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A Religious, Yet Religiously Incoherent Event 30 Michael J. Altman and Jerome Copulsky image_header 310 2022-01-02T21:17:20+00:00
Uncivil Religion curates pieces of digital media – tweets, videos, photos, FBI files – that represent the various and complex religious dimensions of the “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington, D.C. and riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The project also presents accompanying analysis of these digital media from experts in the study of religion and politics. It is a resource for anyone, from the general public to other scholars, interested in tracing the variety of ways religious identities, ideas, symbols, and rituals intersected with the events of January 6.
This project has been almost a year in the making. On January 10, 2021, Peter Manseau, Lilly Endowment Curator of Religion at the National Museum of American History, began to point out the religious imagery on display under the Twitter hashtag #CapitolSiegeReligion. “I’m convinced it is *the* story of what happened," he tweeted a few days later. “Not everyone wore a Guns & God hoodie or carried a Jesus flag but they all shared the psychological safety net such symbols provided.” It was immediately clear that there was a lot of religion on display that day.
#CapitolSiegeReligion quickly became a tool for Twitter users to post and comment upon materials they found in news coverage and social media. With dozens of journalists and scholars contributing, the hashtag fueled further reporting, provided fodder for podcasts and classroom instruction, and informed a virtual event hosted by the American Academy of Religion. This project builds on those early efforts, and has made use of a range of sources that have come to light in the year since the event.
We contend that religion was not just one aspect of the attack on the Capitol, but, rather, it was a thread that weaves through the entirety of the events of January 6. Our researchers sorted through thousands of items, many posted on social media platforms on January 6, 2021 or soon thereafter, to gather, identify, and catalog media. Our effort to locate items relating to religion and January 6 is ongoing. We tried to be inclusive and representative, if not exhaustive. The media we have identified not only illustrate that religion was central to the January 6 events but also indicate the diversity (and perplexities) of American religion and its relations with American political activity and history.
To supplement the digital media presented in this website, we have invited a number of established and emerging scholars of religion to contribute short interpretive essays to contextualize and interpret a selection of images and videos. Our goal was to bring together a variety of voices to help us understand the ways that religion appeared and the roles religion played on that afternoon.
As we sorted through the various pieces of media that make up this project, we found that they could be put into three major categories. These categories structure the way the essays are presented . First, a number of the media reflect the overwhelming presence of certain forms of American Christianity throughout the rally and attack. A number of journalists and commentators have observed the central role that “Christian Nationalism” (or “Christian Trumpism”) had played in the run up to the event (the Jericho March rallies) and on January 6 itself. It is clear that a fair number of participants were publicly displaying the connection between their Christian identities, their American national identities, and their political beliefs. Many believed that their political actions that day were fundamentally Christian in nature. By disrupting Congress’ legally mandated ritual of counting electoral college votes, they were doing not only Trump’s, but God’s work.
Second, many of the media we found signaled a religious presence broader than the forms of Protestantism most often associated Christian nationalism and recently with President Trump and his administration. While the majority of religious symbols came from the evangelical right, other participants appeared to identify with Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, as well as expressions of “New Age” and neo-pagan spiritualities, even the new “QAnon” conspiracy movement, among others. While most of the participants were supporters of President Trump, they were not unified in their expressions of religion. The symbols, rituals, ideas, and identities on display during the rally and attack were as religiously plural as the United States itself.
Finally, many of the pieces of media we found are not obviously “religious” at first glance, yet they are ripe for analysis through the various conceptual and analytical lenses deployed by scholars of religion. These media provided an opportunity for our contributors to explore the role religious identities, rituals, and claims played in the attack on the Capitol that might not be apparent on the surface.Why "Uncivil Religion"? The name gestures not only toward the incivility of the attack itself but to the concept of “civil religion” made famous by sociologist Robert N. Bellah in his celebrated–and much debated–1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that we could see a distinct “religious dimension” to political life in the United States, expressed in “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” and that this American civil religion—“at its best”—promoted an awareness of “the transcendent goal of the political process,” even as he acknowledged that it “has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” Our use of "uncivil religion" echoes Bellah's argument about the pervasiveness and persistence of religious symbols and rituals in American public life, but emphasizes that the power of religious discourse to promote a transcendent political goal can also have ruinous, antidemocratic, and violent consequences. If Bellah saw civil religion at its best, January 6, 2021 revealed uncivil religion at its worst.
One of the questions we have grappled with is what to call the events of January 6–which began as a protest rally to “Stop the Steal” and then turned into a riot at the Capitol Building. Above, we used the term “attack,” as used by the House Select Committee. Rather than choose a single term, however, we have left it to the scholars to describe the event as they understand it. Whatever term one chooses to mark the event, we believe that it is essential that the religious dimension is a key dimension, which needs to be acknowledged, studied, and contended with.
Michael J. Altman is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and Project Director of Uncivil Religion.
Jerome Copulsky is a consulting scholar at the National Museum of American History’s Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History and Project Director of Uncivil Religion.
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.