#CapitolSiegeReligion is a Twitter hashtag that refers to the intersection between the attack on the Capitol and religious beliefs. Peter Manseau is a curator of religious history at the Smithsonian and has been writing about it. Yesterday, he shared the story behind one of the insurrectionist’s actions. Facebook had a major role:
One month later, there’s still a part of #CapitolSiegeReligion I think needs more attention. Some religious media & evangelical leaders no doubt share a measure of the blame. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the attack was the result of thousands of individual choices… To understand those choices I’ve been reading FBI charges, looking for mention of religious motives. That’s how I found Mike Sparks [of Elizabethtown, Kentucky], accused of being the first to enter the Capitol through a broken window. After the attack he declared Trump would remain president “in Jesus name”.
The day charges against him were announced, I had a look at Sparks’ Facebook page, which has now gone dark. What I saw there was fascinating: a record of one man’s transformation into an unlikely insurgent. A single chronicle of radicalization that may shed light on others.
Sparks was of course taken in by all the election lies. But what we need to understand is that his transformation started long before that. Last summer he posted a long video testimonial wrestling with a new anger he feared was rising in him & clearly naming its source: Facebook.
“I consider myself a devout Christian,” he said, but he knew he hadn’t been sharing “godly things” on Facebook. “I’ve even said I’d shoot that person in the head, I’d shoot this person in the head… I’m not showing the love of Christ.” Friends began to worry; many unfriended him.
As he saw it, the problem for him began with Black Lives Matter. Images of protests across the country had pushed him over the edge. Framed by conservative media on Facebook, those images convinced him the time for spiritual war was at hand. “It’s good versus evil now,” he said.
It wasn’t just the images, it was that they felt inescapable. The same platform his family used to share photos was now driving him mad. “Facebook is where they’re feeding this anger and hatred,” he said. “They’ll find out what you are for or against & they’re gonna feed anger.”
Social media in Sparks’ description is a tormentor: an active, personified force that may do some good, but mostly means you harm. Facebook became for him the site of a clash with himself, relentlessly giving him dire warnings of threats posed to his family and his country.
“I’ve noticed that my phone has been in my hand more than my Bible,” Sparks confessed. “I’ve been locked in on my Facebook watching all this stuff play out and I get angrier and angrier.” He apologized & promised to do better, wondering if he should quit social media altogether.
“I’m not going to let my anger overtake me anymore,” he said. “I’m going to get in the word of God like I should be doing anyway, and get back to the me that smiles more. Because I got wrapped up. I got wrapped up in Facebook.”
In the end, he did not quit Facebook. His posts about BLM soon gave way to posts about the election and his refusal to accept the results. When Trump himself posted “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!”, Sparks shared it to his page, adding “I’ll be there.”
According to the FBI, not only was Sparks there, he took part in one of the day’s most notorious incidents: when rioters chased Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman.
At Sparks’ arrest, he wore a t-shirt citing Ephesians 6:11: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” It’s worth asking how much being “wrapped up in Facebook” led him see the Capitol attack in those terms.
Understanding January 6 on an individual level is not easy. Yet it’s an important part of making sense of the problem we face: Trump is gone, but how many angry men are still staring at their phones, wondering when the battle raging inside them will break out into the world?