The sign is homemade, bright yellow and hand-painted on what appears to be cardboard. With his telltale orange skin and distinctively coiffed blond hair, the figure at the center is President Trump clad as William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish warrior depicted in the movie Braveheart.
The word “BRAVEHEART” emblazoned on the sign makes this connection clear, as does the speech bubble with the word “Freedom!” printed in Germanic font. In his right hand, Trump-as-William-Wallace holds a sword, in the other hand, the severed head of Karl Marx.
At first glance, there is nothing that clearly marks this artifact as particularly “religious.” Only when one understands the role that the movie Braveheart has played in fashioning conservative white evangelical ideals of masculinity can it be appreciated how this sign taps into a particular strand of militant white evangelicalism.
When Braveheart arrived in theaters in 1995, its epic story of the legendary warrior thrilled audiences. For conservative white evangelicals, however, the film was not merely a great action flick. It quickly came to inspire a renewed sense of cultural and political militancy.
Despite the film’s graphic portrayals of violence, and also the presence of “six obscenities…and two obscene acts,” Ted Baehr, the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, gave the film his stamp of approval. Baehr saw it as “a rallying cry for the supremacy of God’s law” over the authority of leaders who had flouted that law. With Bill Clinton in the White House at the time, this was an inspirational message.
Mel Gibson, who directed and starred in the film, is a traditionalist Catholic, and his version of William Wallace resonated with conservative Protestants. The film was riddled with historical inaccuracies, a point Gibson readily conceded: “I’m in the business of cinema. I’m not an (expletive) historian.” Yet it was precisely these inaccuracies that appealed to many conservative evangelicals. In Gibson’s hands, Wallace is a Christian freedom fighter; Wallace’s nemesis, King Edward, is depicted as a pagan ruler. (He was in fact Christian.) It is Wallace’s (historically dubious) attempt to defend his wife’s purity and avenge her death that provokes him to embark on a campaign of unquenchable violence. Wallace’s infamous cry of “Freedom!” appears in the film, not in the historical record.
The film was released at the height of the evangelical men’s movement, the year before 800,000 “Promise Keepers” descended on the nation’s capital. These Christian men came not to storm the Capitol building, but to “stand in the gap”—to rededicate themselves to leading and protecting their families. Promise Keepers was a patriarchal movement, but it was largely characterized by a “soft patriarchy,” a kinder, gentler assertion of masculine authority. Some evangelicals, however, believed this softness was going too far. With its portrayal of warrior masculinity and no-holds-barred freedom-fighting heroism, Braveheart offered a refreshingly rugged, even ruthless alternative.