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Piety, Patriotism, and Paranoia: What Today's Right Takes From the American Revolution

As much as we might like to think that these invocations of Revolutionary identity are a misappropriation, the truth is there is plenty of precedent in early American history for the disturbing ideas, intentions, and modes of thought seen on the far right today.

Take QAnon, for example. Conspiratorial notions of hidden, malevolent oppositional forces were a common theme of early American thought, often constituting an overt component of political and social thought. Early Americans frequently resorted to conspiracy theories to explain much of their rapidly changing world. Disobedient children or troublesome neighbors were proof of witchcraft and Satanism. Imperial rivalry with Catholic France, and the conflicts that inevitably followed, were taken as proof of a Catholic cabal set on enslaving Protestant Britons around the world. Even comparatively minor imperial reforms imposed by the British on their colonies would eventually be seen as sufficient evidence of an attempt to enslave and oppress the long-suffering early American of the mid-eighteenth century. Laugh if you will at QAnon, but the power of the hysterical and fantastic to explain reality has always appealed to the American mind in times of upheaval or crisis. The society that would, after the Revolution, erect a secular state stylized on the Enlightenment is the same society in which it was widely believed in the 1770s that British efforts to send a single Anglican bishop to the colonies was the start of an elaborate plan to impose Catholicism and slavery on American society. Indeed, the two facts are likely inseparable: The religious fears informed the creation of safeguards protecting the state and religion from one another.

Meanwhile, Patriot Church believers are right to believe that religious leaders of the revolutionary era played an outsized role in the violent resistance to British rule. Throughout the 1760s and ’70s, priests and pastors around the American colonies preached sermons advocating resistance to tyrants, the limits of legal submission, and the Christian duty to resist. These messages were widely published and consumed, and both British and American audiences clearly understood the political messages contained therein. Minister Abraham Keteltas of Massachusetts declared the revolution the cause of God and the struggle against the British as one of “heaven versus hell.” As Alan Heimert, Carl Bridenbaugh, and many other historians have shown, it was more than anything else the rhetoric and meaning provided by religious belief that eventually convinced Americans that violent resistance was not only necessary, but an exercise in piety.

The connection between religious leaders and the revolution extended even to the very infrastructure of American life. In many communities, the minister served as militia muster officer, sometimes even within the militia itself. Peter Muhlenberg, a Virginia minister, famously threw off his robes at the end of a sermon to reveal his militia officer’s uniform and commanded his flock to enlist to fight the forces of Satan. Many pastors recruited openly from their weekly sermons before the assembled community. Pro-Patriot ministers took full advantage of the fact that churches were one of the last sources of information—and misinformation and disinformation—to be censored by British military authorities once fighting broke out. Ministers gave misleading news reports on American troop movements for British ears, they dispatched coded messages, and they invented atrocities supposedly committed by British occupying forces with the aim of provoking American responses.

The term mentioned on the Patriot Church website, “Black-Robed Regiment,” is based on a pejorative and accusatory label (“black Regiment”) applied to American ministers by some frustrated British officials. The fact that the term “Black-Robed Regiment” has been proudly picked up by today’s American reactionaries—not just by Patriot Church, but by others on the right—is, as we wrote in the Washington Post last week, “not passive historical cosplay” but “advocacy for insurrection.”

Read entire article at The Bulwark