clapping, weeping, and singing with the Brownsville Assembly of God worship band. On most occasions, the band led with typical rock and roll instrumentation. On May 29, however, the guitars and drums were joined by the sound of the shofar. 

Messianic Jewish Evangelist Dick Reuben sounded the instrument, and afterward encouraged every Christian present to use it. He framed the believer’s use of the shofar with the story of Gideon from Judges 6-8. Gideon won a war, Reuben argued, but he did not fight with a sword. He fought with the sound of a shofar. “There’s something about the enemy’s camp,” he said, “That, boy, when we sound the shofar, we go right in his [the devil’s] face. We stomp on him, and we take back what was stolen from us!” As the music swelled and the volume increased, so did Reuben’s rhetoric. “Let the devil hear you,” he yelled after blowing the shofar, “It’s war! It’s war!” The audience shouted, waved their hands, and wept in response. Reuben named specific demonic powers he believed were plaguing worshippers: sickness, witchcraft, drugs, sin, addiction, violence, and homosexuality. The crescendo of the shofar worship service ended with a call for divine intervention in the nation. “Lord, we’re believing you for the government of the United States of America,” Reuben said to the cheering crowd, “We’re believing you for Congress. We are believing you, Lord, for the White House!” 

News reports of the Brownsville Revival from 1997 revealed that outsiders were not impressed by the holy rollers. Charges of “manipulation and peer pressure,” and “emotional sensationalism brought on by the power of suggestion,” were accompanied by characterizations of the meetings as “bizarre.” Few took the moments like Reuben’s shofar sessions – or his claims on congress – seriously. 

As a form of Pentecostal ritualization, however, Brownsville’s shofar service was very serious indeed. In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, ritual theorist Catherine Bell claims that ritualized acts are “strategic schemes for power relationships—schemes that hierarchize,integrate, define, or obscure.” In this sense, power is created and managed through the relationship between leaders and followers during the performance of ritualized acts. According to Evangelist Reuben, the Brownsville revivalists were participating in an ancient act wherein the shofar gave the believer power over the demonic, and power in the political realm. For conservative Assemblies of God attendees worshipping during the Clinton administration, the idea that Gideon’s victory over an overwhelming opposition could be repeated in the American body politic was very good news. 

Almost a quarter of a century after that night in Pensacola, Trump supporters brought their shofars to a “Jericho March” at Washington D. C. in a manner resembling that decades-old revival meeting. Like the Brownsville attendees who cheered for Gideon’s victory, the Jericho March called to mind a biblical story of Joshua at Jericho, another conquest with the sound of a shofar. Some shofarists performed draped in American flags; others blew smoke from them; some incorporated flag dancing and Christian pop music. Not all shofarists present that day identified as charismatic or Pentecostal, but Pentecostals and charismatics were very visible among Trump’s devotees. Charismatics like Mike Lindell, Joshua Feuerstein, and shofar-enthusiast Paula White-Cain spoke at Trump’s Jericho March on January 6, which culminated with insurrectionists marching to overtake the Capitol. When analyzed as a form of Pentecostal and charismatic ritual, the shofar-led soundtrack of the insurrection reveals the zionistic, end-times political theology of certain Pentecostals and charismatics, the portability, durability, and adaptability of Pentecostal and charismatic rituals, and the prevalence of Pentecostal and Charismatic language and worship norms among the rioters and insurrectionists. 

It is worth noting that the capitol insurrectionists were overwhelmingly white, but ministries like Prophetess Kimberly Snyder’s Ministry of the Shofar, Rabbi Matthew and Anita Spivie’s SHOFAR, and evangelist Tony Suarez’s appreciation for the Seder meal (as well as the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s trips to the Holy Land and support for the nation of Israel) show that adaptations and appropriations of Jewish rituals thrive in a variety of Pentecostal and charismatic communities. In fact, support for and identification with the nation of Israel has deep roots in some early Pentecostal communities. As historian Eric Nelson Newberg has shown, over time, early Pentecostal Zionism created within certain strains of Pentecostalism an “intense philosemitism on the one hand and antipathy toward Arabs and Muslims on the other hand.”

This growing affinity for Israel and antagonism toward Arabs and Muslims was compounded in the mid-twentieth century by those Pentecostals and charismatics who embraced theo-political readings of history that identify the establishment of Israel as an essential step toward the Second Coming of Christ. Drawing on premillennial dispensationalist interpretations of global events, many Pentecostals and charismatics have come to believe that May 14th, 1948, the day that the modern nation of Israel was created, was the day that set the end of the world, and a final great war of “Armageddon,” in motion. The nations that support Israel are on the side of the returning king Jesus in this global theo-political vision, and thus, many Pentecostals and charismatics in the United States are staunch supporters of Israel. 

Pentecostal and charismatic love for all things Israel has been demonstrated with great exuberance among worshipping communities in the United States. Charismatic revivals in the 1960s and 1970s included a proliferation of ministries, music, art, and innovative ritual appropriations that celebrated the modern State of Israel as God’s chosen nation, and encouraged support for that nation by the United States. These included songs that utilized Anglicized versions of Hebrew words (e.g. the song “Jehovah Jireh”); Christianized Seder meals wherein the elements of the meal are “decoded” as symbols prefiguring Jesus Christ; and material culture like prayer shawls and shofar rituals.

While modern Jewish deployments of the shofar are most often associated with Rosh Hashana, atonement, repentance, and fasting, Pentecostal and charismatic communities freely deviate from that tradition. Early Pentecostal publications talked about shofar use among Jewish communities, and used artistic renderings of the instrument as a signal of the Second Coming, but its liturgical use in Pentecostal and charismatic communities did not become widespread until the 1990s. In some communities, the ritual was connected closely to the Jewish New Year and was used in congregational worship as part of “confession, communion, and celebration.” In communities like Brownsville Assembly, it was tied to spiritual warfare. By the 2000s, Pentecostal and charismatic organizations began using shofar blowing as part of an arsenal against the devil. “God’s worldwide end-time army,” according to “The Shofar Man” Jim Barbarossa, included “shofar blowers, dancers, flag bearers, worshipers, and prayer intercessors.” 

Shofarists draped in American flags and dancing to the Contemporary Christian culture war anthem “God’s Not Dead” on January 6th, 2021 confounded many outside observers, but those familiar with the Pentecostal and charismatic communities who tie the United States to Israel to the apocalypse recognized the ritual’s logic: blowing the shofar is an ancient Jewish act of war on behalf of Donald J. Trump, who supported Israel in grand, public gestures (e.g. the controversial choice to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem). According to this logic, Trump was/is good for the United States because he put his homeland on the side of Israel, which is on the side of Jesus, the final judge and ultimate ruler of the world. In this sense, the shofar ritual represents a variation on the theme of Christian nationalism. The United States is important, not necessarily because God birthed the nation or “God created the Constitution,” as Baptist former House Majority Leader Tom Delay once said, but because it is nation that supports the nation that will usher in the ultimate reign of King Jesus. From this perspective, the democracy of the United States has comparatively little importance when compared with the Second Coming. Indeed, with this ritual logic in mind, shofars paired with the Stars and Stripes showed support for both. 

The shofar rituals also show how charismatics and Pentecostals who ardently support Donald Trump seamlessly blend elements of worship and theo-political cosmologies vision for the United States. On January 6 of 2021, Roy Fields—a prominent charismatic worship leader who as a young musician played in the Brownsville Revival band and uses the shofar as an instrument of worship and warfare—posted an interview withMike Lidell, the “My Pillow Guy.” “Our country needs God,” he said with a digitized U.S. flag waving next to him, “and a move of God like never before.” The interview included a rehearsal of Lidell’s favorite conspiracy theories regarding the supposedly “rigged” election, as well as many testimonies of how he lived in a “blessed time” of God. 

That the shofar was blown in support of a recently unseated American president shows how adaptable theo-political Pentecostal rituals can be. The apocalyptic imagery that had once been employed in charismatic congregational settings was taken to the capital of the United States, on display before an international audience. The fact that it was unmoored from a specific holiday or worship space and placed in the hands of each believer rather than in the hands of a particular leader meant that practitioners could freely innovate and apply their craft to the rallies in Washington, D.C. The portability of these ritualized acts, which historian Daniel Ramirez has argued has been a longstanding hallmark of Pentecostal hymnody, meant that practitioners did not need to be in a worship service or even in a church. The shofar ceremony could be performed anywhere. 

The expansion and democratization of this practice likely would have surprised Evangelist Reuben in 1997. Reuben rejoiced that year when shofar sales “went up seventy percent,” but he could have had no way of knowing how the Internet would expand and diversify the ritual of the shofar. Among charismatic and Pentecostal shofarists there are thousands of YouTube demonstrations, and GodTube tutorials—some with hundreds of thousands of views. Some shofarists have authorization from a particular denomination or congregation, as Reuben received in the 1990s, but many have no official ties to any particular denomination or congregation. 

Thanks to this ever-widening, tech-facilitated web of ritual acts and commentary, along with “daily prophetic” insights from websites like the Elijah List, the ritual of the shofar is shaping the imaginations of many Pentecostal and charismatic practitioners around the nation of Israel and the United States. These rituals are created by a loose conglomeration of ritual actors who are, quite simply, impossible to trace or define in typical religious studies categories. There can be no doubt, however, that they shape the moral and spiritual imagination of those who embrace their power. For Trump-supporting charismatics, that imagination can perhaps be summed up best through the words of Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert who announced on Twitter: “there have been two nations created for God’s glory, Israel and the United States of America.”

The flexibility of the shofar ritual for Pentecostals and charismatics means that it can take on almost any meaning, and the power of shofar rituals among Trump supporters has not diminished after the January 6 riots. As journalist Sam Kestenbaum has observed, shofarist Amanda Grace of Ark of Grace ministries, along with her fellow charismatics Sean Feucht and Dr. Stella Immanuel, has enjoyed a prominent role in keeping the devil away from Clay Clark and Michael Flynn’s Health and Freedom conferences. Indeed, shofarists are so common in thesetours, that they are jokingly referred to as a part of the attendee “packing list.”

Banishing Satan through the sound of the shofar is, of course, aligned with Reuben’s 1997 exhortations, but it has also led charismatics like Amanda Grace into some surprising new partnerships. Pentecostals and charismatics of the past have expressed antipathy toward other new religious movements in the United States—especially groups like spiritualists, New Age practitioners, or occultists. On the Health and Freedom tour, however, Kestenbaum notes that those “turn of the 20th century cousins are reunited” through the merchandise and swag present at these events. Shofar enthusiasts in Brownsville denounced Voodoo and New Age practices in the 1990s, but shofarists at the Health and Freedom conferences put historic theological tensions in the past and share their insights alongside New Agers and “spiritual war Activators,” with whom they share a sense of “political awakening.” 

The shofar rituals were among the most noteworthy demonstrations on January 6, but many other ritualized actions of Trump devotees that day were imbued with charismatic Christian sensibilities. Flag dancing to Contemporary Christian anthems abounded. Notable among those who attacked the capitol building, a Buffalo-festooned Jake Angeli, aka the “Q-anon Shaman,” led extemporaneous prayer which yielded from his compatriots closed eyes, raised hands, and call-and-response “amens” and “yes Lords.” If Angeli’s make-shift congregants at the Capitol are any indication, the ritualized actions of Pentecostals and charismatics were adopted by many of the former president’s insurrectionist supporters. 

The riots and failed insurrection of January 6, 2021 have been called “apocalyptic,” and for good reason. The rhetoric and imagery employed by the rioters was soaked in language about an imminent end times battle for the soul and soil of the United States. The ill-fated insurrection was also an apocalypse of another sort. The Capitol Riots revealed Pentecostal and charismatic ritual acts for what they are and always have been: potent instruments of political and theological power.


[1]Thanks to Dr. Yvette Garcia for sharing the archival footage of the Brownsville Revival meeting from June 18th of 1995.

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