In the midst of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley, the bare-chested man in Viking horns who's come to be known as the QAnon Shaman, stopped his fellow marauders in the Senate chamber to pray. "Thank you Heavenly Father for gracing us with this opportunity … to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs," he said. "Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn."
The prayer, caught on video by New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson, was just one moment among hundreds that day illustrating how deeply the insurrection was intertwined with Christian nationalism. Across the sea of protesters in and outside the building, t-shirt and ball-cap slogans proclaimed it: "Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president"; "God, Guns, Trump"; or, on the sweatshirt of a man helping construct the rough gallows erected on the Capitol lawn, "Faith, Family, Freedom." (The gallows itself was quickly covered in handwritten notes — "as if it were a yearbook," observed lawyer and author Andrew Seidel — reading "Hang them high" and "In God We Trust.")
"It was evident to anyone watching that there was this religious character to what was going on, both in the Trump movement writ large but particularly in the leadership of the 'Stop the Steal' movement," said religious studies scholar Jerome Copulsky, co-director of a new website, Uncivil Religion, dedicated to collecting "digital artifacts" of Jan. 6 religiosity and exploring what it means for, say, violent protesters to dress up like Captain Moroni — a legendary warrior from the Book of Mormon — or sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" alongside fellow protesters carrying Confederate flags. "It wasn't just the Stop the Steal rally, then the assault," Copulsky continued. "People really wanted to display their religious commitments, literally wearing them on their sleeves."
The Uncivil Religion project developed from a Twitter hashtag, #CapitolSiegeReligion, created by author and religious historian Peter Manseau and based on his sense that the religious subtext (and text, and blaring headline) were "*the* story of what happened" on Jan. 6. In Manseau's view, religion wasn't an incidental element, but had been the driving motivation that had brought many people to the Capitol. Much of that had begun much earlier, with Christian right leaders — both official and self-declared — framing the 2020 election, and the rest of America's polarized conflicts, as an all-or-nothing showdown between good and evil.
Some were national names, like Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham, who in August 2020 warned in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview that if Trump lost, churches would close down and Christians would be attacked. But that message was echoed so widely, in both religious and secular conservative media and across numerous niche religious right communities, that allegations about the "stolen" election became nearly inseparable from messages of apocalyptic faith.
But no matter how explicit — and violent — the religious rhetoric swirling around Stop the Steal was, it was little recognized before the Jan. 6 attack. "We have gotten so used to religious language used by evangelicals and other religiously-affiliated officials that the danger that was there — whether at the Jericho March or the Jan. 6 rally that led up to the attack on the Capitol — was really just noise to some people," said Anthea Butler, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. "And then it happened, and everyone pretended to be shocked. But that's willful ignorance about the role religion has played in the last 40 or 50 years in the Republican Party. It hasn't just been this alliance of how to get people elected, but has had this element of things that have fed upon each other to create a monster that threatens democracy."