A minute-long video uploaded to Twitter by William Turton provides a first-person perspective of the unfolding scene on the U.S. Capitol grounds on January 6, 2021. In the video, men dressed for the cold winter day scale a perimeter wall outside the Capitol building. Their hands pull and their feet step on the wall’s decorative horizontal grooves, the belt course, as if these features were a ladder. Earlier in the day these men, and much of the crowd on the ground below them, had participated in a large “Save America” rally held in Ellipse Park to protest Congress’s formal certification of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Two months after the 2020 election, President Donald Trump and his supporters continued to insist (erroneously) the election was stolen. At the rally, Trump fired up the crowd, telling them “You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.” At the conclusion of the rally, Trump issued the following directive to his thousands of onlookers: “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue…. we’re going to try and give them [Congress] the kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country. So, let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, God Bless you and God Bless America.”
Back at the base of the Capitol perimeter wall, the video’s audio provides evidence of how the festival-like spirit of the “Save America” rally gave way to a more angry and chaotic frenzy once the crowd left Ellipse Park and arrived at the capitol building. In the video, the din of the crowd muffles the calls of a man off-camera speaking through a megaphone. Barely audible, he tells the throng of people at the base of the capital wall to “go up the steps,” which are also, presumably, just off-camera. The men on the wall ignore these instructions and continue their ascent. Climbing several feet into the air, they are met by other self-proclaimed “patriots” when they reach the top of the wall. Some people are standing on the balcony railing waving American or Gadsden flags, while others are reaching over the railing to help pull the climbing men up onto the upper courtyard and closer to the capitol’s entrance. In opting to scale the wall, the men demonstrate that storming a capitol isn’t done by simply using the stairs.
There are several ways students and scholars of religion might make sense of this scene. We might conclude that Trump’s invocation of God and his appeal to a salvific mission to “save” the country painted a sacred gloss over the rally and ensuing riot for his supporters. We might hone in on the signs, slogans, patches, and flags of the mostly white rioters that conveyed a Trumpian evangelicalism and a displayed a white Christian nationalism to conclude that the capitol siege had racial and religious motivations. We might examine how the blend of QAnon conspiracy theories with New Age spirituality and millennialism convinced the mob that their attempts to “stop the steal” were a battle in a holy war. We may also note the pandemic context in which the politics of health and a nationwide economic downturn exacerbated partisan divides. These are all pertinent and important interpretations, but the video of the men scaling the capitol perimeter wall highlights another notable feature forming the backdrop of the January 6th insurrection: the ubiquity of American fitness culture.
Fitness and the status of the physical body might not be the most obvious place to turn to find religion during the capitol siege, but as sociologists will readily affirm, there is a longstanding tradition that links reforming the individual body and soul with the reformation of the body politic. Within the history of American health and fitness, one finds a ready blending of religion and politics. At the turn of the twentieth-century, movements like muscular Christianity, for example, advanced the idea that physical perfection could bring one closer to God, and physical culture icons like Eugene Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden elevated physical fitness into a “performance of “civilized” whiteness.” Others linked the salvific purpose of America to its military might. President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, promoted physical hardiness and a “strenuous life” as integral to America’s national identity as a rising imperial and global military power. For Roosevelt, the vitality of the nation and its moral fiber were best exemplified by white male physical strength and muscular bulk. In fact, when Trump implored his supporters at the “Save America” rally to favor strength over weakness, he was pulling from a common political playbook, used by the likes of other U.S. Presidents including Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, who contended that cultivating a physically strong body was part of one’s civic duty. Such cautions against weakness and soft bodies by U.S. Presidents carry with them multifaceted fears of moral depravity, threats to national security, and the unraveling of traditional gender norms and racial hierarchies. These fears have prompted numerous nationwide fitness campaigns, such as the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, that valorized exercise as both “a virtuous ideal” and as the nation’s best bet to ensure military readiness among its citizenry. In short, for much of American history, but especially from the 1950s onwards, fitness and exercise have become “closely linked to notions of virtue, moral purity, and power,” and are not to be discounted in analyses of political upheaval and national wellbeing.
Moreover, the conflation of physical readiness with military readiness has only increased in the last several decades with the rise of functional fitness, an approach to fitness conditioning in which exercises mimic everyday movements like lifting heavy grocery bags or moving a wheel barrel. Set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 world in which the fear of imminent danger and a national security affect reigned, functional fitness regimens became particularly popular among the U.S. military, police officers, and other first responders who cited the need to carry full-grown adults up and down stairs in a burning building, pursue a perpetrator on foot, or duck and roll on the battlefield as occupational reasons to be functionally fit. It is certainly of some significance that current and former members of the military and law enforcement were among the capitol rioters on January 6th, but what is of perhaps greater significance is how functional fitness brands like Tough Mudder, Spartan Races, and particularly CrossFit have cultivated a paramilitary ethos among functional fitness adherents, including among those without formal ties to the military or police. For example, CrossFit gyms around the world routinely honor deceased soldiers or law enforcement officers through “Hero workouts,” several branches of the U.S. military recruit at the annual CrossFit Games, and in 2016 CrossFit partnered with Glock to award pistols to winning athletes at the CrossFit Games. Functional fitness, at its core, is about training for the events of life, or as CrossFitters might say, training for the “unknown and unknowable.” Such events might include anything from lifting carry-on luggage overhead while boarding a flight, running in full battledress during a firefight, surviving a car crash, or even scaling a wall during an insurrection. This is not to say that functional fitness communities are in any way responsible for the January 6th riots. Rather, raising the specter of a paramilitary ethos in functional fitness highlights how such communities build upon and contribute to a longer American history in which religious fervor, physical capacity, race politics, and military ambition have frequently intermingled. Despite the political and ideological diversity found within these communities, a significant portion of practitioners within the U.S. prove this point by routinely infusing their exercises with evangelical Christianity, enthusiasm for gun ownership, and conservative politics, like far-right Republican Representative and former CrossFit gym owner Marjorie Taylor Greene.Returning to the video of the men scaling the wall, the bedlam captured on camera is punctuated by airhorns blaring and shouts from protesters standing on top of the balcony. Looking down at the ascending men, those shouting can be heard saying, “You got it! Let’s go!” as if they were cheering on a team member at a sporting match or a classmate in a functional fitness class. On the one-year anniversary of the capitol riots, many Americans will be less than a week into new workout routines ambitiously set as a new year’s resolution. Some will be hoping to lose weight, others will be striving to attain the virtue attributed to bodily discipline, more might be training for their first marathon, and a few might be readying their bodies to take to the streets in protest once more. In reflecting upon the long arc of religious and political motivations underlying American fitness culture, and in examining the events of January 6th—but most especially images of men scaling the capitol walls—ethically urgent questions arise about American fitness culture; primarily, for what function and to what ends?
Cody Musselman is a scholar of contemporary American religion with degrees in Religious Studies from Yale University, Harvard Divinity School, and Kalamazoo College. Her work focuses on the theories and embodiment of religion in everyday life.