Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Within a few days of the most momentous January 6 in American history, many media outlets embraced Jacob Chansley -- a.k.a. Jake Angeli, a.ka. the QAnon Shaman -- as a kind of icon for what most refer to simply as "the insurrection." Images of Chansley seemed to offer a peculiar kind of comfort: "Maybe they are just plain crazy," they allowed us to think of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol.
But we can learn a great deal by looking beyond Chansley's outlandish appearance. As captured live by The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson, Chansley was at the head of the group who, after entering the Capitol, convened an impromptu celebration of their surprising success at gaining access to the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate When one of his associates yelled, “Jesus Christ we invoke your name!” Chansley shouted "Let's pray!," grabbed his bullhorn and removed his bearskin cap. Some in the room resented Chansley’s posturing and grandstanding, Mogelson has reported, but dozens of others followed his lead, bowing their heads or raising their hands in prayer.
For a moment, the assembly came to order, and Chansley delivered an invocation.
Chansley’s prayer employed some language that is standard in conservative American Christian circles – he twice addressed God as “Heavenly Father,” for instance. And on three occasions he evoked the New Age theme of God’s “white light” of love. Fundamentally, though, Chansley’s invocation was rooted in a distinctly American variation of “providentialism,” a theology or worldview holding that human history is directed absolutely by God’s all-encompassing will … and that the United States sits at the center of God's providential plan.
Chansley twice addressed God as “divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator God,” and on a third
The Statement of Facts accompanying Chansely's arrest warrant describes him as "dressed in horns, a bearskin headdress, red, white and blue face paint, shirtless, and tan pants," with "tatoos covering his arms and the left side of his torso," and carrying "a spear, approximately 6 feet in length, with an American flag tied just below the blade."
occasion he conjured this frame with the shorthand, “divine Creator God.” This characterization reflects the belief that nothing comes to pass that is not part of God’s providential design for humankind.
Providentialism affords its adherents an all-purpose escape hatch when it comes to interpreting history. When events conform nicely to expectations, they are embraced as clear signs of divine intervention. So Chansley thanked God for providing “the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into this building” on January 6. But when events fail to meet expectations, the faithful can fall back on the bedrock belief that someday, in hindsight, everything will be seen to have worked together in a divinely orchestrated plan. Whatever happens is “meant to happen,” and any disappointment or confusion reflects the meager understanding of mere mortals, not the limitations of divine agency.
In the early modern era, English Protestant variations of providential thought took on specific form, casting the whole of human history as a battle between God’s agents, who championed “liberty,” and agents of Satan, who sought to deprive God’s agents of their liberty by subjecting them to “tyranny” through the instrument of government, whether civil or ecclesiastic. In the minds of its most ardent adherents, this worldview casts this battle as a stark, zero-sum game. The more power exercised by governmental authorities, the greater the degree of “tyranny," and the lesser the “liberty” or “rights” enjoyed by individuals.
The first generations of English Protestants to colonize North America brought with them variations of this providential frame of mind, and across the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their descendants, working within this frame, fashioned for themselves an ethno-nationalist identity.
White colonists in British North America considered themselves embattled on every front – by Native Americans, whom they considered “savages;” by their colonial competitors, the French, whom they considered agents of “demonic” Popes; by their own African slaves, whom they considered “bestial” in nature; and by the royally-appointed magistrates who they increasingly saw as exercising unaccountable authority over colonial governments and institutions.
Across the middle decades of the eighteenth century, these colonists came to understand themselves as sharing a “continental” destiny, and fashioned for themselves a new identity, as “Americans.” Eventually, many concluded that King George III had become a “tyrant,” and that resistance to his rule was worth risking their lives for.
In the generations that followed the American Revolution, most white Protestant Americans embraced the understanding that the new nation had been born as a chosen vehicle in God’s design for human history. In this distinctly white Protestant American variation of Christian providentialism, the United States stands as the vanguard of individual rights and liberty in a cosmic struggle against the tyrannical forces of evil in the world. True “patriots” are those who commit to protecting individual rights from the agents of “tyranny.” These agents can be expected to show up routinely and ongoingly within the institutions of government at every level.
Chansley encapsulated this tradition neatly on January 6. He opened his prayer by thanking God for “this opportunity to stand up for our God-given inalienable rights.” And later he thanked God for “allowing us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs, that we will not allow the American way of the United States of America to go down.”
By lumping together “communists” and “globalists” with “tyrants,” Chansley drew a direct line between this ancient tradition of white Protestant American providentialism and more recent conspiracy theories – like New World Order theories which conjure fears of a new secret alignment of global elites, and like the now much-talked-about QAnon theory that suggests government institutions serve as a cover for demonic enterprises of diverse and bewildering kinds.
Millions of Americans may not adhere to Jacob Chansley’s specific mix of conservative evangelicalism, New Age philosophy and QAnon conspiracy theories. But millions share with him the fundamentally dualistic and oppositional and ethnonationalist way of thinking that provided the architecture for his impromptu invocation. In the view of these millions of Americans, the presidential election of 2020 resulted in a cataclysmic outcome – powerful elites with tyrannical aspirations have once again seized control of the instruments of government.
To these adherents of white Protestant American providentialism, the events of January 6 were a reaffirmation of their deeply held conviction that American nationalism is central to God’s working in human history. That efforts to overturn the 2020 election results did not come to fruition merely means that God has not finished with America yet. More radical action is required to save America, to bring America back from the edge of death
On January 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley concluded his prayer this way:
Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn.
Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists,
and the traitors in our government. We love you and we thank you.
In Christ's holy name we pray.
He was greeted with emphatic shouts of "Amen!" from dozens in the Senate Chamber. Millions more white Protestant Americans would have shouted the same had they been there.
JACOB CHANSLEY’S “INVOCATION” – January 6. 2021 as recorded by Luke Mogelson
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for gracing us with this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights. Thank you Heavenly father for giving the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into this building, to allow us 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, that we will not allow the American way of the United States of America to go down. Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator God for filling this chamber with your white light of love, with your white light army. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ. Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator God for blessing each and every one of us here and now. Thank you divine Creator God for surrounding us with the divine omnipresent white light of love and protection, peace and harmony. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors in our government. We love you and we thank you.