[ by Charles Cameron — on the religious and irreligious attributes of the sovereign citizen movement, with a glance at syncretism and the Grateful Dead ]
There’s something of a question as to whether the US sovereign citizens movement is religious and perhaps apocalyptic, or basically secular in nature. As I said in part I of this double post, its main manifestations haven’t seemed particularly religious, and I have accordingly not been paying them a whole lot of attention.
This sense — that the movement is primarily legal rather than religious in emphasis, is nicely captured in this personal communication from JM Berger:
Very few of the beliefs that we use to define the sovereign citizen movement are by definition religious. The things that most often define a sovereign have to do with interpretations of secular law. Athough those interpretations are sometimes supported by religious concepts, the beliefs themselves are centered on what adherents think is a pragmatic reading of law. So to explain that, most sovereigns wouldn’t refuse to answer a policeman’s questions by citing a religious principle. They would instead cite some secular legal principle they believe is valid. But some sovereigns do mix religion in more aggressively, such as those who follow outgrowths of the old Moorish Science Temple religion. But even they rely on legal arguments.
The most common sovereign how-to materials and recruitment websites tend to be pretty secular and based on a reading of history that, while fanciful, is predicated on a misreading of history rather than on ideas we would normally consider religious. In fact, I think the big challenge in understanding this movement is figuring out how these ideas take such powerful hold having neither a consistent religious dimension nor any evidence — even subjective or anecdotal — that they work on a practical level.
JM is the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and of the New America Foundation report, PATCON: The FBI’s Secret War Against the ‘Patriot’ Movement… His views as expressed in the quote above are based on recent research.
Jean Rosenfeld is also a researcher with an interest in both foreign and home-grown violent movements. She authored what may have been the first detailed inquiry into Al-Qaida from a religious studies perspective, The `Religion’ of Usamah bin Ladin: Terror As the Hand of God, back in 2001, edited the anthology Terrorism, Identity, and Legitimacy, and was one of the FBI’s advisory scholars during the [“sovereign”] Justus Freemen standoff, see her article The Justus Freemen Standoff: The importance of the analysis of religion in avoiding violent outcomes in Cathy Wessinger, ed., Millennialism, Persecution & Violence.
Also in a private communication, Jean writes:
Sovereign citizen ideology is basically a religious ideology. It is deviant, of course, and is often mixed with Christian Identity religion. It comes out of the same “cultic milieu” as the Posse Comitatus of the 1970s and CSA of the 1980s.
Setting these two opinions regarding the religiosity or otherwise of the sovereign citizens side by side, what strikes me most is the juxtaposition of the Moorish Science Temple in JM’s quote with the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord in Jean’s. Both are “new religious movement” of considerable interest to scholars of such things.
For more on the Moorish Science Temple, see Peter Lamborn Wilson‘s Lost/Found Moorish Time Lines in the Wilderness of North America [part 1 and part 2]. For more on the CSA, see Kerry Noble‘s book, Tabernacle of Hate, with an Introduction by Jean Rosenfeld.
Given my interest in the religious imagination — which is manifesting itself these days in a wild profusion perhaps unmatched since the times of Qumran , Nag Hammadi and the Corpus Hermeticum — I was intrigued, in looking a little deeper into the US Sovereign Citizens movement, to find at least one individual with an approach to religion that’s suitably sui generis.
The deliciously named (and I quote) ©H.I.R.M. J.M. Sovereign: Godsent™ is the author of TITLE 4 FLAG SAYS YOU’RE SCHWAG! The Sovereign Citizen’s Handbook (version 3.1), in which we read:
The source of all Sovereignty is God. God holds Absolute Sovereignty, meaning He rules over all He surveys and answers to no-one above Himself, every force in nature including human conduct is His subject and under the control of “The Laws of Nature”. For example, “gravity”.
The author then quotes 1 Chronicles 29:11-12
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.
and follows this directly with the seal of the “Church of Sovereigns” depicted at the top of this post, right. On the left of the same image is a graphic taken from a video titled Calling the Sheriff 2.1.2012, which, if you recognize it, will give you an immediate and visceral sense of the Deadhead spirit of this particular writer.
Here, by way of confirmation, is his bio:
©H.I.R.M. J.M. Sovereign: Godsent™, a veteran of the 2nd American Civil war, A.K.A the “War on Drugs” was born sovereign and free out of the the love generation but, was cast into slavery at age 5 in the police state of New Mexico, when his parents divorced. Struggling with the contradictions between society and the laws of nature, Godsent spent the next 33 years casting off the shackles of institutional conditioning, with the ultimate triumph of regaining the throne of his very own sovereign nation and setting new standards in the way Sovereign Americans and government employees interface.
Shown the path of ahimsa (non-violence) at an early age, he is a lover of music and art, who has traveled the world to dance with friends at over 400 Grateful Dead shows in 5 countries. Surviving repeated attacks at shows and on the streets, by public employees, and noting the patterns and the damage done, he concluded that the World needed a treatise on Sovereignty and Reservation of Sovereign Rights. With the Investment of 23 years of field research, networking and litigation, and 7 years of writing, he has recently authored the definitive treatise on Reservation of Sovereign Rights. Along with the first automated sovereignty e-course, accompanied by an inspirational soundtrack, network services, a private, third-party document tracking system and educational videos.
A monk of the 9 Sacred paths of Catholic, Buddha Rasta, Tao, Maya, Jain, Shvaite, Vaishnava, and Eckankar, he has traveled the world in search of priceless wisdom, humor, melody and artifacts. He has learned the most confidential knowledge and has been given the keys the Kingdom of God, by the enlightened masters, which he gives entrance to you here, in this book. He has never owned a weapon in his life.
I am not totally immune to the charms of the Grateful Dead, and take an interest in Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shaiva tantra myself.
But but but… please!! Even Christ recommends we should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. And When the Taoist Chuang Tze expresses his lack of interest in governance, he does so not by way of refusing to pay parking tickets or taxes, but by politely refusing an offer of high office [Basic Writings, p 109]:
Once, when Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P’u river, the king of Ch’u sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.”
Chuang Tzu held onto the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Ch’u that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?”
“It would rather be alive dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.
Chuang Tzu said, “Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”