Jenna Ryan smiles wryly into the camera on her phone. “You guys, can you believe this?” she exclaims. “I'm not messing around... when I come to sell your house, this is what I will do. I will fucking sell your house.” Chants of USA! USA! USA! billow throughout the room behind her as she flips the camera from selfie mode to film the scene in front of her. One can make out a hallway thick with bodies in winter coats and hats (and no face masks) , a mass of people hollering and cheering , marching ahead and shoving past motionless police officers through the halls of an edifice built atop indigenous Nacotchtank lands. Ryan’s voice rises above the din once more: “Here we are, in the name of Jesus! In the name above all names, in the name of JESUS!”
This was one of many social media posts from Ryan on the day of January 6, 2021. In a Facebook livestream, she admitted feeling nervous. “I'm kinda freakin' out. Because I’m going to war.” In another video (since deleted), Ryan walked up the building steps and proclaimed “life or death, it doesn’t matter. Here we go," before adding, “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor!” Later tweets exuded elation: "Today was a great example of what America is all about," she wrote. "It was one of the best days of my life."
The invocations of Christ alongside the advertisement of her professional services (Ryan owns and operates a real estate business in Frisco, Texas) as she “answered the call” from Donald Trump to refute the 2020 electoral college results may seem curious, but upon second thought may not be so unexpected. Indeed, Ryan was one of many to speak the name of Jesus into the air of the Capitol building that day. For her, and so many others, the connection between religion, work, and nation is obvious and internally consistent. A decades-long well of corroboration lies beneath such proclamation, in which millions of white American Christians embraced a prosperity gospel which gained further public (and political) legitimacy through the rise of the Religious Right and Moral Majority politicking.
This adoption of what Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner call a “spiritualized Reaganism” oversaw prosperity Protestantism’s return to the public domain through the Republican Party. Reagan’s tax reforms and the early decision to fire thousands of striking air traffic control workers in 1981 were cultural flashpoints for notions of meritocracy and individualism made moral. Balmer adds that while the defense of tax exemption for racially segregated schools and Bob Jones University was the initial pet project of Religious Right organizers, they further galvanizing supporters behind Reagan to fight the "moral decay" of America through an assertion of their individual rights. Their gains under his presidency renewed not just the vigor with which they were cited but made them into legitimate and wholly American ideals: “work hard” for what you have, enjoy what you reap from it, and don’t let “them” take that away from you. Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel points to the accumulating vectors of faith, wealth, health, and victory across contemporary Christian life in the U.S. “American believers learned to use their everyday experiences as spiritual weights and measures,” she writes. “The movement’s culture of god-men and conquerors rang true to a nation that embraced the mythology of righteous individuals bending circumstances to their vision of the good life.”
Melissa Deckman points out that the Tea Party movement of the 2010s was scaffolded on that gospel, offering a platform for women to engage conservative activism increasingly on their own terms and on the basis of their specific contexts. Sanctioned through the language of Christian responsibility, these conservative women also openly adopted a rhetoric of gendered self-empowerment. Here, the government overreaches on issues ranging from healthcare, school choice, taxation, and others – all issues that the individual can and should have oversight over in order to provide for herself. “A large government state essentially usurps women’s agency, paints women as ‘victims,’ and promotes dependence on government,” Deckman notes, adding that many believe that “an expansion of government in terms of spending more on social programs, increasing workplace regulation against sex discrimination or requiring companies to provide family leave, and enacting more gun control— all policies heavily touted by liberal feminist organizations as vital to women’s interests— actually betray the original vision of the women’s movement, which promoted the idea that women are equally as capable as men.” This populist vision increasingly positions such women as “outsiders” to the common core of traditional Republican activism and legislative policy compromises with liberals; the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world over the Liz Cheneys. This imagination channeled a significant proportion of white women in the U.S. directly into the movement to elect and then re-elect Donald Trump to the presidency.
These women’s self-reliance and personal responsibility is a source of pride and cause for celebration. It aligns cleanly, in many ways, with the rise of another force of the 2010s: the Girl Boss. Drawn in the mold of women like Sheryl Sandberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tina Fey, and even (with only a touch of irony) Hillary Clinton, the Girl Boss is ambitious and unabashed in her pursuit of power and the capital that comes with it. “Bitch is the new Black”; the world is hers for the taking. She does so with the zeal of a white woman who has fought fiercely for the opportunity to do so. While the patriarchy may offer men an express ticket to the halls of prosperity, the Girl Boss did what it took to build her empire atop this vacant terra nullius. Nevertheless, she persisted and now, she’s here. She is unapologetic and unashamed by the embarrassment of riches that she has earned by the skin of her teeth. It is the prosperity gospel supercharged, clarified through the latest iterations of white resentments against the naming of race (most acutely seen in debates about “critical race theory”). Thus, what Jenna Ryan does as a realtor every day is exactly what she was doing inside the Capitol rotunda on the 6th of January. She suits up to fight the Hard Sell and the Big Steal. “They are taking our shit,” she inveighs, though when history begins in 1776, “they” does not resemble the white Christian colonizers, but the people whose land and labor enabled them to become the subject of Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Ryan’s joy and elation are the fruits of battle – the sale, the conquest – are rightfully earned and virtuously so. The Girl Boss is a closer, reliable for you and your home, reliable for God and nation. In an interview recorded on January 13, Ryan describes feeling “like a martyr” who had done “something noble” that day with “no guilt in my heart.”
She was one of the early arrests in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection. Booked on January 15th in Plano, Texas, Ryan pled not guilty to charges of entering and remaining in a restricted building, violent entry, and disorderly/disruptive conduct in a capitol building. On November 4, nearly 10 months later, she was sentenced to 60 days of incarceration, with a $500 restitution to the Treasury Department and $1000 fine. In the interceding months, she laughed off the possibility of jail time, writing on Twitter: “Definitely not going to jail. Sorry I have blonde hair white skin a great job a great future [sic].” She was ridiculed roundly for this response especially after the news of her sentencing in November. In an uncharacteristic break from her steely positivity, Ryan decried the lack of support she found from those otherwise expected to be her allies. “FYI: There is a good-old-boys club in the conservative alt news... They don't like strong women unless super gorgeous or in dire straights. A strong, independent woman with intelligence is not welcome in Alt Media today.” Despite her disappointment, however, this is not a position to which women like Ryan are unaccustomed. Victory, after all, is the final node of the prosperity gospel’s theology, something that is inevitable when sought through the power of positive thinking. “The prosperity gospel promised total victory over crushing circumstances,” notes Bowler, “guaranteeing believers the tools to become true conquerors.” It is part of the grim terrain that the Girl Boss must traverse; the challenge that gives the eventual victory its merit.
Ryan has reverted to her upbeat self in the weeks ahead of her incarceration. In December 2021, she posted a video on TikTok about her hopes for the 60-day stint. “I’m going to be able to work out a lot and do yoga and detox… Everyone is telling me I’m going to lose weight, so hopefully I’m going to get down to my ideal weight… If I can lose 30 pounds? It would be so worth it. So you have to look at the bright side of everything you do. And that’s what I’m trying to do!” The prosperity gospel’s promise of faith, wealth, health, and victory remains alluring, shifting on the day’s uncertain political grounds, but with an ever-present beck and call.
Samah Choudhury is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Ithaca College. Her research surrounds Islam, humor, and the politics of social legibility in the United States. Her current book manuscript looks at how Muslims and Islam are articulated through standup comedy in the midst of transnational practices of race, masculinity, and secularism. She holds a Ph.D. from UNC Chapel Hill in Religious Studies.