“The intent of the Cobb GOP January 6th Candlelight Prayer Vigil is to acknowledge Americans who lost their lives and to pray for those who have been denied justice.” That statement sounds innocuous enough. Is there any harm in praying for justice?
As it turns out, yes. Very emphatically, yes.
The actual purpose of the prayer vigil, the group explained, was to lift up the supposed “miscarriage of justice” being perpetrated by the government against those arrested for crimes related to their participation in the U.S. Capitol insurrection. In our Orwellian times, these rioters are labeled by their supporters as “J6 Patriots.” One state lawmaker referred to the event as a “homage to treason.” Amid the criticism, the group last night canceled the planned prayer vigil.
We suspect the petitions in Georgia would have been quite different from those that will be lifted up in Washington, D.C., this evening. The plans announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to commemorate the attack on American democracy a year ago include an official “prayerful vigil.” That sounds nice enough. But what if this government ceremony also undermines our democratic ideals?
We’re not conflating the substance of the two vigils. The event in Georgia would have egregiously sacrificed truth on the altar of political tribalism. What we find interesting is that on a day of such historic significance, with the existential threat to democracy still lingering, turning to prayer is a common theme in the struggle to define and commemorate what occurred a year ago today. But what if this response misses the point of a violent day that was itself full of prayer?
In this edition of A Public Witness, we open our eyes to consider the prayers uttered in the U.S. Capitol a year ago by both those seeking to bring the government down and by representatives of the government. Then as a benediction, we consider the danger of official government prayers that both undermine the democracy they are intended to sanctify and also distort our sacred faith.
Prayers of the Insurrectionists
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, as congressional members hid from the MAGA mob running through the Capitol hallways, some of the insurrectionists made their way into the Senate Chamber. Luke Mogelson of The New Yorker captured video as rioters sorted through desks and papers in a quest for some sort of “evidence” of wrongdoing. Then in walked Jacob Chansley, nicknamed the “QAnon Shaman” for spouting conspiracy theories while wearing face paint and a fur hat with horns. After dropping a couple of f-bombs, he saw a guy with blood on himself and said, “Look at this guy. He’s covered in blood. God bless you.”
A badly-outnumbered police officer asked them to leave the Senate Chamber because “this is like the sacrediest place.” The insurrectionists ignored his plea and instead lined up behind the podium.
“Jesus Christ, we invoke your name! Amen!” one of them shouted with a hand raised upward.
Others also shouted “amen” as Chansley, suddenly inspired, added, “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space.” So, he set down the American flag he’d been carrying and picked up a bullhorn to pray. He started, paused for everyone to take off their Trump hats (or furry horns), and then started again.
“Thank you, Heavenly Father, for this opportunity to stand up for God-given unalienable rights,” he offered. “Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the 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.”
“Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator God, for filling this chamber with your white light of love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ,” he added. “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 within our government. We love you and we thank you. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen! ”
That prayer quickly became a key exhibit in understanding the Christian Nationalism that helped fuel the attack on the Capitol. Chansley was arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison (not for the prayer but for the actions that got him to that spot).
Chansley’s wasn’t the only prayer for insurrection that day. A Catholic priest from Nebraska bragged about performing an exorcism inside the Capitol. A pastor livestreaming from the grounds offered a prayer over a man who saw someone shot, asking God to “protect this soldier for you” and take away any trauma from what the man saw. Many other prayers, spoken or unspoken, likely also occurred that day (we would say that only God knows how many prayers the insurrectionists uttered, but that suggests God was actually listening).
The effort that day to overturn the election results actually started with a prayer. Then-President Donald Trump spoke to the crowd to urge them to go to the Capitol “to fight.” That rally also kicked off with a prayer from Trump’s longtime religious advisor Paula White, who announced as she came to the microphone that “this is the day the Lord has made, come on Washington, we will rejoice and be glad in it.” She added, “Let us pray because God is going to be in today. We believe in miracles. We believe that God is able to do all things.”
“Lord, let your plans stand forever, and may your purpose for this nation stand strong,” she prayed. “May your people rise up and stand strong.”
Like the organizers of the canceled prayer vigil in Georgia, White offered an upside-down vision of democracy and justice.
“You delivered the redeemed from the adversary. So, let every adversary against democracy, against freedom, against life, against liberty, against justice, against peace, against righteousness be overturned right now in the name of Jesus,” she said. “Today let justice be done. Let justice be done. Let justice be done. Let we the people have the assurance of a fair and a just election. Hear our cry and turn our hearts to you. God, I pray that you would turn the hearts of those who are in power and in position to make decisions to walk in your wisdom and to do justly today for the integrity of democracy.”
Then she thanked God for Trump as one who “has stood for righteousness” and “has walked in your ways.” So, she prayed for “a hedge of protection around him” and “his destiny.” White closed by leading the crowd in reciting the Lord’s prayer from Matthew 6.