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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"We represent blue lives and this is what they do to us?"
There is a temptation to interpret the events of January 6 at the Capitol as an exception to what is deemed normal in American democracy. Yet, framing the day as one of exception ignores the multiple ways in which it communicates something at the heart of America. Such is the case when examining the event from the standpoint of state policing. January 6 highlights “common” perspectives about the true character and purpose of American law enforcement. To make January 6 an exception runs the risk of interpreting the mob’s violence towards police officers as a contradiction to their cherished ideals of law and order and “Blue Lives Matter” chants. Such an interpretative frame misses how the public understands the special place of state police in the U.S.
January 6 underscores that there is no contradiction between the mob’s actions and ideals.
The mob’s violence towards law enforcement is buttressed by the former’s common viewpoints about law enforcement’s real character and purpose of security in the U.S. Michael Fanone, Daniel Hodges, and other white officers of the Metropolitan Police Department and CapitolPolice who sought to prevent the “patriotic” mission of the self-proclaimed protectors of democracy were perceived as not acting in accordance with what should be the white officers’ real purpose and function in society. White officers were classified as “traitors” (while the black officers were called “niggers”).
This viewpoint was best articulated by one of the insurrectionists, a woman. She stood near the Capitol with her group while law enforcement fired smoke bombs at them. About 1:25 p.m., the woman decried officers “…shooting their own people. We suppose to be supporting Blue Lives Matter. We represent Blue Lives and this is what you do to us.” Her voice sounded bewildered and perplexed. Yet, her following statement captured what she thought the true racial work of law enforcement: “When Black Lives Matter say Blue Lives don’t/we say you do/and this is what you do to us.” The work of law enforcement then, was to protect white rights and liberties. Fundamental to their work of protection is to stop black political struggle in the name of American “law and order.” The duty of law enforcement is to stop black freedom struggles in efforts to secure a white nation-state. In this racialist framework, “law and order” does not apply to white nationalists or population in general. The message of January 6 is very clear: state policing is sanctioned to regulate and manage black and nonwhite populations by suppressing (and criminalizing) their political aspirations. From the vantage point of the woman near the
Capitol, we are once again exposed to the racialist undertones of “Blue Lives Matter” that have defined the course of “law and order” in American history
Again, the woman’s assertion about the officers should not be reduced to the fringes of American society. Her understanding of the real raison d'etre of law enforcement captures the racial divide at the center of American society. The responses of state law enforcement to the mob “storming” the capital and white nationalists in general illuminate a fundamental fact about the role of policing and security in mainstream America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had received intelligence about the threats that various organizations posed to the nation in the days leading up to January 6. Yet law enforcement did not prepare for the onslaught of white nationalists the same way they did for peaceful demonstrators who protested the police killing of George Floyd (and other unarmed black people) on June 1. (In the age of social media, white bigotry and threats are often couched as the exercise of freedom of speech and/or self-defense). In fact, January 6 actually points to an aforementioned neglect by law enforcement of white nationalist groups that spans two decades. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security has often ignored violent threats posed by white nationalist groups, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Although white nationalists have killed far more people than other groups since 2001, the Department has concentrated on surveilling Muslims (nonwhite and non-Christian). Additionally, public polls about policing reveal how the woman’s statement reflects mainstream America. A 2020 Pew Report found that 67% of white adults say that police are doing a good or excellent job of protecting people while 28% black adults say the same.
The woman’s understanding of the real job of law enforcement also says something about American religion. State policing is not only informed by racial but religious identification as well. The racial divisions about policing spill over into American Christianity. In his study of policing and American evangelicalism, religious historian Aaron Griffith highlighted a 2015 public poll that found majorities of white mainline Christians (73%) and white Catholics (71%) viewed the police killing of black people as isolated incidents and not as broader issues of structural racism. Similarly, white evangelicals also shared this sentiment of their white mainline Christian and white Catholic counterparts (73%). Two years later, a 2017 public poll highlighted how white American Christians consistently supported law enforcement and completely disregarded its significance in the maintenance of structural racism. Although a 2020 public poll reported that white mainline Christian and white Catholic numbers have declined regarding their stance on police killing of black people as isolated incidents, the rates are now 53% and 56% respectively, which is still high. Yet, the number of white evangelical Christians who support police and attitudes about police killings of blacks has remained consistent as it did in previous years of 2015 and 2017. Griffith notes that these contemporary white evangelical Christians have “maintain[ed] their historic support for law enforcement and skepticism of racial problems within the profession.” He argues that the “historic support” of law enforcement among white evangelical Christians underscores a stubborn theological perspective that police are representatives of “God’s [earthly] authority” and policing a divine ministry. To further highlight the co-constitutive nature of religion and race in America, it is no accident that the aforementioned theological framework of policing gained its fullest expression in the wake of the modern civil rights struggle, urban rebellions, and mobilization of a white Christian voting bloc.
The woman did not articulate her exact religious affiliation. Yet, her voice is clearly within the political and religious norm of American democracy. Thus, her sentiment about law enforcement reflects not only American democracy, but a white
The woman’s assertion reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. History opens us up to the contingencies of life that spur change over time. History also affords us a chance to examine how the past informs present life. Thus, the woman’s criminalization of Black Lives Matter is a footnote to modern American history. Criminalization of blackness is as American as apple pie. She stated, “When Black Lives Matters [sic] say Blue Lives don’t/ We say you do.” Within her logic, the real work of the police (and law enforcement in general) is to destroy Black Lives Matter by criminalizing its quest for black freedom. To be sure, black freedom has always been perceived as a criminal threat to American (white) law and order. Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American law enforcement and the broader public framed the quest for black freedom as black domination (e.g. American Reconstruction was framed as Negro rule) that entailed rape, miscegenation, murder, theft, laziness, and “foreign” communist conspiracy. The quest for black freedom has been imagined as un-American (and non-religious and/or immoral, too). White southern segregationists planted the seeds of a political strategy that associated civil rights with criminality. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965, the “Law and Order” trope also facilitated the criminalization of black freedom. During the 1968 presidential election, “law and order” was one of the central issues that mobilized a white Christian voting bloc. Both Richard Nixon’s and George Wallace’s
discourse of law and order associated racial unrest (“race-riots” in urban cities caused by police brutality and violence) “civil rights, and street crime.” Amy Lerman and Velsa Weaver assert, “[Nixon and Wallace] blamed crime and violence on liberal court decisions that 'handcuffed the police,' racial agitators stirring up violence, and political leaders who cared more for giving civil rights than protecting the silent majority…” In fact, Nixon made the protection against domestic crime the “first civil right.” No doubt, Ronald Reagan (stemming from his days as Governor of California, when he cracked down on the Black Power movement) and subsequently, George Bush followed the law and order strategy. We should not lose sight of the fact that postwar Christian evangelical leaders (e.g., Billy Graham) and organizations (e.g., Fellowship of Christian Policemen) also contributed to the political discourse of law and order in state governance and validated law enforcement’s war on collective struggles against white supremacy. Yet, we should not let liberal democrats off the hook. Historian Elizabeth Hinton reminds us that the Civil Rights and subsequent War on Poverty and Crime Laws emerged simultaneously. For instance, John F. Kennedy’s anti-delinquency programs and Lyndon Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act underscored how the acceleration of policing, criminalizing, and incarceration of blacks coincided with Civil Rights and welfare expansion. The history of mainstream politics (as continued in Bill Clinton’s criticism of Stokely Carmichael and Black Power movement at John Lewis’s funeral) created conditions of possibility for the woman’s discrediting of the Black Lives Matter movement by misrepresenting it as a criminal and anti-police movement that threatens American democracy.
The woman’s statement about policing is not representative of a voice outside mainstream Christian America. She shows us that January 6 is not an aberration. It is America.
Jamil W. Drake is an Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Florida State University. He works in the area of American Religious History with a specific interest in African-American Religion. He is the author of the book, To Know the Soul of a People: Religion, Race, and the Making of Southern Folk (Oxford University Press, 2021). He is currently working on his second book project on African American religion and public health.
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.