Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

A Religious, Yet Religiously Incoherent Event

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.

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