Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Kek Smoke Show

Perhaps you have come across the term “Kek” online or seen images of the Kekistani flag? You may have even seen it being used alongside Pepe the Frog and wondered why it has been circulating through memes and in public spaces, as seen with the above photograph from the attack on the Capitol building on January 6, 2021? More to the point, what does this have to do with religion?
Kek memes became popular during the early months of 2017 after British YouTuber Sargon of Akkad tweeted that online “trolls” met the census criteria to become an ethnicity in the UK. This was quickly seized upon by online communities such as 4Chan and Reddit as a way to mock what some in the Anglo-American world perceive to be a culture of political correctness run amok. According to journalist David Niewert, Kek is the deity of an “ironic religion” that is primarily used to shock and troll liberals and “self-righteous” conservatives alike. In his detailed analysis for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Niewert links Kek’s origins to online gaming culture, where “KEK” became another way of saying “LOL” (laugh out loud). When someone discovered that there was an Egyptian god named Kek, whose male incarnation had the head of a frog, the convergence between Kek and Pepe the Frog took on a life of its own. Books like The Divine Word of Kek, common prayers, and, most importantly, memes helped to reproduce these images through acts of trolling that are commonly referred to as creating “meme magic.” Niewert also observes that Kek “adherents” have created an elaborate mythology, including the legend of an ancient kingdom of Kekistan that had been taken over by “Normistan” (i.e., normal, mainstream culture).

The use of Kek and the Kekistani flag in combination with Pepe the Frog has been taken up by some white nationalists and alt-right personalities as a way to mock political correctness and praise Donald Trump, whom many in this milieu see as an avatar of Kek, disrupting social norms and spreading chaos.  Indeed, the Kekistani flag is styled after the Nazi flag, while Pepe is sometimes pictured in an SS uniform. These and related memes are likely what compelled the Anti-Defamation League to declare Pepe the Frog a symbol of hate in 2016. Regardless of whether the users of these memes are sincere or just want to provoke a reaction, for Niewert the effect is clear—the drowning-out of growing social concerns coming from liberals, feminists, and minorities by blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake and thereby deflecting criticism against hetero-normative, patriarchal, and racist norms.

All of this begs the question, is Kek a religion, and what is at stake in claiming that it is? Here it is worth pausing to consider a comparison with the Satanic Temple or TST as laid out in Joseph Laycock’s book, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (2020).

Started in 2013 by co-founders Malcolm Jarry and Lucien Greaves, the idea of TST was sparked by a bill in Florida that allowed students to read aloud religious messages at sporting events and during public assemblies. In their initial response, TST staged a publicity stunt with a hired actor who spoke in favor of the bill outside of the Florida state legislature, playfully boasting that it would allow Satanists to gain a foothold in public spaces. Greater media attention came about when TST sought to erect a monument of Baphomet at the Oklahoma state capital in response to an existing monument of the Ten Commandments that was put up in 2012.

In addition to publicity stunts that promote the separation of church and state, many members of TST have argued that they do in fact hold a sincerely held religious belief in Satanism, which includes shared symbols, rituals, and principles. Indeed, TST’s initial publicity stunts inspired the formation of a series of chapters across the U.S., with headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts, as well as organizations in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.  In addition to advocating in favor of LGBTQ issues, reproductive rights, and non-sectarian education, they also engage in philanthropic work, such as cleaning highways and helping the homeless. As TST grew, Malcolm Jerry came up with Seven Tenants, one of which—that “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s will alone”—was drawn upon in a court case involving abortion rights in Missouri. Although there have been clear elements of trolling among TST members, there is also evidence to suggest that its structure and organization mimic legally recognized religions in a number of ways. In addition to shared principles, symbols, and rituals, there is now an officially sanctioned ordination program that licenses ministers. Although TST describes itself as non-theistic, it has allowed self-described religious people into the fold, stating that it is people’s actions and not their beliefs that matter.

So, is TST a religion? To this we could answer yes and no—depending on who you ask and what is at stake in answering this question. As the late scholar J.Z. Smith argued in his essay, “God Save This Honourable Court,” institutions like the IRS and the Supreme Court are among the most consequential public bodies for conferring status as a legitimate religion. More importantly, religions tend to be defined in the U.S. based on their resemblance to certain Protestant “prototypes,” such as “faith,” “belief,” and the freedom of individuals to interpret sacred texts. Whatever one may think of the Satanic Temple, it is worth noting that it gained tax-exempt status as a church from the IRS in February of 2019. By these standards, TST is a religion.

By comparison, Kek does not have tax-exempt status, a clearly defined set of principles (like the Seven Tenants), nor an ordination process. It is not organized by local chapters that meet in brick-and-mortar buildings, and it does not engage in philanthropic work that is commonly recognized as serving the community. Kek does, however, resemble Smith’s Protestant prototypes in a few key ways, such as the existence of common prayers and books, along with the creation of a mythology that places its origins and purpose in the ancient past. Or, to put it differently, by inventing "religious" symbols, rituals, and beliefs that most will recognize as farcical, Kek calls our attention to how societies like the United States define religion and its boundaries. Whether intended or not (and intention is always hard to prove!), those who draw upon Kek in these ways are playing with the iconography of mainstream culture, as Whitney Phillips argues in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (2015), and thus calling our attention to its instability.

The suggestion by Sargon of Akkad that trolls meet the census criteria to become their own ethnicity in the UK is nothing new. Back in the early 2000s, groups in countries like Australia and New Zealand saw large numbers of people write-in “Jedi Knight” as their religion in the national census. More recently, self-described Pastafarians, and their Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, won the right in certain countries for people to wear colanders on their heads in official government ID photos. Not unlike TST, Jedi Knights and Pastafarians were playing with existing social norms in order to extend rights to those without a legitimately recognized religion—or, in some cases, to point out the absurdity of granting freedoms or exemptions based solely on the claim of a sincerely held belief. Those drawing on the idea of Kek seem to be operating in this milieu, although their purpose appears to be more nebulous--from spreading chaos and even calling out hypocrisy, to more intentional acts, such as providing a playful veneer for racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas.

Regardless of whether “adherents” of Kek are mere trolls or hold sincerely held beliefs, it is not at all clear that the general public recognizes Kek as an “ironic religion,” as Niewert puts it. After all, their existence is mostly online, save for a small number of public appearances at protests and rallies linked to Trump and the alt-right. Indeed, much of the fun that Kek produces for online trolls is the opportunity to create memes that only insiders “get.” If outsiders interpret these symbols in ways that upset them, all the better. Here it is worth noting that Pepe the Frog is one of the most widely produced memes of all time and has even been used as a symbol of youthful rebellion in Hong Kong. What these very different examples show us is that it is societies—their norms, institutions, and vulnerabilities—that give symbols their power. Whatever Kek might mean to its “adherents,” it is outsiders’ reactions that give it life beyond the darker corners of the web.

Matt Sheedy is a Visiting Professor in North American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. His research focuses on theories of secularism and religion, along with contemporary representations of Islam, atheism, Christianity, and Indigenous traditions in popular and political culture. His recent book is Owning the Secular: Religious Symbols, Culture Wars, Western Fragility (2021).

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