A Religious, Yet Religiously Incoherent Event Michael J. Altman and Jerome Copulsky Interpretive Essays Essays from scholars of religion interpreting digital media from the events of January 6 Media Galleries Curated galleries of images, videos, and documents that represent the variety of ways people deployed religion on January 6 About Uncivil Religion A collaborative digital resource A Collaboration Between the Department of Religous Studies at the University of Alabama & The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
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Michael the Black Man and the Nation with the Soul of a Church
This eight-minute video clip from January 6th shows Michael the Black Man preaching on a stage with a small group of Black men wearing appropriately titled, “Black Men for Trump '' sweatshirts. In the crowd are Bikers for Trump, Proud Boys as well as a collection of predominantly White seemingly college aged young adults donning backpacks. Noticeably absent either on stage or in the crowd are African American women. This gathering presents a countercultural image; in the dominant American narrative, the January 6th Insurrection has been associated with White Nationalism. So, Bikers for Trump – yes, got it. Blacks for Trump – what? huh?
The leader and founder of Blacks for Trump is the self-proclaimed. “Michael the Black Man.” Born Maurice Woodside, he has also been known as Michael Symonette and Mikael Israel. Woodside was once a prominent member of the Nation of Yahweh, a predominately African American offshoot of the Black Hebrew Israelite religious movement. Believers conceive of themselves as the original Israelites. Woodside’s mother was a member and he and his brother belonged until she died. But Woodside was charged (and eventually acquitted) of murder charges that put the leader of the Nation of Yahweh, Hulon Mitchell, Jr in prison for 11 years.
It is tempting to dismiss this small group of “Black Men for Trump” as just a random rather than representative group. There’s a commonsense assumption that Black Americans are primarily Democrats and that while the Trump Administration sought to recruit Black Americans with a “what do you have to lose but your chains” appeal only a small percentage of African Americans, and then predominately African American men, voted for Trump in 2020. It is noteworthy, however, that a slightly greater percentage (approximately 18%) voted for him in 2020 than in 2016 (estimated around 16%).
According to Michael the Black Man, Trump won in 2016 because he followed the instructions in the Gospel of Matthew: “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so, the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (22:10) Apparently, by recruiting Black men “slaves”, Trump was able to secure the victory because once Black men joined his campaign, others followed. Michael then completes this assertion on January 6th with another, “And that is why he is going to win again.”
Michael the Black Man’s speech is primarily an account of how if Blacks and Whites unite then President Trump will be restored to the Presidency. Throughout Michael exhorts “real White people” to unite with Blacks for Trump. Yet he has a rather convoluted sense of who is Black and who is White. On the one hand, Michael notes that Whites who did not own property or who were illiterate were also prohibited from voting in the Jim Crow South; being White didn’t guarantee them suffrage. He even approvingly cites Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) who used the racial slur, “White n***rs” to capture this kind of shared discrimination.
But, according to Michael, there is a cosmic war between the good White people (Gentiles and Canaanites, like Donald Trump) versus the demonic Whites (White Cherokees, like Hilary Clinton). Michael has an incoherent formulation of Native American history, but the gist is that Black and White Gentiles were in America before the Cherokees and are therefore God’s original chosen people.
The theological thread of Michael’s oration and perhaps the one most proximate to conceptions of Christian nationalism is captured in his biblical allusion to Acts 17:26 “all nations are one blood.” (5:18) He uses the reference to proclaim that when Black and White unite, there will be victory and one’s enemies will be defeated. The Bible tells us, he repeats, how good it is when God's people live together in unity. In some ways it is a quintessentially American sentiment. Both Trump and Biden made similar claims in their inaugural speeches; Biden said “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements, but always pursue solidarity”; exactly four years earlier, Trump had proclaimed “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.” It’s the aspirational goal of a “colorblind” society, even as Michael and both Presidents rehearse racial and other differences. That is, Michael is a Black man for Trump, not an American for Trump, not a Citizen for Trump, etc. He’s invested in an identity his politics are intended to overcome, “neither black nor white.” But Michael (and Trump) do something else, as well. They refer to “blood.”
America is usually understood as a creedal nation; one built on an idea rather than on blood or soil or ethnic identity. Nonetheless, there is also this thread in American history of the necessity of blood and of suffering to achieve that unity. It’s in the abolitionist and anti-abolitionist writings and sermons of the pre-Civil War era; it’s in the rhetoric that propelled both World Wars; it’s even represented in the stain glass memorial windows, Sacrifice for Freedom at the National Cathedral and it is here again notably in Trump’s inaugural, “whether we are Black, or Brown, or White we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” Like Trump, Michael implies that unity requires blood, sacrifice and potentially violence. Bleeding unites good Americans. Although Trump promises in his speech to end “this American carnage,” he also refers to the role of the American military to secure this unity.
For Michael the Black Man, that unity comes with the violent defeat of one’s enemies, “the demons of the earth.” The triumph of interracial unity will result in Democrats being afraid, as they are personified in Revelations 11:8-14, “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit…” It’s not a unity built on reconciliation with difference and disagreement, but rather a defeat of those with whom one disagrees and/or who are different. So, while there’s the chanting, “Latin, Black and White Unite” and the painfully off-key singing of “America, the Beautiful,” it’s all entwined with the rhetoric of exclusion, of demons and of blood.
Perhaps, one of the most politically striking moments is at 6:18 when Michael asserts, “So when they go in, I’m telling Schumer and Mitch McConnell, and Nancy Pelosi, all the demons of the earth, I’m telling you now, you either put Trump in or that’s your ass. And that’s it.”
The value of this video even through its hyperbole and ill-conceived rendition of American history is that it reminds the viewer of the necessity of two important features of the American project: 1) the imperative of a democracy built on creed, not blood or identity. Blacks for Trump is not built on principles, but identity. and 2) that without an aspirational vision of what the fulfillment of that creed should look like, the “nation with a soul of a church” becomes more like an empty shell of a church without a soul: “that’s your ass.”
Blacks for Trump is not so much a showcase of right and left politics as it is a case study of the evisceration of the very possibility of reconciliation with those with whom one most ardently disagrees. And, while Michael the Black Man claims biblical authority for his prejudices, those prejudices are in some ways the same as those more eloquently articulated and smoothed with the vernacular of academic discourse, such as the contemporary cult of White guilt. Theories of White supremacy and White privilege now claim an ontology, although not quite biblical, but not that much different than the demons that Blacks for Trump similarly seek to exorcise. These are both ways of organizing community that necessitate defeat, require scapegoating, and result in facile solutions - whether the canned bromides of “training sessions” with consultants or the revived ontologies of racial legacies. Blacks for Trump, like its mirrored other “woke racism,” is a reminder of how far we still are from Dr. Martin Luther King’s beloved community. A community of transformation, not affirmation. A love of justice derived from the messy, noisy practices of democratic politics, not the alignment with predetermined virtues. As Hannah Arendt argues, these are the democratic practices the difference between the successful enduring fulfillment of the American Revolution with its power of becoming versus the static violence of the guillotine of the French Revolution.
The expression “a Nation with the Soul of a Church,” initially made famous by G.K. Chesterton one hundred years ago, now resonates in a new way after the January 6th insurrection at the Capital. When Chesterton was entering the United States for the first time and applying for a visa, he was asked, “What is America?” His response detailed in his book, What I Saw in America, focused on America as a creedal nation. Explicitly Chesterton noted that it was creed, specifically democratic beliefs, rather than character or identity that created American inclusions as well as exclusions. As an example, he noted that when he was seeking entrance into the United States one of the questions was “Are you an anarchist?”
Now, in 2022, is there still an American creed? And, if so, what is it? Is the creed itself primarily about race or beliefs about racial equity? Or is the creed antiracism first, and democracy later? Or is the creed itself berated as a vestige of White supremacy rather than the aspirational “all men are created equal”?
Melissa Matthes is currently full professor at the United States Coast Guard Academy where she teaches courses in religion and politics, ethics as well as the history of political thought. She is the author most recently of When Sorrow Comes: The Power of Sermons from Pearl Harbor to Black Lives Matter (Harvard University Press, 2021). She holds a Ph.D. in political theory and feminist studies from the History of Consciousness Program, University of California, Santa Cruz as well as a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School.