There's a surprisingly important lesson in the 'QAnon shaman' and his antics behind bars

Jacob Chansley // Channel 4 News screenshot

Jacob Chansley, the "self-initiated shaman" who charged into the US Capitol wearing a horned headdress and carrying a six-foot spear, has been moved to a jail in Virginia that can accommodate his request for an all-organic diet. Chansley's lawyer had argued that his client's shamanic faith requires him to eat only organic food, or suffer physical consequences that are serious, severe, and above all, dehydrating.

The court's decision sparked outrage among critics who see him as just another privileged white guy in horns, a cosplayer exploiting Indigenous spirituality to extract privileges that are rarely granted to Indigenous inmates.

Skeptics wonder if Chansley's whole shamanic shtick is the work of a grifter courting notoriety, but the prison system isn't set up to interrogate questions of ultimate motivation.

"Like all things about Trump, QAnon, and the modern conservative movement, Chansley's act is built on nothing but bullshit and a heaping dose of racism and white supremacy," wrote Jessica Mason for The Mary Sue, adding that, "He has no right to claim 'shamanism' as a religion that should get him special treatment in jail or defend his traitorous actions."

It's easy to construe Chansley's organic diet as a form of special treatment. However, in securing a special diet, Chansley is availing himself of legal protections that are supposed to guarantee the right of every prisoner to practice their faith behind bars.

For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that the following points are true:

  • "Self-initiated shamanism" is not a thing, except in the minds of Chansley and a handful of credulous white people.
  • An all-organic diet is not a central part of any shamanic tradition known to anthropologists or practiced by contemporary Indigenous Americans.
  • It is offensive when white people appropriate the sacred traditions of Indigenous people.

So, why is Jacob Chansley entitled to a special diet, even if we assume all of the above?

Because the Constitution protects everyone's right to freely exercise their religion and because Congress passed even more stringent laws to safeguard the free expression of incarcerated people. Penal institutions may not substantially burden an inmate's religious expression except to advance a compelling interest of the institution, such as maintaining security. And if the institution does have to curtail certain religious expressions in the name of security, or another compelling interest, they must do so in the least restrictive way.

Chansley's lawyer argued that his client must have organic food in order to achieve purity needed to practice shamanism. It's difficult to argue that a jail has a compelling interest in making all inmates eat non-organic food. A jail does have a compelling interest in saving money, but the courts routinely uphold prisoners' rights to receive Kosher meals and other special religious diets, even if they are slightly more expensive.

It's easy to scoff at Chansley's assertion that shamans must eat organic food. A search of the Anthropology Plus database generated 0 hits for "Shamanism" and "Organic Food." But legally, it doesn't matter that other practitioners of shamanism are also devotées of Whole Foods. It's probably enough that Chansley thinks his self-made religion demands it. The authorities are not allowed to second-guess whether a particular practice is central to a prisoner's religion.

That's because the government telling people how to practice their faith "properly" would violate the separation of church and state. The religious practice that the prisoner is seeking to accommodate doesn't even have to make logical sense. After all, religions postulate all kinds of illogical things, from bodily resurrection after death to the conversion bread into human flesh. It's not for the state to judge what makes sense.

It matters a lot, legally speaking, that Chansley's religious belief in the sanctity of organic food is sincerely held, as opposed to being a pretext to get tastier meals.

Many have doubts. His bizarre aesthetic smacks of cosplay and appears to borrow as heavily from video games as from Native or Nordic tropes. However, Chansley's years of enthusiastic religious practice establish that his shamanic sensibilities are not just a jailhouse ruse. Chansley's social media history shows that he has dedicated his life to espousing his idiosyncratic belief system for years, which includes elements of Indigenous spirituality, neo-paganism, and conspiracy theories.

Before the insurrection, Chansley was a fixture at right-wing protests, frequently bearing a sign reading "Q Sent Me." He has advertised his services as a shaman and even self-published two books on metaphysical themes. It's unclear if Chansley preached the importance of organic food before he was incarcerated. He seems to have said a lot about the value of psychedelic drugs and nothing about the value of non-GMO soup. But he claims to have followed an organic diet for many years and his mom insists that he will get sick without it.

Skeptics wonder if Chansley's whole shamanic shtick is the work of a grifter courting notoriety, but the prison system isn't set up to interrogate questions of ultimate motivation. Penal authorities are typically more concerned with evidence of consistent religious practice. If Chansley were caught cheating on his diet by sneaking food from the commissary, that could be taken as evidence that his belief is not sincerely-held and his organic diet might be taken away.

Chansley's only getting what all prisoners are entitled to, but that doesn't automatically make the system fair. In practice, the rights of prisoners get ignored all the time. I have interviewed many formerly incarcerated Indigenous women whose right to religious expression in custody was ignored and even derided.

The system is surely more indulgent of Chansley's religious idiosyncrasies because he's a famous white defendant with a private lawyer. However, we should not let Chansley's antics trivialize the principle of free exercise of religion in prison. We must support religious expression for all inmates, not just for a favored few.

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