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
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.