In passing the gavel of leadership to a younger cohort in the House, Speaker Pelosi evoked God's protection.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s epoch-ending, gavel-passing speech Thursday on the floor of the House demonstrated—the Founding Fathers’ vision of secular governance notwithstanding—how casually and normatively embedded Christianity remains at the summit of American government.
Speaker Pelosi’s “swan song” as the revered, two-decade leader of Congressional Democrats and final arbiter of House public-policy priorities was liberally sprinkled with references to God, the divine, biblical scripture, prayer, heaven, her own “devout” Catholicism, St. Francis of Assisi, and (quoting Abraham Lincoln) “the better angels of our nature.”
Of course, Christianity and frequent references to it are commonplace in the experience of most Americans—though the once-massive U.S. Christian majority began eroding some years ago—but the remaining inherent problem is that our Founders designed our democracy explicitly to separate church and state, not encourage their embrace.
The original fervid intent of Thomas Jefferson et al. more than two centuries ago was to keep religious passions from corrupting rational government—as it so bloodily had in Europe during preceding centuries—particularly the passions of an uber-dominant faith, as Christianity was in colonial America. The Founders intended to render faith a spiritual activity conducted in private devotions or communally in church, not in the hallowed, secular halls of Congress or elsewhere in government or the tax-financed public square.
Speaker Pelosi’s religious references during her speech Thursday included:
- “Madam Speaker, as we gather here, we stand on sacred ground: the chamber of the United States House of Representatives, the heart of American democracy.” Her language could be seen to imply that America is divinely graced, although it could be argued she used the phrase figuratively.
- “My colleagues, I stand before you as speaker of the House, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a devout Catholic, a proud Democrat and a patriotic American, a citizen of the greatest republic in the history of the world — which President Lincoln called the last best hope on Earth.” Her Catholicism is irrelevant under the circumstances of her speech, except as political signaling.
- “While we will have our disagreements on policy, we must remain fully committed to our shared fundamental mission, to hold strong to our most treasured democratic ideals, to cherish the spark of divinity in each and every one of us, and to always put our country first.” This passage explicitly states that “every one of us” was divinely actualized, although surveys show that millions of Americans are atheists.
- “Scripture teaches us that for everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” In fact, millions of Americans don’t believe, read or adhere to the Christian scripture to which she refers, like Muslim Americans.
- “And again [I am grateful], for those who sent me here, for the people of San Francisco, for entrusting me with the high honor of being their voice in Congress. In this continued work, I will strive to honor the call of the patron saint of our city, St. Francis. Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” St. Francis is a Catholic saint who has no significance to millions of non-Catholic Americans.
- “In this House, we begin each day with a prayer and a pledge to the flag. And every day I am in awe of the majestic miracle that is American democracy.” The question is frequently asked by church-state separation proponents about why a religious prayer, virtually always Christian in theme, officially opens daily sessions of Congress. And democracy is not a “miracle.” It’s man-made. She may have been using the term colloquially, but still, in the context of the sentence secular intent is suspect.
- “May God bless you and your families. And may God bless — continue to bless our veterans and the United States of America.” Although it is a common refrain in long-majority-Christian America, Pelosi was evoking the Christian God as protector of our multi-faith nation. The gods of some religions—as in the Deist faith of many
Founding Fathers—don’t bless or protect anything, any more than gravity does.
Despite its religious undertones, Pelosi’s speech was elegant and moving, a heartfelt paean to her House colleagues for the joys and achievements they marked together over the years. It also signaled the changeover after she leaves the speakership next year to a new, younger corps of Democratic legislative leaders who will shepherd hopefully consequential bills through Congress in future years.
But everything now and in the future is possible through their own human exertions, needless of divine intervention.
Hopefully, as the nation grows more secular and irreligious—that process is now accelerating—the artifacts of Christianity that remain in American governance will be removed by lawmakers in deference to our founding ideals of church-state separation, or they will just naturally fade away.
The sooner the better.