WASHINGTON (RNS) — As hundreds stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attack that left five people dead and hundreds of police officers and demonstrators wounded, a small group gathered in the U.S. Senate chamber.
They were not terrified lawmakers; that group had been whisked away moments before to secure locations. And they were not law enforcement officers, who were scattered throughout the Capitol grounds frantically trying to get control of the ever-escalating situation.
These were a handful of insurrectionists. Men (mostly) who had forced their way past metal barricades and walls of exhausted police into the halls of power. They huddled in the heart of American democracy to celebrate how far they’d come in this violent siege on the Capitol — and to pray.
In video captured by The New Yorker, one of the insurrectionists perched atop the Senate dais paused to shout “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!”
“Amen!” the group, who were there in an attempt halt the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, bellowed in response.
Then another man, Jacob Chansley, sporting blue face paint and adorned in a fur hat with horns, raised a bullhorn and shouted, “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space.”
He went on to do just that, leading the group in a lengthy orison entreating a “divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent creator God.” Chansley, who goes by the name Jake Angeli, thanked this God for police officers who “allowed” them into the building — just moments after a lone police officer was seen repeatedly asking him to leave — to “exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”
Much has been written about the various catalysts that drove insurrectionists that day, but the prayer offers a window into the specific forms of religious pluralism and ecumenism that united many of the rioters. It highlights a cadre that draws from disparate corners of America’s religious landscape to forge a common spiritual cause that fuses “conspirituality,” anger, Christian nationalism and passionate support for Donald Trump.
Chief among the praying insurrectionists was Chansley, a man who, taken at (blue) face value, was a curious choice to lead the prayer. A 33-year-old self-proclaimed “Q Shaman” or “QAnon Shaman” from Phoenix, Chansley has publicly professed religious beliefs that are a syncretic whirlwind cribbed from various faiths. Chansley’s body, for instance, is emblazoned with so many images from Norse paganism — including Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor — that heathens issued a statement distancing themselves from the man after photographs of him participating in the insurrection circulated widely in the days afterward.
But as The Wild Hunt reported, postings on Chansley’s since-deleted Facebook page included claims of being a “shamanic practitioner and energetic healer” who has been “on shamanic path for over a decade.” Appeals to shamanism — a broad category with a variety of interpretations — also appeared in court documents after his arrest: Chansley’s lawyer argued his client’s “shamanic belief system and way of life” precludes him from eating food in jail that is not organic or contains “unnatural chemicals.” A federal judge granted the request for particular foods, and Chansley — who had refused to eat for nine days — was eventually moved to another jail to accommodate his diet.
His beliefs seem inextricable from both his strong support for the former president and his passion for conspiracy theories, including the widely debunked QAnon theory that claims Trump is in a hidden war with a group of liberal satanic pedophiles. In an interview with Austrian news agency ORF, Chansley can be seen holding a sign with the slogan “Q Sent Me!” as he outlines a sprawling tangle of QAnon conspiracy theories that involve secret banking cabals exacting wide control over governments as well as hidden underground military bases beneath the Swiss Alps.
To Chansley, his religious path offers a spiritual counter to these imagined evils.
“In order to beat this evil occultic force, you need a light occultic force,” he said. “You need an occultic force that is (on) the side of God, of love, almost like on the side of the angels as opposed to the demons. As a shaman, I am like a multidimensional or hyperdimensional being … I am able to perceive multiple different frequencies of light beyond my five senses, and it allows me to see into these other, higher dimensions (where) these entities — these pedophiles, these rapists, these murderers, these really high up people — that they almost like hide in the shadows. Nobody can see that because their third eye ain’t open. And that’s where things like fluoride and stuff like that comes in.”
He went on to claim his headgear is meant to draw from Indigenous traditions — members of which have criticized him — as does his face paint: “(It) is representative of the Native American tradition of donning war paint, only this is a war that is of a spiritual nature.”
But while many of Chansley’s beliefs trend toward a subset of faith often referred to as “New Age” — or sometimes dubbed “conspirituality” when fused with conspiracy theories — his views also overlap with Christianity. Indeed, belief in QAnon prophecies and conspiracy theories is prevalent among Christians, especially evangelicals: According to a recent survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, 27% of white evangelicals believe the primary tenets of the widely debunked conspiracy theory — the most of any religious group polled.
That might shed light on why Chansley concluded his prayer in the Senate chamber — which he allegedly told law enforcement officials that he accessed “by the grace of God” — with references to Jesus and possible hints of Christian nationalism. He thanked the “Heavenly Father” for “filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ” and for “allowing the United States of America to be reborn.”
The prayer certainly resonated with Leo Christopher Kelly, a 35-year-old resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who stood near Chansley in the Senate chamber as he appealed to the Almighty. Kelly was the visual opposite of Chansley; he wore a simple fleece jacket, his face devoid of paint. Even so, he can be spotted in the New Yorker footage kneeling off to Chansley’s left as he prayed, burying his face in his hand.
Kelly would later praise the moment Chansley “consecrated (the Senate) to Jesus” in an interview with conservative website LifeSiteNews the day of the insurrection. He called the prayer the “ultimate statement of where we are at with this movement.”
In the since-deleted video interview obtained by Religion News Service, Kelly articulated a more traditional form of Christianity, albeit one also interlaced with conspiracy theories and a version of Christian nationalism. He pointed to the “An Appeal to Heaven” flag common at the insurrection: The banner, which also appeared at faith-themed events leading up to the attack such as the “Jericho March,” traces its origins to the American Revolution and is rooted in the belief that citizens retain the right to “appeal to heaven” and wage revolution.
“We appeal to heaven, because we, as individuals, are powerless,” said Kelly.
He justified the insurrection by citing examples of lawmakers and courts repeatedly rejecting as unproven the claims of widespread voter fraud promoted by Trump and others.
“We’ve been betrayed by Congress,” he said. “We’ve been betrayed by the judicial branch. We’ve been betrayed by our local governments.”
He grew visibly emotional near the end of the interview, which court documents suggest is what led investigators to Kelly. When asked how he felt about his actions, Kelly expressed ambivalence but implied he was most concerned about God’s judgment.
“God will judge us for what we did,” he said. “I’m redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, right? There’s no judgment that stands against me. Perhaps I did something wrong … but what else were we supposed to do?”
The blood of Christ was also important to another insurrectionist: Joshua Black of Leeds, Alabama, who can be seen standing directly in front of Chansley during the prayer wearing a camouflage jacket, his hands raised in supplication. Before he turned himself in to the FBI in the days after the insurrection, Black posted a pair of YouTube videos in which he explained his rationale for storming the Capitol.
“I just wanted to get inside the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it,” he said. “That was my goal.”
In his account, Black — who bares a hole in his left cheek after he was shot with a projectile during the Capitol attack — repeatedly cites God as guiding his actions. He says his decision to travel to Washington in the first place was because “the Lord wanted me to be there” and that he “prayed all the way there.” The Almighty also spurred his choice to approach and enter the Capitol, Black said, and upon pushing past the Capitol doors, he began shouting religious slogans.
“I just kept saying, ‘Praise the name of Jesus! Glory to God! God bless America!’”
He wandered around the Capitol in a state of religious fervor — “(God’s) spirit was strong in there,” he said — before eventually stumbling upon the entrance to the U.S. Senate chamber. Black said he felt “the spirit of God wanted me to go into the Senate room,” where he promptly fell to his knees and began to pray. Footage shows him discouraging others who entered the chamber from destroying property, which he claimed was one of many instances where he deescalated violence and protected police.
But Black remained in the Senate chamber — one of many acts prosecutors argue were illegal. Filmed talking on the phone and armed with a knife he carried because he doesn’t like “being defenseless,” Black also did not appear to protest when Chansley walked past him and staged a brief photoshoot in the chair where then-Vice President Mike Pence had been sitting earlier that day. As a police officer pleaded with the group to leave, Chansley wrote a letter that read “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming!”
Like Chansley and Kelly, Black said he was convinced he and other “patriots” were generally justified because “they stole my country” and he wanted to “defend the Constitution.” He warned of a coming “one-world government,” part of a “new world order” conspiracy theory parroted by other insurrectionists, including a since-suspended Twitter account Newsweek has linked to Chansley.
Black also claimed Democrats, while “not the anti-Christ,” are “anti-Christian.”
Perhaps that is why the Alabama man, despite his supposed dedication to decorum, also did not appear to challenge Chansley and others — still on the Senate dais — as they led the group in prayer during the insurrection. Instead, Black removed his hat, bowed his head and raised his hands.
There were other insurrectionists who prayed that day as well. Hours before the attack, members of the chauvinist Proud Boys were spotted kneeling in prayer. Notably absent was their leader, Enrique Tarrio, who had been arrested days earlier shortly after he claimed responsibility for an incident in December when he and other Proud Boys tore Black Lives Matter signs from three churches and set one on fire. Some defended Tarrio, including the Twitter account attributed to Chansley, which shared an article about Tarrio’s case and added the caption “He did nothing wrong!”
Proud Boys may be missing more leaders soon. Several — including some seen kneeling in prayer — have been charged with various crimes regarding their role in the Capitol attack, such as conspiracy.
Prosecutors say another man, New Mexico county Commissioner Couy Griffin, also led a crowd outside the Capitol in prayer. Standing with a bullhorn on the Capitol steps overlooking the masses, he asked them to take a break from “screaming” and “fighting” to pray for “our nation to come back stronger than it ever has.” He concluded: “In Jesus’ name, amen!”
Griffin — who allegedly declared at a council meeting that he intended to return to Washington with firearms ahead of the inauguration — was arrested and now faces a misdemeanor charge of entering a Secret Service-restricted area.
There were representatives from other faith groups there as well. A man dressed as Captain Moroni, a figure from the Book of Mormon, was spotted milling about inside the Capitol during the attack. An Orthodox Jewish man who wore fur pelts during the insurrection — and repeated widely discredited claims of election fraud — was reportedly arrested by the FBI in January. One insurrectionist was identified by his jacket bearing the name of his local Knights of Columbus chapter, a Catholic organization.
It’s an open question as to whether this kaleidoscopic religious alliance can survive in a post-Trump world. Chansley has already expressed regret about his actions, apologizing for storming the Capitol, renouncing any interest in politics and conveying through his lawyer that he feels “duped” by Trump — who, despite requests, did not grant Chansley a pardon before leaving office. Shortly before Kelly’s arrest, he told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids: “I understand there could be consequences for what happened and I will accept those and deal with them.” And social media platforms — which reportedly proved to be a catalyst for other faith-fueled insurrectionists — have begun cracking down on the sharing of conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Yet forms of faith that transcend theological differences or are informed by conspiracy theories are unlikely to vanish. Despite Biden’s inauguration on Jan 20, some supporters of QAnon have begun insisting Trump will somehow be inaugurated as president on March 4, with at least one devotee declaring “God has planned all of this for many years,” according to Newsweek.
For others, beliefs may simply find a new context: in his final YouTube video before contacting law enforcement, Black explained that if he ends up in jail for his actions, he intends to start “a prison ministry — a full-time prison ministry.”
“God wins either way,” he said.