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Braveheart: President Donald J. Trump
Kristin du Mez
The sign is homemade, bright yellow and hand-painted on what appears to be cardboard. With his telltale orange skin and distinctively coiffed blond hair, the figure at the center is President Trump clad as William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish warrior depicted in the movie Braveheart.
The word “BRAVEHEART” emblazoned on the sign makes this connection clear, as does the speech bubble with the word “Freedom!” printed in Germanic font. In his right hand, Trump-as-William-Wallace holds a sword, in the other hand, the severed head of Karl Marx.
At first glance, there is nothing that clearly marks this artifact as particularly “religious.” Only when one understands the role that the movie Braveheart has played in fashioning conservative white evangelical ideals of masculinity can it be appreciated how this sign taps into a particular strand of militant white evangelicalism.
When Braveheart arrived in theaters in 1995, its epic story of the legendary warrior thrilled audiences. For conservative white evangelicals, however, the film was not merely a great action flick. It quickly came to inspire a renewed sense of cultural and political militancy.
Despite the film’s graphic portrayals of violence, and also the presence of “six obscenities…and two obscene acts,” Ted Baehr, the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, gave the film his stamp of approval. Baehr saw it as “a rallying cry for the supremacy of God’s law” over the authority of leaders who had flouted that law. With Bill Clinton in the White House at the time, this was an inspirational message.
Mel Gibson, who directed and starred in the film, is a traditionalist Catholic, and his version of William Wallace resonated with conservative Protestants. The film was riddled with historical inaccuracies, a point Gibson readily conceded: “I’m in the business of cinema. I’m not an (expletive) historian.” Yet it was precisely these inaccuracies that appealed to many conservative evangelicals. In Gibson’s hands, Wallace is a Christian freedom fighter; Wallace’s nemesis, King Edward, is depicted as a pagan ruler. (He was in fact Christian.) It is Wallace’s (historically dubious) attempt to defend his wife’s purity and avenge her death that provokes him to embark on a campaign of unquenchable violence. Wallace’s infamous cry of “Freedom!” appears in the film, not in the historical record.
The film was released at the height of the evangelical men’s movement, the year before 800,000 “Promise Keepers” descended on the nation’s capital. These Christian men came not to storm the Capitol building, but to “stand in the gap”—to rededicate themselves to leading and protecting their families. Promise Keepers was a patriarchal movement, but it was largely characterized by a “soft patriarchy,” a kinder, gentler assertion of masculine authority. Some evangelicals, however, believed this softness was going too far. With its portrayal of warrior masculinity and no-holds-barred freedom-fighting heroism, Braveheart offered a refreshingly rugged, even ruthless alternative.
It’s hard to overstate the popularity of Braveheart in evangelical circles. In 2001, John Eldredge’s bestselling Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, encouraged Christian men to model their lives after Gibson’s William Wallace. According to Eldredge, God was a warrior god and men were made in his image —“In your life you are William Wallace”—and every man had a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue.
Only months after the book was released, terrorists struck the United States. The metaphorical battle Eldredge described was now real. Wild at Heart would go on to sell more than four million copies, becoming a staple of men’s Bible studies and finding a place on the shelves of Christian bookstores and church libraries across the country. Pastors played clips of the film in Sunday sermons, Christian men attended weekend Wild at Heart Boot Camps, churches organized homegrown “Braveheart Games,” and one Christian college boasted a Braveheart dorm (the film was the only R-rated film permitted).
The film also became a staple in the culture-wars liturgies of the Religious Right. In 1992, Pat Buchanan had announced the existence of a war “for the soul of America.” When Buchanan ran for president in 1996, supporters heralded him with shouts of “Braveheart!” In 2000, Mark Driscoll, pugnacious pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, spewed misogynistic and militant rhetoric on his church’s online discussion board under the pseudonym “William Wallace II”: “I love to fight…Fighting is what we used to do before we all became pussified,” before America became a “pussified nation.” In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch drove from his North Carolina home to Washington, D.C., where he opened fire at a pizzeria he erroneously believed housed a child-sex ring. After the incident, he told The New York Times that his favorite book was Wild at Heart. When Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk founded a think-tank “for faith and liberty” housed at Liberty University, they named it the Falkirk Center, a play on their own names and the name of a battle featured in Braveheart. When Ted Cruz sought to take up Trump’s mantle at the 2021 CPAC convention, he did so by closing his speech with “the immortal words of William Wallace,” channeling Gibson’s cry for “Freedom!”
The severed head of Karl Marx may seem like an odd choice, but for more than a century, conservative Christians have identified Marxism and socialism as threats not just to America, but to Christian America. This was evident in anti-Bolshevism and in conservative opposition to the New Deal, and also in the strident anti-communism of the Cold War era.
Within Christian nationalist circles, “socialist” has now become a “catch-all for anything leftist…without naming the target,” according to sociologist Samuel Perry. Essentially, “socialists” have become “the ultimate out-group for the right because it sounds like you’re talking economics, when it’s also ‘dog whistle’ for unAmerican identity politics & atheism.” Anti-socialist and anti-Marxist rhetoric has long been wielded to combat civil rights activism, progressive taxation, health care reform, and strengthening the social safety net. More recently it has been deployed against “Critical Race Theory.”The lack of explicitly religious symbolism on this sign obscures the fact that it communicates values that resonate in powerful ways with many American Christians: the heroic defense of faith, family, and nation, when all appear to be under siege. And, perhaps more pointedly, the necessity of violence in pursuit of righteousness. These values do not only appeal to conservative Christians; rather, they are part of a God-and-country belief system that finds a home both inside Christian churches and outside traditional Christian spaces, unifying Christian and secular conservatives around a cultural and political identity that trumps traditional theological affinities and divisions. This alliance constitutes a critical base of Trump’s support. It has also transformed the modern Republican party, and American evangelicalism itself. For many, evangelicalism has ceased to be about the Jesus of the Gospels. Instead, it signifies a cultural and political identity, one that is “not entirely about politics or religion but power.” And as the nation observed on January 6, 2021, this shared ideology can fuel a violent insurrection in the name of “taking back” the country.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Professor of History at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
Martyrdom and Witness
Among the dozens of alarmed messages sent to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows during the attack on the Capitol, one proved prescient almost immediately. “POTUS has to come out firmly and tell protestors to dissipate,” a text made public by the January 6 Committee read, “Someone is going to get killed.”
Depending on when this text was sent, the tragedy may have already happened. At 2:44 P.M., U.S. Capitol Police fatally shot 35-year-old Ashlii Babbitt as she attempted to climb through a broken window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. Until that instant, the standoff over this barricaded threshold was a perfect encapsulation of the opposing forces at play that day: On one side, Babbitt and her fellow rioters shouted “Go! Go!” as they pushed against the doors; on the other side, officers answered with “Get back! Get down!” as they tried to keep them at bay. The shattered glass, Babbitt’s advance, and the shot that followed transformed the moment into something else. In video of the event the sense of shock is palpable in the quiet after the discharge, as if no one knew how to react once the inevitable had occurred.
That Ashlii Babbitt would become, for many supporters of the former president, perhaps the most potent symbol of January 6 was part of the media narrative surrounding her life and death almost from the first reporting. As Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, wrote the next day in the New York Times. “Her death shouldn’t have happened, and it should now be investigated, no question. What’s frightening, however, is that many Trump supporters are already heralding her as a martyr.”
Since then, as her posthumous fame has grown and Trump himself has called her an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman,” the contours of Babbitt’s supposed martyrdom have been described mainly in political terms, with historical parallels drawn from earlier periods of turmoil.
Writing in Slate, historian Zachary M. Schrag of George Mason University saw in MAGA’s first martyr a twenty-first century George Shiffler, the 19-year-old apprentice craftsman and aspiring firefighter who was also shot dead during a riot – in his case, a brawl between rival native-born Protestant and immigrant Catholic gangs. Beginning soon after his death on May 6, 1844, he was widely known in the terms inscribed on his coffin: “The first Martyr in the Native American Cause.” The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, meanwhile, compared to Horst Wessel, the brownshirt streetfighter whose mostly non-political death in 1930 was transformed by relentless propaganda into a call to arms. Wessel had been a member the Sturmabteilung, the assault division of the paramilitary wing of the early National Socialist party, while his assailant was part of the Red Front Fighters' League. Though his murder came as a result of an ongoing dispute with his landlord rather this political rift, the affiliations of those involved were enough to transfigure him into a slain saint of the rising Third Reich. As one of the many popular songs about him put it:
Our hero brave, Horst Wessel, falls martyr to Red plot,
Our Berlin's noblest victim of criminal, bestial shot.
But Freedom's will, invincible, they cannot slay nor burn,
For soon the page of Destiny relentlessly will turn.
Nine decades later, such martial odes have found less formal echoes in several hiphop tracks that have sought to memorialize January 6’s first casualty, most notably a tribute by a performer going by the name Forigiato Blow, previously best known for touring with fellow Florida rapper Vanilla Ice:
Ashli Babbit. Yeah you know we hold you in prayer.
Ashli Babbitt. Yeah you know your soul’s in the air.
Ashli Babbitt yeah you know true patriots care.
Left your blood up on the battle ground. Life isn’t fair.
Yet while much has been said connecting Babbitt to other politically manufactured martyrs, the religious framing her death received from the beginning has been less often noted. Early efforts to tell her story at times borrowed tropes dating back to the first Christian martyrs, among whom the word itself – martyr – maintained its original meaning of witness. In this understanding, those who died for their beliefs did so not only willingly, but as testimony both arising from and demonstrating their virtue. This act of witness was then witnessed by others, who each in turn grew in faith themselves, drawing on the sanctity of the sacrificial act and fueling the growth of the nascent sect.
One of the first attempts to frame Babbitt’s story in these terms was made by an Oklahoma pastor, Ren Schuffman, who shared videos on Facebook and Parler, the social networking site favored by many Trump supporters, throughout January 6.
In one video, streamed live on Facebook shortly after 4 P.M. as Schuffman hurried through the crowd toward the site of the siege, he shouts excitedly, “Hey guys, I’m live at the Capitol! I’ve been trying to go live all day.” He would claim in subsequent messages he had come to document the protest and pray for those participating; at that moment his interest seemed singularly focused on a rumor that had spread quickly through the mob.
“There was a 16-year-old girl that was just shot and killed,” he says. “That they killed trying to breach the Capitol right now. They’ve taken the Capitol Building. I’m live, share this out really quick. Share it out like crazy. They’ve taken the Capitol Building. They shot and killed a 16-year-old.” As he moved closer, he noted that Trump supporters had made their way inside. “They shot and killed a 16-year-old girl, that’s what I was informed,” he says again. “Sixteen supposedly, they shot and killed her.”
Four times in the 72 second video he repeats the age he believed her to be: 16. This was what all those around him believed to be the case. Though he would later post a correction on Parler (“She was not a teenager. People thought she was.”), it’s clear that parts of the narrative about her death had already taken hold less than two hours later: Her youth. Her innocence.
Stories of adolescent martyrdom have been particularly influential in U.S. evangelical circles through the past two decades, dating back to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School. Among the thirteen students murdered that day, two were known to be committed Christians -- 17-year-olds Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall – who, it was claimed in the aftermath, had declared their belief in God as they faced death, each becoming a martyr by being a witness to the faith. That this was not actually the case did not prevent a martyrdom industry of movies, books, and music from springing up in their memory, making witnesses of a generation raised to see themselves as martyrs-in-the-making, considering the possibility of being shot for their beliefs nearly as a right of passage.
Thirty-five years old, with more than a decade’s service in the military, Ashlii Babbitt was far from an innocent teenager – but the people who first told her story apparently wanted her to be one. In Schuffman’s next video, he had moved closer to the Capitol, where he stood among many who had just been inside.
“This man right here was eight feet behind the girl who got shot,” Schuffman says of a bearded, middle-aged man who seems visibly shaken in the video at the top of this essay. “What happened?”
Later identified as Phillip Bromley of Alabama, he answers deliberately: “Everybody needs to know the truth.” He describes the moment he and others encountered US Capitol Police blocking two large glass doors. “We were talking to them. We reminded them of their oath.” But then it all changed.
“Gunshot went off,” he says. “A young girl at the very front, she was about eight feet in front of me, fell backwards, onto her back, somebody had opened up the glass door, and shot her in the neck.”
“She was about 16?” Schuffman asks.
“She was young. I don’t know exactly how old she was.”
After Bromley shared all that he could recall, Schuffman asked if he could pray for him. His prayer confirms him as a witness to a martyr-making moment and declares him, in a sense, as a martyr himself as a victim of trauma.
God Lord, protect this soldier for you, this man that was brave. Father Lord, I just declare right now, this lionheart, that the angels of God be protecting over him. Father Lord, any trauma, any trauma from this event, Father I just declare and decree right now that it’s all broken, that this man is secure and safe and held in your hollow of your hand. Lord, thank you for his heart to serve his country and be a patriot. And we declare right now the blessings and favor of God on his life on his family, Lord. We speak it in the mighty name of Jesus, will protect him and guard him and strengthen him in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.
“All glory and victory to God,” Bromley responds.
Pastor Schuffman’s videos from January 6 were likely seen by a relative few. Despite his 113,681 Facebook followers, his first video mentioning the shooting has only 79 likes as of this writing. It is clear, however, that his view of Babbitt’s death represents a common impression that quickly took hold.
The day after the attack, Parler lit up with sentiments entwining Babbitt’s memory with Christian faith: “Her name is ‘Ashlii Babbitt’…May she rest in perfection at JESUS’s side for eternity, Amen,” one user wrote. “GOD bless her and her family. She is loved and will be missed, truly.” Another described the reward she would receive in heaven: “Don’t forget Ashli. Don’t forget America. Rest In Peace beloved Ashli, you deserve to be honored for your courage, for your patriotism, for your civility, and for serving this Country. Beloved Ashli, May the Lord Jesus Christ have you in His Glory. I pray that He gives you the Crown of Life.” The author of one post was apparently so moved, only verse would suffice:
Ashli Babbitt, a beautiful Patriot was she.
Her soul to Heaven, the first set free…
She rose in protest against their lies.
An election stolen before her eyes.
May God grant her eternal Peace,
For confronting those dark entities.
In the year since Babbitt’s death, her legend has grown to the point of being merchandised, much as the stories of Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall did two decades before. For a time, major retailers including Kmart and Sears were selling t-shirts emblazoned with her name above a tattered American flag.
As the scholar Elizabeth Castelli noted in her comparison of the “Columbine martyrs” with early Christian narratives, martyrdom is “product of discourse rather than a matter of unmediated experience.” It is “not simply an action but rather the product of interpretation and retelling.”
Contrary to what one might assume, martyrs don’t die. They’re born. As we have been reminded by the events of January 6 and its ongoing aftermath, the births of martyrs both religious and political occur in the imagination of those who remember them. Their stories need not conform to fact or reality to have power.
Peter Manseau is the Director of the Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History at the National Museum of American History.