This 43-second video clip was shot from near the western entrance to the United States Capitol building at 4:02 p.m. on January 6, 2021. The camera pans left and downward over a large crowd to focus momentarily on an opened door at ground-level through which various individuals pass. Some in the crowd are singing the first verse of the hymn "Amazing Grace." The camera pans back to the right to include numerous banners intermingled with American flags and an array of partisan placards. Abruptly the camera zooms in on the image of a lion. Emblazoned above the lion's head is the name "Trump"; below his mane is written "Proverbs 30:30"—a biblical reference that some in the crowd might recognize as containing the words "The lion in you never retreats." The camera angles farther to the right, then upward and brings into view a multitude on the scaffolding across the way. As the gathered celebrate this "festive" moment, some seem also to encourage their groundling peers to press onward with their forcible incursion into the breached edifice of representative democracy. Meanwhile, those singing "Amazing Grace" have reached the end of the first verse and are struggling to recall the words to the second. "Nobody knew the words," a voice from the fractured chorus declares. As if to punctuate or to justify the hymn's ignominious demise, a voice adds, "Ah! Something's burning my eyes." The video ends.
Whether one tears up because of the chemicals that are blowing in the wind or for other reasons, it is admittedly difficult to see clearly, let alone to understand, what is going on in this juxtaposition of sounds and images. For the purposes of this meditation, I would like to extract three elements from the flow of events and subject them to scrutiny as religious curios—that is, as novel examples of convictions and concerns associated with religious practices and beliefs that currently circulate in American culture.
The image of thousands assembled before a great civic shrine conjures up associations of biblical proportion. In Matthew's Gospel, for example, crowds process before and after Jesus as he enters the city of Jerusalem to the uniform cries of "Hosanna!" With the advance upon the Temple, Matthew notes that "the whole city was in turmoil." Jesus himself enters the Temple unmolested and, like an exorcist of economic exploitation, casts out the money changers and the merchants. The crowd outside is not necessarily aware of what's going on inside but their very presence speaks loudly in affirmation of those interior machinations. Still, Matthew offers a cautionary tale about mob action. For in less than a week, a similar crowd of Jerusalemites and their companions from the scattered precincts of diasporic Israel will unite their voices in a different petition, "Crucify!" On January 6, roughly two millennia later, intimations of this executioner's call were sounding on Capitol Hill, as folks in other parts of the crowd were captured on video footage chanting, "Hang Mike Pence"—their hero's evangelical confidante and right-hand man now turned betrayer. The loyalty of the crowd, it would seem, at least for now, was single-minded in its devotion to the one man who had assured his followers that he would "be there with you" as they walked down to the Capitol to "cheer on" members of the government's legislative branch in the effort to discredit the results of the recent election.
Although President Trump was not physically engaged in the advance upon the Capitol, his presence was heralded among the many banners that bore witness to him. Of these, the lion stands out as a particularly salient stand-in for the then-President, for he had associated himself with the lion already four years earlier during his campaign for the Republican nomination. On February 28, 2016, candidate Trump retweeted this proverbial assertion: "It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep." When it was pointed out that these watchwords came from Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, Trump responded, "What difference does it make whether it's Mussolini or somebody else? It's certainly a very interesting quote."
If you play the fool and exalt yourself,
or if you plan evil,
clap your hand over your mouth!
For as churning cream produces butter,
and as twisting the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger produces strife.
Whether this video clip chronicles an occurrence of strife or an occasion of celebration is a matter of interpretation. The signs of the times are blurred and ambiguous. The sequence does come with its own soundtrack, though, and thereby provides a third intimation of religiosity for communal consideration. With its portrait of radical transformation from a state of being lost to the celebration of a new life, John Newton's eighteenth century hymn "Amazing Grace" has long captured the American imagination in its conjuration of limitless possibility—in this life and beyond. The hymn became popular during the nineteenth century evangelical revivals of the Second Great Awakening. In the twentieth century it was rendered as both a gospel hymn and a song of solidarity among partisans of the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins all made popular recordings of "Amazing Grace," and Arlo Guthrie drew his set to a close at Woodstock with his folk-revivalist version of the tune. In recent memory, the hymn "Amazing Grace" was brought to public attention by President Obama, who sang it a capella at the memorial service for Pastor Clementa Pinkney, one of nine persons shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Obama drew his eulogy to a close by linking the affirmation of "amazing grace" to the patriotic anthem "America the Beautiful," with its plea, "America, God shed his grace on thee."
What kind of grace is being shed upon the nation on this particular day of reckoning, while some members of the crowd sing together "Amazing Grace?" Do these voices proclaim a redemption or a rededication of national purpose that God's grace affords? Or do they celebrate an efficacious grace, a guaranteed "election"—or predestination—that ensures the righteousness of their cause apart from any contestable election result of mere human calculation? Is this a manifestation of the brotherhood "America the Beautiful" prays for, an irresistible goodness that prevails "from sea to shining sea," or at least from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial? Is the flock gathered on the National Mall the sheep who once were lost but now are lionized? The video clip draws to a close with a reference to burning eyes. Are these the eyes of those who now can see? Or is the inverse operative and those who could see have now been blinded? The video ends on this unresolved note...
Theodore Louis Trost is Professor in the Religious Studies department and the New College at the University of Alabama. He teaches courses in religion in popular culture, biblical studies, and the rhetoric of religion. During the spring semester 2022, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh University.