Andrew L. Seidel: ‘Jesus’ prayer a symptom of Christian nationalism

By Andrew Seidel

This column first appeared on March 27 on Rewire.com.

On March 25, Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz chose to deliver a “Jesus”-laden pr

Andrew L. Seidel
In this screenshot from the Pennsylvania State House, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz gives a Jesus-infused invocation on March 25. Looking on, and aghast, is House Speaker Mike Turzai.

ayer to the state house on the same day Pennsylvania’s first female Muslim legislator, state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, was sworn in.

The prayer was jaw-dropping — literally. As she begins her prayer, Speaker Mike Turzai’s jaw drops, and then it drops again. By the end, he’s shooing her off the dais.

It was 103 seconds of sectarian division and proselytizing and it speaks for itself: “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord.”

That Borowicz meant for the prayer to intimidate non-Christians seems self-evident. It’s probably less clear to many observers that Borowicz’s prayer is also a symptom of the virulent strain of Christian nationalism under which America is suffering.

Christian nationalism is a political theology that claims we’ve “forgotten . . . God in our country,” as Borowicz said, and that we must return to that golden age of the American founding. This is wrong.

The Founding Fathers chose to keep state and church separate precisely because religion is divisive and they were seeking to build a pluralistic nation. They didn’t build the nation or secure our freedom with theology or prayer, but with a Constitution that draws its power from “we the people,” not “we the Christians.”

Religion only unites believers of the same stripe; it excludes all others and often calls for worse. In 1890, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice H.S. Orton put it eloquently: “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed.” Borowicz’s proselytizing prayer is a perfect illustration of the division religion sows when mixed with our government.

Need more evidence that prayer is divisive? Speaker Turzai, who controls the invocations, has prohibited certain legislators from delivering prayers. Rep. Brian Sims, an atheist, is excluded from this opportunity because of his beliefs. When guest chaplains were permitted to deliver prayers in place of legislators, atheists, humanists and other secular Americans were similarly excluded — unconstitutionally, according to the courts.

Brimming with sectarian arrogance and division, it was easy to miss the outright errors in Borowicz’s prayer: “God, for those who came before us, like George Washington at Valley Forge and Abraham Lincoln who sought after you in Gettysburg, Jesus, and the Founding Fathers in Independence Hall, Jesus, that sought after you and fasted and prayed for this nation to be founded on your principles in your words and your truth.”

These historical moments were probably meant to be poignant ties to Pennsylvania and American history, but they lacked ties to reality, history and nuance.

For instance, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is typically rendered to include the phrase, “That this nation, under God, shall . . .” But history is a bit more nuanced, and unclear. Lincoln’s first two versions of the speech, written by Lincoln himself, don’t include the words “under God” and we cannot say for certain that he added those words during the speech itself.

Borowicz’s other two examples are clear: Neither happened. Washington did not pray in the snow at Valley Forge and the delegates at the Constitutional Convention did not fast or pray. These are invented myths, not historical moments.

The Valley Forge prayer myth was invented by the same cleric, Mason Locke Weems, who invented the story about a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and confessing to his father. The framers of our Constitution considered and rejected a call to prayer at the Constitutional Convention, finding it “unnecessary,” according to Ben Franklin’s handwritten notes.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, in which I debunk these and other myths, these lies are formulated to support the Christian nationalist legislative agenda and political identity. The goal is to redefine America according to that identity and then reshape the law accordingly.

Borowicz’s final myth is central to that push. She claims that the Founders “fasted and prayed for this nation to be founded on your principles in your words and your truth.” This is the beating heart of Christian nationalism: that the United States Constitution is founded on Judeo-Christian principles. And it is fundamentally wrong. More often than not, Judeo-Christian principles conflict with America’s founding principles in irreconcilable ways. Correcting the historical record is as important as condemning the intimidating prayer itself because the political theology of Christian nationalism and its hold on political power depends on the myths Borowicz regurgitated in her paean.

Borowicz’s prayer perfectly encapsulates America’s current problem with Christian nationalism. It’s a hypocritical political theology based on bad history and myths that is meant to intimidate non-Christians into silence and compliance. In short, Christian nationalism is un-American.

Andrew Seidel is a constitutional attorney and FFRF’s director of strategic response.

Nones more prevalent than evangelicals, Catholics

It another sign that religion is declining in popularity in America, the number of people who claim “no religion” now outnumber Catholics and evangelicals, respectively, according to a recent survey.

For the first time, the Nones (those who profess no religion) now top Americans’ religious identity, according to the General Social Survey.

Political scientist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University found that 23.1 percent of Americans now claim no religion. Catholics are at 23.0 percent, and evangelicals are at 22.5 percent. More than 2,000 people were interviewed in person for the survey. (However, the three groups are within the margin of error of each other, meaning it’s a statistical tie.)

“It is the first time we have seen this. The same questions have been asked for 44 years,” Burge told CNN. The quick rise of religious Nones began in the early 1990s and has grown 266 percent since 1991, he said. In the 1972 survey, only 5 percent said “No Religion.”

Burge estimates that Nones will be the largest group outright in four to six years.

Part of the change is due to the younger generations. The American Family Survey conducted in 2018 found: “For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44 percent of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43 percent) among those who are 30–44.”

That is a large difference compared to older generations. “Among Americans older than 65, just 21 percent . . . say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21 percent is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015.”

The decline in organized religion has wide-ranging consequences, from social isolation to attitudes about science and technology and, of course, to politics,” writes Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. “Political candidates who can speak to people of faith as well as religiously non-affiliated voters who nevertheless look at politics as a value-driven endeavor will do well in today’s atmosphere. It should also serve as a warning to religious leaders that misconduct and inattention or disdain for the core tenets of faith will mean further decline in their congregants.”

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In The News (May 2018)

Church membership drops to all-time low

The percentage of adults in the United States who belong to a church has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past 20 years, hitting a low of 50 percent in 2018, according to a Gallup poll.

Gallup said church membership was 70 percent in 1999 — and close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th century.

Since 1999, the figure has fallen steadily, while the percentage of adults with no religious affiliation has jumped from 8 percent to 19 percent.

The decline is driven by cultural and generational factors, said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University.

“Culturally, we are seeing significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular,” she told the Associated Press. “We are also seeing a generational shift as the ‘joiner’ older generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.”

Kansas Supreme Court upholds abortion rights

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled on April 26 that the state’s constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion, which blocks a 2015 Kansas law that banned a second-trimester abortion procedure.

The ruling now stands as the law with no path for an appeal. Because it turns on the state’s constitution, abortion would remain legal in Kansas even if the Roe v. Wade case that established a national right to abortion is ever reversed. That could pave the way for legal challenges to abortion laws in other states that are trying to strictly control the procedures.

The ruling comes as more than 11 states across the Midwest and south have been passing laws that ban abortion procedures after six weeks, often before women even know they are pregnant.

Texas begins fight over religious exemptions

A Texas Senate committee on March 25 approved a bill to give state-licensed professionals — including doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and barbers — broad protection for actions taken according to their religious beliefs.

Opponents said the bill, and more than a dozen similar measures that have not yet been acted upon, would give religious people, particularly conservative Christians, the power to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender people as well as anyone they don’t want to do business with or serve.

Christian nationalism viewed as a threat

Almost half of the voting public believes that Christian nationalism is a threat to the interests of the country within the next 10 years, a recent poll from Morning Consult shows.

“There is a strong movement to preserve white Christian power in America right now, and a real feeling of fragility about the changing demographics of America,” said Rachel Laser, president of the nonpartisan Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Many experts say conservative leaders have — to varying degrees — embraced sentiments that run contrary to the Constitution’s call for separation of church and state, from the insistence on saying “Merry Christmas” to Trump’s campaign call for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

Stoning in Brunei for adulterers, homosexuals

On April 3, Brunei statutes allowing stoning and amputation against adulterers and those caught having gay sex went into effect.

Homosexuality is already illegal in Brunei, with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison, but the new laws allow for penalties including whipping and stoning. The new laws also introduce amputation of hands or feet as a punishment for robbery.

Texas bans chaplains from execution chamber

Texas officials on April 3 banned any chaplain from entering the state’s execution chambers.

The ban came less than one week after the Supreme Court stayed the lethal injection of an inmate prevented from having a Buddhist spiritual adviser with him.

Only security personnel may enter the execution chamber in future executions, Texas Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Desel said. Under the new protocols, chaplains will be available to the inmates until they are transferred to the execution chamber. Ministers and spiritual advisers also may observe executions from the witness rooms.

Saudi Arabia declares all atheists terrorists

Human Rights Watch reports that Saudi Arabia has new laws that define atheists as terrorists.

In a series of royal decrees and overarching legislation to deal with terrorism, Saudi King Salman has clamped down on all forms of political dissent and protests that could “harm public order.”

Article I of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

Mormons: Kids of LGBT parents can be baptized

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said April 4 that it would allow children of same-sex couples to be baptized, an incredible reversal of church policy from one of the religious groups that had long sought to be a bulwark against gay rights.

The decision rolled back a 2015 rule that had ripped congregations apart by declaring that church members in same-sex marriages were apostates and subject to excommunication, and that children of same-sex couples were banned from rituals like baptisms and baby-naming ceremonies.

New Jersey to permit death with dignity

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on April 12 signed legislation that will allow terminally ill adults to end their lives peacefully, with dignity, and at their own discretion. The bill makes New Jersey the eighth state to allow such end-of-life decisions with the assistance of medical professionals.

“Allowing residents with terminal illnesses to make end-of-life choices for themselves is the right thing to do,” said Murphy. “By signing this bill today, we are providing terminally ill patients and their families with the humanity, dignity, and respect that they so richly deserve at the most difficult times any of us will face.”

The law will take effect on Aug. 1.

Pierre Dussol: Hello! Beaver Scout greetings from Canada!

Pierre and his son Robbie show off the “A” badges they received from FFRF.

 

By Pierre Dussol

I recently became a Beaver Scout leader to spend quality time with my son. I was a Cub Scout in 1977, and enjoyed the movement very much until I was forced to convert to a Jehovah’s Witness. I was no longer allowed to stand up for “Oh, Canada” or associate with “worldly” organizations such as the Scouting movement.

In 2006, I married a brilliant scientist with a doctorate in biology. Over the course of a few years, she had firmly changed my mind on the subject of evolution. In 2015, on the death of Leonard Nimoy (“Mr. Spock”), I finally came out of the closet to my mother. She was devastated, but kept me in her life until her death in 2017.

I have been determined to keep my son away from the evils of religion. He is 6 years old and still believes in Santa Claus but not in God. I am 50. We both have a place on our uniforms for a religion badge, and my son and I would like to place your badge there.

As you may know, Canada is extremely secular compared to the United States. I have never, in the few months that I’ve been a leader, seen anyone in Beavers, Cubs, Boy Scouts or Venturers wear a religion badge. Nevertheless, I would like to wear the atheist badge as a way to spark a conversation with someone who is interested, as well as in solidarity to your movement. It would be nice if, in the future, Scouts Canada would create an “Atheist” badge for its members. This could be the start.

I am very well versed in the keep-religion-out-of-schools debate, as well as the Intelligent Design failed attack on textbooks. I believe that the more people step out of the shadows to combat this rampant ignorance, the better.

Therefore, I would kindly request two Freethought badges for me and my son, Robbie.

Georg Hay Kain III: God not needed to be ‘best kind of citizen’

By Georg Hay Kain III

I challenge the Boy Scouts of America’s policy statement “that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.” Have I been a good citizen? I submit the following:

• I have done well academically, graduating from the Dartmouth College, the University of Maryland School of Law and York College of Pennsylvania.

• I served my country for seven years as an officer in the United States Navy.

• My 24 years of legal practice included representing York County Children and Youth Services, the local agency caring for dependent, neglected and abused youth.

• I was a member of the Museum Committee and on the board of the Historical Society of York County. I was a trustee of the York County Academy.

• I am a life member of the National Eagle Scout Association, the Dartmouth Outing Club and the York County Conservation Society.

• I have paid my taxes, voted in elections, and have not been charged with any misdemeanors or felonies.

• I have been an active member of the Boy Scouts of America since age 8 (now for 62 years).

I mention these things very reluctantly, as there are others who have done way more than I have in the “best kind of citizen” department. I don’t think, however, looking back, that anyone could rightly say I was a “bad” citizen.

In recent years, I have joined the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, Pa. UUCY, as it is known locally, is the charter partner for Boy Scout Troop 37, of which I am the committee chairman. As a member of that congregation, I have given thought to issues such as “what is God” and similar topics.

I am probably more of an agnostic than an atheist. I know of no way to prove “God” exists or doesn’t exist. I just don’t see the question of God’s existence as particularly relevant to my own life. What I have accomplished, or failed to accomplish, in life has not been motivated by a desire for a rewarding afterlife in heaven or a fear of going to hell. I think there is a 99.99 percent likelihood that when I die, that’s it. Just like turning out the lights. Like a sleep where you don’t dream and don’t ever wake up.

The relevant question seems to me to be, “Do you need God to be a good person?” I don’t think so. My anthropology professor in college made a point that made sense to me.

Humankind and societies flourish and advance when people are kind and helpful to each other, and humankind and societies diminish and die when people are mean, cruel, selfish, etc. I just don’t see that “God” has anything to do with that truthful and realistic point.

So, what am I doing about all this in my scouting activities? I have a good scouting friend I have known for years and highly respect. He is a devout Christian. I am certain he holds his beliefs sincerely. He is leading a good life and accomplishing many great things. I see us as two ships sailing on parallel courses guided by respective compasses manufactured by different makers. Both compasses point in the right direction. Since they do, I don’t see it as useful or productive to argue which compass is the better one.

I would prefer to see the BSA discard its policy statement “that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.”

I think the real emphasis in scouting should be on the stated mission of the BSA: To prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law. 

Until such time as the BSA does away with its policy statement on “obligation to God,” any youth who comes before me at a Board of Review for rank advancement will have a sympathetic ear. I might ask if he has given personal thought to these matters, and if he has, no matter what conclusions he has come to, I’ll accept that he has fulfilled any “religious requirement.”

Earn a scouting freethought badge

FFRF has produced a badge to reward freethinking youths and to challenge the Boy Scouts of America’s discriminatory policy against the nonreligious. The badge, based on the Dawkins’ “A,” is being issued in collaboration with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The Boy Scouts of America formally discriminates against nonreligious boys and their families, officially excluding atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers. Currently, BSA maintains “that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.”

FFRF maintains that no one can grow into the best kind of citizen who discriminates against the nonreligious, and that it’s what you do — not what you believe — that makes you a good person.

FFRF, at the urging of its member Richard Kirschman, has produced a badge similar to BSA’s merit badges, which are typically sewn on uniforms or sashes.

Scouts who wish to earn this badge are asked to help disprove BSA’s misguided claim that nonbelievers cannot be good citizens.

At Dawkins’ suggestion, the Scout is also required to send FFRF a short essay that addresses BSA’s claim that nonbelievers can’t be good citizens. FFRF does not charge Scouts for the badge.

To apply for the badge: Submit your brief essay, which should include your full name, age, mailing address and contact information, to: [email protected].

Boy Scouts (By Don Addis)

FFRF on the Road (May 2019)

Photos, cartoons and marquees (May 2019)

FFRF, ACLU file for summary judgment over license plate

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky on April 15 filed for summary judgment in a federal lawsuit over an atheist being denied an irreverent license plate in Kentucky.

FFRF and the ACLU sued the Kentucky transportation secretary in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky citizen, Bennie Hart, who was refused a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove last year allowed the case to move forward.

The summary judgment request is asking the judge to rule in favor of Hart without going to trial, and to strike down parts of Kentucky’s personalized plate law.

Kentucky DMV officials first refused Hart’s request in early 2016, calling his license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges the denial of plates based on such vague notions. It also contests viewpoint or content-based restrictions on personalized plates.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that while the government may choose its own message, the free speech clause applies to private speech, as the latest motion, filed on April 15, asserts. It is of little significance that the state prints the plate. Private speech is routinely permitted on government property. Kentucky’s plate restriction on the basis that an individual seeks to promote “any specific faith, religion, or antireligion” is accordingly unconstitutional, FFRF and the ACLU maintain.

Furthermore, “not only is Kentucky’s application of the statutes unconstitutional on its face, it is impermissibly viewpoint-discriminatory and unreasonable as applied to Mr. Hart’s plate request,” the motion contends. So, plates with the phrases “SRVGOD” and “THXGOD” have been approved, while “IM GOD” was denied.

The First Amendment prohibits the Kentucky government from selectively rejecting certain religious or nonreligious messages, and its pattern of allowing certain religious messages demonstrates that its decision to reject Hart’s plate is based on his specific viewpoint. Hart maintained a license plate with the same text requested here, “IM GOD,” for 12 years in Ohio without any issues.

“This is a clear denial of free speech on capricious and random grounds,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Kentucky officials can’t suppress freethinking perspectives while permitting religious statements.”

Bennie Hart shows off his “IM GOD” license plate he had while living in Ohio. Now in Kentucky, Hart has sued because the DMV turned down his request for that plate.

School must remove Ten Commandments plaque

FFRF has told an Ohio middle school to take down an unconstitutional religious display from its property.

A concerned parent recently reported to FFRF that Welty Middle School in New Philadelphia, Ohio, displays a prominent plaque featuring the Ten Commandments near its auditorium entrance.

It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or endorse religion, FFRF reminded the district. The Supreme Court has ruled specifically that Ten Commandment displays in public school violate the Establishment Clause as its religious message is incontrovertible.

The District’s promotion of the Judeo-Christian bible and religion over non-religion impermissibly turns any non-Christian or non-believing student, parent or staff member into an outsider,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line to New Philadelphia City Schools. “Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their school, especially on religious questions.”

FFRF is asking the district to promptly remove the Ten Commandments display to comply with constitutional dictates, and to maintain an environment where all students, regardless of religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs) feel welcome.

“The First Commandment alone is reason why public schools may not endorse the Commandments,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students in our public schools are free to have any god they like, as many gods as they like — or none at all! In America, we live under the First Amendment, not the First Commandment.”

FFRF recently prevailed against two Pennsylvania school districts that hosted Ten Commandments monuments. Most recently, FFRF v. New Kensington-Arnold School District was settled in 2017 with the removal of the monument and attorney fees costing the district in excess of $163,000.

This Ten Commandments plaque is at Welty Middle School in New Philadelphia, Ohio.