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Why pro-Trump evangelicals brought shofars to DC this week

How a Jewish ritual instrument became a favorite symbol for some conservative Christians.

A woman blows a shofar outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after the president was admitted for treatment of Covid-19 on October 4, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. Shofars were present at the pro-Trump “Jericho March” in DC on January 6 as well.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In the midst of the January 6 chaos, a series of images emerged showing supporters of President Trump in Washington, DC, blowing shofars. The image was befuddling to many, especially since the shofars — ram’s horns typically used in Jewish observance of specific holy days — seemed to be in use among Christian groups who were there to support the president as Congress prepared to certify the 2020 election results.

The scene baffled some of my colleagues (particularly those who are accustomed to hearing a shofar occasionally at a synagogue), but it was familiar to me. In my evangelical upbringing, shofars were blown at Christian conferences and gatherings, often those with roots in Pentecostal or Charismatic communities (which constitute some of but not all of American evangelicalism). And in recent months, shofars have popped up at rallies held by Christian anti-mask activists like Sean Feucht, and at Black Lives Matter counterprotests. For the “Jericho March” participants in Washington, blowing the shofar carried complicated connotations, ranging from ancient Old Testament symbolism to contemporary pro-Israel politics.

So I called Gary Burge, who is a professor of New Testament and dean of the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, an evangelical denomination. Burge explained where evangelical fascination with the shofar originated, what it symbolizes, and whether its contemporary appropriation should be concerning.

A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

What exactly is a shofar? And what has it become in our time?

Gary Burge

Shofar is a Hebrew word, and it means trumpet. If you went back 3,000 years ago, or more, in order to have instruments, you had to use the raw materials that are around you. You need a harp. Do you have gut strings? Okay, you can make that. But forging a trumpet out of metal — that’s a very big task. They made them out of ram’s horns, which you can hollow out. They’re curved.

When you hear about a trumpet being sounded in Israel in what you and I call the Old Testament, it really means it’s a shofar that’s being sounded. Its original use was a call to alert. Then it became commonly used in military campaigns.

You might think of a parallel with the bagpipe. The bagpipe can just be used in Scottish music, right? But then it ended up, along with a drum, as a feature of military conflicts. Even today, it’s really strange how the bagpipe has migrated to military funerals and police funerals. That’s an example in which an instrument migrated from something extremely old to something to which people have an emotional attachment. People on the street in New York who hear a bagpipe during a funeral may not know the bagpipe in Scottish. They may not even know where it came from. But it pulls at their heart in some way when they hear a song.

That’s a good analogy for the shofar. This instrument was used in Israel as a call to military action. Remember the story in Joshua about the defeat of Jericho? In that story, the people of Israel march around the city of Jericho blowing trumpets — they’re blowing shofars.

Then it was used in the temple as well, and that’s why I like to think it’s a flexible idea. It’s a call to Israel. Shofars were used at the temple to call people to prayer during festival times. It is a call to stand up and move in the appropriate direction for that moment. So it could be a festival with its sacrifices. It could be a military campaign.

Jews have always known about this. It’s a part of their cultural equipment. It ended up getting reduced inside of the Jewish context to two festivals per year. Practicing Jews would go to synagogue, and they’d hear the shofar blown on Yom Kippur and on the high holy days — Rosh Hashanah. Today, it lives there.

I suspect in my conversations with Jews, just like with a bagpipe, it has an [emotional] value inside of the synagogue. But historically, it was an instrument of war and of religion.

Alissa Wilkinson

So what are Christians doing with shofars, then? I suspect that Christians who’ve encountered a shofar today have mostly encountered them in a particular denomination, or in a political context.

Gary Burge

That’s right. So let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: Evangelicals don’t all use shofars. Let’s be really clear about that. But, okay, so how did this suddenly surface? I think there’s an explanation for this, and it has to do with an infatuation among some conservative evangelicals with all things Jewish and all things Israel.

In the late 19th century, there’s the dawning of Zionism. It takes hold inside of Judaism as a way to reclaim ancient legacies. But also you have Christian Zionism, which really does take form around the turn of the century. Christian Zionism not only anticipates the return of Jews to the Holy Land, but it also becomes deeply interested in the recreation of Jewish practices. This can be complicated to explain, but after World War I, Europe had destroyed itself. The [1918] Spanish flu kills 50 million people. The stock market crashes in ’29. And Europe is warming up for another war after that. The whole world is wondering, What is going on? The wheels have come off the bus in this very interesting period.

And conservative evangelicals and other conservative Christians who were invested in Zionism said, “This is the end of the world.” It’s very simple. This was also connected to prophecies about how things [foretold in the Bible] are being fulfilled [in world events]. So what happens is there is an investment in Jewish practice. After 1948, when Israel becomes a state, and after their major military victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, what you have is this amalgamation of prophecies about the end, which we call eschatology, with this remarkable commitment [among some conservative Christians] not just to the state of Israel but this investment in all things Jewish. This forms in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s, and it’s a thread that has moved through this aspect of evangelicalism.

So you might, on a church platform, have seen the Israeli flag. That’s not even a religious object. You have this blending of Israeli politics, American conservative politics, conservative religious values, and an infatuation with Jewish culture. Some examples would be singing songs with a Hebrew cadence, or singing songs in Hebrew. I was at a church gathering once at a conference where I was a speaker. They said, there’s a pledge of allegiance in Israel, like the one we have in America — and then the church said it together. It was remarkable. It was a political thing. I thought, Wow, what in the world?

As they rummage around inside of Jewish culture, and what they think to be Hebrew Old Testament culture, they’ve taken on these cultural instruments. That would include music and “Hebrew” dancing. I think some Jews look at this and say, “Wait, that’s just Eastern European culture, or Yiddish.” But [these Christian groups] don’t discern very well that so much of modern Judaism is a dynamic faith, just like Christianity. It’s evolved over the years. So they’ve taken on these contemporary — or really, European — Jewish things. They think by loving Jewish culture, they’re actually loving a culture that God loves most of all.

There’s your key. They almost sanctified or divinized one culture. They think by recreating some features of it, there you have it.

I think the shofar specifically only really came into life in the last 30 years. Someone might get onstage and launch a [Christian] conference with a shofar. Or at a rally of some kind, they’ll pull them out and use them. What they think they’re doing is rousing emotional drama with it. Originally, that probably was its intent, like any bugle or trumpet would be. In the American military, the guy who plays “Taps” on the trumpet at a funeral — it’s the same thing.

They have appropriated this thing. Their movement is a mash-up of conservative religion and pro-Israel Zionism, all blending together in this one segment of the evangelical world right now. The shofar for them now has become a way to say, Rally the troops. Let’s march.

An ad for shofars from a company called “Shofar So Great”
An ad from the Jericho March website for shofars.
Jericho March website

I go to Israel annually, to bring students. Tourists come home with stuff. And you will find boxes of shofars. The shofar has become a souvenir thing. I suspect that some of them, the expensive ones, are authentic, and then a whole bunch of them come from China.

My Jewish friends say to me, Would you guys please leave us alone? We don’t want to be the football that you’ve chosen to play on your field. The shofar in Judaism is a fairly sacred object now. It’s no longer a multi-use ancient Israeli object; now it belongs to the High Holy Days. So a Jew might see this and say, What are you doing? Leave us alone.

Alissa Wilkinson

My Jewish friends are often flabbergasted that there are Christians who are so interested and invested in objects and symbols like the shofar. It’s taken on some significance that is not really about Judaism, but about their feelings about Israel, and often specifically their political beliefs.

Gary Burge

That’s why I say that not all evangelicals are doing this. This is a very narrow stream of evangelicalism, which I think we need to give a new name to.

Alissa Wilkinson

So what would you say the Christians who blow shofars are doing? Is it that they think they’re doing something kind of magical? Or that they’re invoking God in some way?

Gary Burge

That’s the right word: invocation. A plea to God. But more than a movement upward, it’s a movement outward. Have you ever been to a military funeral?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, my father’s funeral in 2006 was a military funeral.

Gary Burge

Mine was too, two years ago. Did they shoot the rifles?

Alissa Wilkinson

They did.

Gary Burge

They played “Taps”?

Alissa Wilkinson

They played “Taps.” They had the flags.

Gary Burge

Then they folded the flag and gave it to your mom. Okay. So the question I have for you is this: What did you feel?

You were feeling grief for your father. You were feeling moved by the ceremony that the church put together. But then there was this added military ceremony at the end, which I’m sure was a zinger for you. When they fired the rifles and played “Taps,” they probably were at least 100 yards away from you. So you have this sense of “Taps” being played on a distant hill. Then there’s the ritual folding of the flag — all of that evokes emotion in us. Most people cry during the whole ceremony. And it is not even a religious ceremony. Most people are provoked to tears more strongly by the secular instruments than with the religious part.

The shofar is functioning at the level of that bugle, the folding of that flag, the shooting of those guns. It’s horizontal. It’s motivating. It’s inspiring. We are in sacred territory. The shofar sounding is a declaration that you are involved in divine activity. That’s a good way to think of it.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel troubled by the way that, at least in the case of the shofar, one religion is appropriating a symbol from another religion and using it for its own purposes, especially political ones.

Gary Burge

Appropriation between religions goes on all the time. It’s up to the practitioners of the religion of the people who’ve lost something to express what they feel about that use. The Star of David would be another one.

It’s when these things are used for cruel and inappropriate purposes that a community has a right to speak out against it. Let me give you an example from our [Christian] world. When the Ku Klux Klan employs crosses, taking our sacred symbol and burning them, or puts them on their costumes — you and I should be deeply offended by that. I’m outraged.

The shofar doesn’t have that same oomph for the Jew as the cross would for us. But it’s up there. The menorah would be another sacred symbol. And now, in the modern era, the Star of David, but that wasn’t in the ancient world. I think the community that has shared or lost its symbol — the originating community — they’re the ones that can speak to it.

My concern is that when sacred religious symbols are put to the service of political ends, that always troubles me. People on the street in Washington are doing that with Christian symbols, too.

Alissa Wilkinson

I saw crosses being put up in front of a state capitol yesterday.

Gary Burge

Right. A campaign to defend Donald Trump and all the rest that is deemed sanctified by God, and a cross is put on top of it — as Christians, you and I should feel the very same thing your Jewish friends feel.

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