June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Baptizing America: How America’s practice of ‘civil religion’ and its endorsement by mainline Protestants paved the way for Christian Nationalism

  Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood

Editor’s Note: Church & State is pleased to present an excerpt from Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism by Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood. The book’s thesis is that by tolerating and indeed promoting forms of “civil religion” that symbolically link God and country, mainline Protestant clergy established structures that spawned today’s more extreme forms of Christian Nationalism.

Kaylor is editor in chief of Word&Way and a member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees. Underwood is a contributing editor to Word&Way and senior minister of Allisonville Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis.

Baptizing America is published by Chalice Press and is available now. For a free discussion guide, visit wordandway.org/baptizingamerica. For more information about Chalice Press, visit chalicepress.com. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of Chalice Press.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: Senate Chaplain Barry Black and House Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben, attend the service for U.S. Capitol Officer William Evans, as his remains lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol rotunda on April 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Officer Evans, who was killed in the line of duty during the attack outside the U.S. Capitol on April 2, will lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda today.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black and House Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben: paid to pray (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

On the afternoon of January 6, 2021, as congressional members hid from the MAGA mob running through the Capitol hallways, some of the insurrectionists made their way into the Senate Chamber. Luke Mogelson of The New Yorker captured video as rioters sorted through desks and papers in a quest for some sort of “evidence” of wrongdoing. Then in walked Jacob Chansley, nicknamed the “QAnon Shaman” for spouting conspiracy theories while wearing face paint and a fur hat with horns. After dropping a couple of f-bombs, he saw a guy with blood on himself and said, “Look at this guy. He’s covered in blood. God bless you.” A badly-outnumbered police officer asked them to leave the Senate Chamber because “this is like the sacrediest place.” The insurrectionists ignored his plea and instead lined up behind the podium.

“Jesus Christ, we invoke your name! Amen!” one of them shouted with a hand raised upward.

Others also shouted “amen” as Chansley, suddenly inspired, added, “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space.” He set down the American flag he’d been carrying and picked up a bullhorn to pray. He started, paused for everyone to take off their Trump hats (or furry horns), and then started again: “Thank you, heavenly Father, for this opportunity to stand up for God-given unalienable rights. Thank you, heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs. …Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator God, for filling this chamber with your white light of love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ. … Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen!”

That prayer quickly became a key exhibit in understanding the Christian Nationalism that helped fuel the attack on the Capitol. Chansley was arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison (not for the theological crime of the prayer but for the actions that had gotten him to that spot). Yet, the QAnon Shaman wasn’t the first person to petition God from the Senate podium on January 6. Someone else had been paid by U.S. taxpayers to pray there.

“Almighty God, have compassion on us with your unfailing love,” Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a Seventh-day Adventist, offered just after the Senate was called to order at 12:30 p.m.

As he often does with his prayers, the chaplain included political references and even took sides in an ongoing political debate in this case, the opposite side of the insurrectionist prayer that would come from that spot a couple of hours later. But the differences aren’t quite so black and white. While literally praying for the opposite outcome, Black and those backing Trump both prayed for the vote and wise decisions by lawmakers.

Black prayed, “As our lawmakers prepare to formally certify the votes cast by the electoral college, be present with them. Guide our legislators with your wisdom and truth as they seek to meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. Lord, inspire them to seize this opportunity to demonstrate to the nation and world how the democratic process can be done properly and in an orderly manner. Help them to remember that history is a faithful stenographer, and so are you. We pray in your sovereign name. Amen.”

After listening to those words, the senators started the process to certify the election.

Prayers like that from the government’s podium occur as part of the nation’s official discourse and are included word for word in the Congressional Record. And they’re uttered by someone elected by congressional leaders and whose salary is paid for by U.S. taxpayers. They also matter as public communication because even though the prayers address God, the members of Congress are clearly an intended audience (as well as nerds like us watching C-SPAN 2).

As one of us (Brian) argued in the book Sacramental Politics after analyzing Black’s prayers during the 2013 government shutdown, “Clearly it cannot be cast as merely a spiritual encounter with the divine given its political resonance, nor can it be stripped of its sacredness to be situated as merely political rhetoric.” Which is more representative of Christian Nationalism: a man breaking into the building one day to offer one prayer, or an ordained Christian minister standing there each day with the authority of the government to pray on behalf of the nation?

Across the Capitol on January 6, Black’s House colleague, Rev. Margaret Kibben, had a few minutes earlier also given an official government prayer as lawmakers listened. Like her counterpart, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister took sides in the societal debate literally brewing on the steps and about to burst in and even criticized some congressional members with her words.

“We who have pledged to defend our Constitution against all enemies, we pray your hedge of protection around this nation,” she said. “Defend us from those adversaries, both foreign and domestic, outside these walls and perhaps within these Chambers, who sow seeds of acrimony to divide colleagues and conspire to undermine trust in your divine authority over all things.”

Although speaking on behalf of a chamber that included members from various faiths or who claim no faith at all, Kibben like Black prayed as if speaking for the entire gathered assembly of lawmakers. Part of her prayer even suggested nonbelievers aren’t wise, and she advanced the narrative of a divine plan for the nation.

“The journey of this experiment in democracy is perilous and demanding, fraught with anger and discontent. But wise rulers still seek you,” she prayed. “So help us, God, to find you in the midst of us. So help us, God, to see your gracious plan even in the events of these days.”

In her prayer, Kibben asked for God to help the lawmakers “serve you and this nation.” She also prayed that in “our deliberations and our debates” that God “would be revealed and exalted among the nations.” Praying on just her third day on the job, Kibben baptized the formal work of the government as she asked for God to help the legislators serve God so that God “would be revealed and exalted among the people.” She wore a mask instead of face paint and a pastoral collar instead of a furry hat, but her presence and practice still depicted the U.S. as a Christian nation.

Several hours later early on the morning of January 7 after the insurrection had been put down and the presidential votes officially certified Black voiced a prayer to end the joint congressional session. In his prayer, he continued the tradition of using the “we” to speak on behalf of Congress and even the nation. He declared that “we deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol Building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy.” While some lawmakers disagreed with his assessment of the vote, others don’t accept his faith assertions made on behalf of the entire nation.

He added, “You have strengthened our resolve to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies domestic, as well as foreign. … Thank you for what you have blessed our lawmakers to accomplish in spite of threats to liberty. Bless and keep us. Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to do your will, and guide our feet on the path of peace. And God bless America.”

A few seconds later, Vice President Mike Pence ended the joint session that, by confirming his ticket’s loss, answered some of the prayers uttered in that chamber and denied others. And while the QAnon Shaman later went to prison for his behavior, the chaplains returned day after day to offer official government prayers. Christian Nationalism in the Capitol didn’t end on January 6. And mainline Protestants created this daily display of the ideology.

While Kibben and Black use inclusive language in their prayers, they are still ordained ministers using Christian language to perform a sectarian spiritual practice all while speaking on behalf of the U.S. Congress. That’s why James Madison and some clergy during the founding period of the U.S. argued against congressional chaplains as a problematic establishment of religion. Madison won a lot of debates on church-state separation, but not that one. Thus, we’ve had chaplains since the beginning of Congress, with the jobs largely going to mainline Protestants.

Although Kibben is the first woman to serve as a congressional chaplain, her denominational affiliation is more mundane. Her two immediate predecessors were the only Catholics to serve as House chaplains, but before that Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants like Methodists and American Baptists dominated the list. The first session of Congress saw newly-elected members heading to New York in March 1789. After a quorum was achieved in the House of Representatives on April 1, they elected a speaker and got to work. One month later, the members elected Rev. William Linn, a Presbyterian minister, as the first chaplain. The next two were also Presbyterians. And among the 53 House chaplains, 16 have been Methodists (30%), 15 Presbyterians (28%), 7 American Baptists (13%), and 4 Episcopalians (8%). That’s 79% from just four traditions. There were also two each among the Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and Congregationalists (a key branch of today’s United Church of Christ). That just leaves two Catholics and three Unitarians or Universalists.

A similar story exists in the Senate. Although the current chaplain, Barry Black, is the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve, he followed three Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastors who held that job in succession from 1969 until 2003. Episcopalians and Methodists often filled that role before then. Not only was the original Senate chaplain an Episcopalian, but the first six people in this position were, thus putting the denomination birthed out of the state church of England in charge of official Senate prayers for the first 18 years.

Of the 52 people who’ve served as a Senate chaplain, 16 have been Episcopalians (30%), 13 Presbyterians (25%), 12 Methodists (23%), and 5 American Baptists (10%). That’s 88% from just four traditions, the same four traditions that also dominate the House chaplains list. The six other Senate chaplains are two Unitarians, a Lutheran, a Congregationalist, a Catholic, and the current Seventh-day Adventist.

Since seven people served as a chaplain in both houses at some point, that leaves us with a total of 98 different people as a House or Senate chaplain in over 230 years. Methodists have led the way with 26 (27%), followed by Presbyterians with 24 (24%), Episcopalians with 20 (20%), and American Baptists with 11 (11%). Once again, just four traditions have provided 83% of the congressional chaplains. Other mainline denominations (or precursor traditions) have accounted for another 8%, leaving just 9% from Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Unitarians, and Universalists.

That means many significant Christian denominations and traditions have not yet been chosen to send a congressional chaplain, nor have non-Christian religious traditions. When congressional members have bowed their heads for official prayers, it’s usually been with a mainline minister standing at the podium. Christian Nationalistic prayers didn’t just come into the Capitol during the insurrection; mainline clergy first spent two centuries regularly baptizing America’s leaders as instruments of God.

 

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