On July 19, two graduate student researchers and I made the drive up to Cleveland to document religion at the Republican National Convention, where thousands of people gathered both to support and protest the nomination of Donald Trump. Although we weren’t sure what to expect, upon our arrival, we noticed religious rhetoric and imagery popping up in all sorts of places outside of the Quicken Loans Arena — from street evangelism, to a Westboro Baptist Church protest, to a flurry of hate speech against Islam. It was fascinating to document all of this, and to begin explore the intersection of religion and politics, but some of it was deeply disturbing.
One of the first things I noticed was the Old Stone Church, which sat on the border of the Public Square. Although the church has been there for more than a century, it served as an interesting backdrop for the day’s many protests, some of which were faith-based.
On the streets around the arena, numerous evangelists with loudspeakers lectured at passersby, sometimes provoking them and grabbing the attention of the thousands of police who were in the city for the convention.
Later in the day, back in the Public Square, members of the Westboro Baptist Church — which is widely known as a hate group, particularly against the LGBT community — gathered to protest. As they played dubbed pop songs, other protesters arrived to mock them. In response to the church’s signs, which displayed sayings such as “God hates F*gs,” protesters carried placards with sayings such as “God hates morning people.”
Toward the evening, I encountered Micah Naziri, whom I’d met months before at a protest Dublin, Ohio. Ohio is an “open carry” state, and a number of people were visibly armed at the convention (which is also why there was such a heavy police presence). Micah, like other protesters, was exercising his right to carry. Like some, he carried a larger weapon (an AR-15, to be exact). However, because Micah wore a knit skull cap, like the kufi hat worn by some Muslims, his gun attracted extra attention. Micah explicitly declined to identify his religious heritage, and stated instead that he was there to provoke critical thinking and to support militant resistance to fascism. A spate of anti-Islam rhetoric followed. “What are you going to do about my bacon in your face?” jeered one man, who was eating a plate of barbecue. “Are you going to shoot me? I’m an infidel. That’s what your Qur’an says.”
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