Arresting Citizens, part II: Religion

[ by Charles Cameron — on the religious and irreligious attributes of the sovereign citizen movement, with a glance at syncretism and the Grateful Dead ]

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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.

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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.

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