July-August 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Ryan Samsel doesn’t sound like the kind of person who would normally garner sympathy from the far right.

A violent habitual offender, the Bristol, Pa., resident has amassed a long record of assaulting women. Over the course of 15 years Samsel has been charged three times with attacking women, in one case choking a woman until she passed out and in another of throwing hot pizza at his ex-girlfriend and holding her head under water. In a separate incident, he pleaded guilty to running a woman off the road, attacking her car and threatening to kill her, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer.

On Jan. 6, Samsel, sporting a bright red “Make America Great Again” cap, traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential race. He is accused of joining a mob that assaulted the U.S. Capitol, and of pushing a U.S. Capitol police officer to the ground.

Samsel was arrested after the riot and has been in a D.C. jail ever since awaiting trial, but is petitioniing to be released on bail. The officer he is accused of assaulting, who has remained anonymous, wrote a letter to a court asking that Samsel remain behind bars.

“You have stolen moments away from me that I cannot get back,” the officer wrote, pointing to the brain damage and “psychological trauma” ensuing from the injury she sustained during the insurrection.

Yet according to one Christian nationalist organization, Samsel and those like him are really victims who are being ill-treated behind bars. On June 3, OneNewsNow, a right-wing website run by the American Family Association (AFA), ran a sympathetic story about the Capitol insurrectionists, asserting that they’ve been mistreated while locked up.

The story, by Steve Jordahl, quoted Joseph McBride, an attorney for Richard Barnett, a Florida man who was notoriously photographed with his feet on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk on the day of the attack. McBride protested the treatment the insurrectionists have received while in custody.

“The DC detention facility has become the Guantanamo Bay for American citizens, where people who have not been convicted are detained pre-trial for what feels like in perpetuity,” McBride told the AFA. He asserted that detainees have been denied access to food, medical care and attorneys. He also said they’ve been kept in their cells 23 hours per day and denied the opportunity to take part in religious services.

McBride accused the mainstream media of covering up the story, and implied that the insurrectionists being held in jail are being punished for their views.

“It feels like not only are our actions policed, our thoughts are policed, our words are policed. If you speak out against the accepted narrative, you can be thrown in jail,” he said.

Commentors on the OneNewsNow site vented their rage. One asserted that the alleged treatment of the detainees was “similar to gulag treatment in Germany,” while another charged, “This is how things began in 1933: political prisoners sent to Dachau.”

In fact, the insurrectionists still behind bars in D.C. are far from political prisoners, and they’re not being punished for speech. They are locked up because they’re accused of committing serious crimes during the attack.

About 465 people are facing federal charges in the wake of the assault on the Capitol. Most of the rioters have been charged only with misdemeanors,  and many of them are out on bail. But roughly 200 of them are facing more serious charges, and in some cases are eligible for a maximum 20 years in prison if convicted. Many of the latter remain behind bars in correctional facilities in Washington, D.C.

Despite attempts by some Republican members of Congress to minimize the assault, the insurrection attempt resulted in the loss of lives, serious injuries and destruction of property. One police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, was sprayed with a chemical agent and died following two strokes suffered the day after, a death later attributed to natural causes.

Nearly 140 other police officers were injured on Jan. 6, and 15 ended up in hospitals. Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the Capitol Police Union, said in a statement, “[W]e have almost 140 officers injured. I have officers who were not issued helmets prior to the attack who have sustained brain injuries. One officer has two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs. One officer is going to lose [an] eye, and another was stab­bed with a metal fence stake.”

In addition, the Capitol building was vandalized, with damages estimated at $30 million, a figure expected to rise.

Testifying before the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee in February, Capitol architect J. Brett Blanton noted that at the time of the insurrection, teams were at work preparing the building for the Jan. 20 inauguration.

“Over the course of a couple of hours, the hard work of our team was destroyed,” Blanton told the committee.

He went into detail: “The [inauguration] platform was wrecked. There was broken glass and other debris. Sound systems and photography equipment was damaged beyond repair or stolen. Two historic Olmsted lanterns were ripped from the ground, and the wet blue paint was tracked all over the historic stone balustrades and Capitol building hallways.”

National Public Radio (NPR) reported that historical statues, murals and furniture inside the building were damaged, mostly from chemical irritants such as bear spray at the hands of the insurrectionists. These items will require professional cleaning and restoration, Blanton said.

Since the attack, sparked by President Donald Trump’s insistence that the election was being stolen from him, Christian nationalist organizations have struggled with how to paper over the horrific events, which played out on live television.

Christian nationalists were well represented among the mob. Many of the rioters waved signs bearing Christian symbols and iconography.

Mainstream Christian groups and religion scholars were quick to condemn the attack, noting that it involved a dangerous brew of Christian nationalist theology, political extremism and conspiracy theories.

“The fact that we saw QAnon, white supremacy and white Christianity all carried together in a violent attack on the Capitol means that particularly white Christians have got some real soul-searching to do,” Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, told the Associated Press a few weeks after the attack.

The insurrection stunned many Americans, but it presented a particular challenge to Christian nationalist groups. They could have admitted that their extreme rhetoric and unwavering support of Trump had played a role and engaged in the soul-searching that Jones called for, but they did not. Instead, they decided to take a different approach.

Christian nationalist groups, including the AFA, at first tried to shift the blame and deny the plain reality of what happened. Although the mob that assailed the Capitol was clearly composed of Trump supporters – most of whom waved Trump flags and sported MAGA hats and other Trump gear while hoisting signs about the bogus theft of the election – several organizations, the AFA among them, attempted early on to pin the attack on antifa and Black Lives Matter activists.

The claim was little more than a gussied-up conspiracy theory, which began falling apart almost immediately. To believe the claim, one would have to accept that antifa and BLM agitators somehow managed to infiltrate the mob, incite the attack on the Capitol and then melt away without even one of them being arrested; or that the insurrectionists were really provocateurs or disinformation agents disguised in Trump gear leading the invasion.

While belief in such far-fetched conspiracy theories is quite possible in the America of 2021, it proved too much to sustain even in the fever swamps of Christian nationalism. The FBI officially denied any antifa presence during the insurrection, and once law enforcement agencies began arresting people who took part in the attack a clear pattern emerged: They were all men and women who supported Trump.

Among the most high-profile detainees was Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon shaman,” who stormed the Capitol wearing face paint and a furry headdress with horns. Chansley had been attending pro-Trump rallies in Arizona since 2019, and more recently protested COVID-19 restrictions there. During the D.C. insurrection, Chansley invaded the Senate chamber and shouted a prayer from the balcony expressing thanks to God for “allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists and the traitors within our government.” (QAnon, a discredited conspiracy theory that is popular on the far right, holds that a cabal of satanic pedophiles secretly runs much of the government and the entertainment industry.)

Other insurrectionists were tracked down through their use of social media forums that showcased their fondness for Trump. Some even posted selfies or videos of themselves brandishing Trump paraphernalia inside the Capitol.

The assault by a pro-Trump crowd should have posed something of a dilemma for Christian nationalists, who often pose as “law and order” conservatives, given that police officers were assaulted by an out-of-control mob. But the same Christian nationalists who had assailed Black Lives Matter over anti-police-brutality protests just months earlier couldn’t bring themselves to condemn the violence at the Capitol. They either peddled conspiracy theories, remained silent or implied that the attack was somehow payback for violence that had erupted in some cities the previous summer. For them, “law and order” conservatism apparently includes attacking police protecting people or institutions they don’t like.

A second test came when Con­gress began deliberating what to do in wake of the assault. Given the unprecedented nature of the insurrection – it was only the second time the Capitol had been assailed like this since the War of 1812, when invading British soldiers set the former Capitol building on fire in 1814 – it seemed obvious that a congressional commission would be created.

Yet Christian nationalists joined their allies in the GOP to block congressional plans to authorize an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault. Senate Republicans used the filibuster to stop creation of a bipartisan commission, a move that was applauded by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“This is about political theater, plain and simple,” Perkins wrote in a column. “It’s about creating a narrative, aided by the media, that all Republicans are dangerous extremists. At least GOP leaders are pushing back and insisting that they won’t be a part of the Democratic charade.”

In fact, the proposed commission would have been evenly comprised of Democratic and Republican members and would have been modeled on the 9/11 commission, which was generally well regarded. The Republican leadership, with the support of Christian nationalist organizations, simply didn’t want to face uncomfortable questions.

Six months after the attack, some on the extreme Religious Right continue to fan the flames of insurrection. They still insist that Trump really won the election and will soon return to office; some are even hinting at more violence.

On the fringes of white conservative evangelicalism, a movement has emerged of self-identified “prophets” who claim to speak for God and say they can foresee the future. Several of them are predicting that Trump will be “restored” to office in August. (There is no constitutional mechanism through which this could occur.)

An example is Jeff Jansen, head of Global Fire Ministries, who released a video in June assuring his followers that Trump will rise again.

“The Trump administration is on its way in; the pedophilia Biden administration – the fake administration – Biden’s administration is on its way out,” Jansen said. “I don’t care if you like it or not, it doesn’t matter. We all know what took place, and God is going to do something amazing in this nation and through this nation. It’s revival time. It’s revolution time.” (As People For the American Way’s “Right Wing Watch” noted, Jansen has previously predicted that Trump would return to power in April and June.)

While many non-evangelical Am­e­ri­­cans may be unfamiliar with the so-called prophetic movement, its adherents are growing. In a story published in February, New York Times reporter Ruth Graham called the movement “one of the fastest-growing corners of Christianity.”

Graham wrote of the prophets, “Many are independent evangelists who do not lead churches or other institutions. They operate primarily online and through appearances at conferences or as guest speakers in churches, making money through book sales, donations and speaking fees. And they are part of the rising appeal of conspiracy theories in Christian settings, echoed by the popularity of QAnon among many evangelicals and a resistance to mainstream sources of information.”

The toxic brew of Trump worship, conspiracy theories, white racism and fundamentalism presents an unprecedented challenge to American democracy.

“Trump’s acolytes in the Christian Right are now so devoted to his Big Lie that they have opposed any investigations into his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, or any probe of how the assault unfolded,” said investigative journalist Sarah Posner, whose book Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind has just been released in paperback. “While some leaders have given lip service to opposing the violence that took place at the Capitol, there is zero appetite for accountability for this blatant attack on our democracy and law enforcement – from a movement that has long claimed to promote ‘truth,’ ‘patriotism’ and ‘law and order.’”