Late last month, one of the accused Jan. 6 Capitol insurrectionists told a D.C. judge that she didn’t recognize his authority and was making a “divine special appearance.” Another one of the accused streams a solo religious service each week that he calls “Good Morning Sunday Morning.” A third runs a 65,000-subscriber YouTube channel where she shares Bible verses and calls herself a “healer of deep inner wounds.”
Pauline Bauer, Stephen Baker and Jenna Ryan were among the thousands who descended on the Capitol in protest of what they falsely called a stolen election, including some who saw themselves engaged in a spiritual war. For many, their religious beliefs were not tied to any specific church or denomination — leaders of major denominations and megachurches, and even President Donald Trump’s faith advisers, were absent that day. For such people, their faith is individualistic, largely free of structures, rules or the approval of clergy.
Many forces contributed to the attack on the Capitol, including Trump’s false claims of electoral victory and American anger with institutions. But part of the mix, say experts on American religion, is the fact that the country is in a period when institutional religion is breaking apart, becoming more individualized and more disconnected from denominations, theological credentials and oversight.
That has created room for what Yale University sociologist Phil Gorski calls a religious “melee, a free-for-all.”
“There have been these periods of breakdowns and ferment and reinvention in the past, and every indication is we’re in the middle of one of those now,” he said. “Such moments are periods of opportunity and creativity but also of danger and violence.”
Some scholars see this era as a spiritually fertile period, like the ones that produced Pentecostalism or Mormonism. Others worry about religious illiteracy and the lack of supervision over everything from theological pronouncements to financial practices.
Even before Jan. 6, some sociologists said the fastest-growing group of American Christians are those associated with independent “prophets” who largely operate outside denominationalism. Less than half of Americans told Gallup in March that they belonged to a congregation, the first time that has happened since Gallup started asking in the 1930s.
Many Christians at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were part of more conventional, affiliated faith, including pastors, Catholic priests and bused-in church groups. But what researchers studying Jan. 6 find remarkable are the leaderless, idiosyncratic expressions of religion that day. Among them are those of Bauer, who wrote to a judge last month that she’s a “free living soul” and an “ambassador of Christ,” and of Jake Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman” who prayed to Christ at a dais in the Senate and calls himself a “multidimensional being.”
“Those who are unmoored to a local church body are subject to the danger of allowing politics or business or sports or any other matter to become an inordinate focus of their lives. This problem is compounded by the effort to ‘bless’ such actions with a religious patina,” Adam W. Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist, one of the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Washington Post of the trend of DIY Christianity. “Pastors help their members keep matters in perspective and avoid Lone Ranger Christianity in which they are unaccountable to fellow believers.”
Some have found in recent years a growing overlap between white Americans who put a high value on individualism and libertarianism and those who embrace Christian nationalism, a cultural belief that America is defined by Christian identity, heritage and social order and that the government needs to protect it. They are now looking at the way Trump’s presidency united disparate groups — largely white — under the umbrella of Christian nationalism.
But Christian nationalists are not necessarily religious by conventional metrics, such as going to church, being part of a religious organization or scripture reading. Several studies in recent years have found differences between Christian nationalists who are religious and those who are less so.
Americans who have Christian-nationalist beliefs who do not attend church are more likely to have voted for and support Trump, compared with those who attend more regularly, said Paul Froese, a sociologist at Baylor University who published a paper on the topic in January.
For such people, Froese’s paper says, affirming a kind of “mythical or even sacred” Christian nationalism can become a key part of their religious observance, one that comes from sources outside traditional church.
“You have people who have these idiosyncratic relationships with God — you’re sort of taking off on your own,” Froese told The Post. “You can say, ‘God told me whatever.'”
Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who studies political violence, said his research on the Jan. 6 insurrectionists suggests what he has seen with other extremist movements: Where religion plays a role, it’s not due to deep indoctrination or education.
Such individuals “tend to have a thin knowledge and understanding of their religion,” Pape said. “Recruits tend to be making individual decisions about the ideologies they want to follow and even what it means. It’s very much at the level of the individual.”
The Post analyzed court documents and images of the nearly 500 people charged in the Jan. 6 attack to learn more about those who cited their faith in some way. Here are the stories of three of them.
— — —
Couy Griffin, a New Mexico county commissioner known for his black cowboy hat and frequent grin, grew up in a little Baptist church his grandfather helped found in a rural part of the state where life revolved around logging and sawmills — a “very American” upbringing, Griffin said in an interview, that was scarred by environmental laws passed in the 1970s and ’80s that dramatically cut back the area’s industry.
Griffin rode bulls competitively in college and then moved to Paris to perform as a cowboy in Disneyland Paris’ “Wild West” show. During a visit to Versailles, he said, he had a powerful experience with God — he was struck by the idea that he could be forgiven for his sins, his burdens and guilt relieved. He wanted to share this new feeling with everyone.
He returned to the United States in the 2000s, fired up about two things — sharing the gospel and fighting environmental regulations he saw as un-American limits on freedom. He rode on horseback from San Francisco to Jerusalem (with a flight in between) handing out tracts and talking about abortion.
Later, he ran for public office, focusing on reviving logging and milling. He founded Cowboys for Trump and met the former president, who promised Griffin that he would help revamp the way forests were handled.
Seeing the way other GOP contenders and Trump critics would fall away proved to him that Trump “was always the horse out in front and that had everything to do with God,” Griffin said.
For a few years Griffin was a preacher at a little “cowboy church,” which fit for a Christian with no formal religious education.
Cowboy churches “have no real rules — they’re just country-minded,” said Mary Barber, a member of New Heart Cowboy Church, where Griffin preached. “We aren’t connected with any denomination, people dictating what we do. The only one who can dictate what we do is the Lord.”
Griffin was in D.C. on Jan. 6 after a friend said he’d had a vision of a million people declaring Christ is Lord. The friend said Griffin could be part of the vision. “He said, ‘Just find a group and a bullhorn and lead them in prayer.’ It was like the call was laid back on me,” Griffin said.
In the days after Jan. 6, Griffin said in several public forums that he would return to D.C. to defend the Second Amendment, predicting that “blood will be running out of that building.”
He has been charged with unlawful entry related to the Jan. 6 riot and pleaded not guilty.
Some in Griffin’s community are angry with him. A judge recently approved a request to move ahead with an effort to recall him from his role as county commissioner, and the pastor at New Heart told Griffin that some in the small congregation wouldn’t come if he did. So Griffin left.
Griffin said his faith “is much more personal than a church group … In my opinion, churches and pastors many times can be much more focused on traditions than seeking out God’s will.”
— — —
When Stephen Maury Baker appeared on a live stream on Jan. 6, imploring with a smirk from inside the Capitol for watchers to “repent,” most of his colleagues at Middle C Music in Northwest D.C. were floored.
Baker, 32, had for years been a children’s music teacher in the liberal neighborhood. He worked Sundays, and most people at Middle C never heard him talk about religion, said Dave Nuttycombe, a sales associate who worked with Baker for six years.
But Baker had launched a video blog under the name “Stephen Ignoramus.” Nuttycombe learned about it and started quietly taking notes because he was alarmed. Baker turned out to be a hardcore follower of QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers. He ranted that women’s right to vote should be revoked, peppered his dialogue with anti-gay and racist slurs, and wore a “Black Guns Matter” T-shirt, according to a transcript Nuttycombe sent to the FBI.
Transcripts of shows, including some that have since been taken down, show Baker denying millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust. He said that if they “refuse to convert to the host nations” they should live in ghettos. And he slammed the Civil Rights Act, saying Americans should not be told whom they can hire and fire. Before the videos were taken down, Stephen Ignoramus had at least 4,400 subscribers on YouTube.
Christians, he said, were embattled in the United States. About a year before starting his video blog, Baker had visited a survivalist camp with some cousins in the South, and he came back “with something in his eyes, a glint he didn’t before,” Nuttycombe said in an interview. He said Baker would speak in a mocking, pseudo-Asian accent.
Baker did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.
On the podcast, Baker said he was a “Christian of no particular denomination” and protested what he called “fake Christians” — those who support women in leadership roles, and homosexuality.
Baker was charged with illegal entry, violent entry and disorderly conduct in connection with the Jan. 6 riot. In the federal government’s complaint, which reconstructs his alleged movements through the Capitol that day, Baker is identified by his YouTube pseudonym:
“At approximately 01:29, Ignoramus appears on camera, addressing viewers, stating: ‘Alright, what’s up y’all? How you guys doin? Super-intense. Welcome, I’m Stephen. I’m a live-streamer and a musician. We’re having fun, huh? Repent and believe in Jesus.'”
— — —
In the hours leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, Texas real estate agent and life coach Jenna Ryan turned to her camera and, from the National Mall, explained her plan:
“We’re all going to be breaking those windows, having to deal with tear bombs. We have to, because they’re taking our s—!”
Minutes later she is shown at the front of the Capitol, where windows are broken and alarms are going off. “U-S-A! U-S-A! Here we are in the name of Jesus!” she says, according to the government’s statement of facts, filed Jan. 15. She is then filmed inside.
At the Capitol insurrection, Ryan said she was “preaching and talking about Jesus.” She’d had a dream of spiritual leadership for years, a hope that endured even as her affiliation with organized religion came and went.
Her father was a minister, said her friend, Jan. 6 travel partner and fellow Texas real estate agent Brian Miller. While Miller did not see her as motivated by religion that day, he said Ryan regularly taps into dialogue with God. It’s just her way, he said.
“When something is going on, she’ll give a prayer,” he said. “She grew up that way. She feels she has God in her, so when she feels something she wants to say the word — she’ll say it,” he said.
Her interest in religion, Ryan told The Post earlier this year, intensified about a decade ago, when she divorced her first husband and left her job as a corporate headhunter. She looked into becoming a preacher, began going to church three or four times a week, and met a new man whom she would eventually marry.
“I became a holy roller and worshipper,” she said in an interview.
Ryan attended the Christ for the Nations Institute in late 2003, early 2004, the school confirmed. CFNI is an independent, charismatic Christian school in Dallas with a heavy focus on spiritual healing.
But she fell away from organized religion, she said, after another painful marriage and divorce. She became a kind of healer, according to her tweets. She heals people from all over the world, she tweeted in late March.
Ryan agreed to answer only a few questions from The Post about her faith, later saying she was not at liberty to talk about her case. She is facing charges including violent entry and disorderly conduct in a Capitol building.
She saw the day differently. Her main focus Jan. 6, she said, was “preaching and talking about Jesus.”
Miller tried to explain why the pro-Trump event for some had a holy feel to it.
“For her, too, [his presidency] was like God saying: Trump was there to help everyone, not just certain people,” he said.
Miller said Ryan has had to change her name since the attack. She has tweeted about getting death threats and said the publicity around Jan. 6 led to her getting a self-help-book deal canceled.
Shortly after, she tweeted with the hashtag #EndTimes: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
— — —
The Washington Post’s Todd C. Frankel, Magda Jean-Louis, Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.