The chaplains in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives open each session with a prayer. They coordinate religious programs, reside over funerals and memorial services, and they provide pastoral care for members of Congress, their staff, and their families. They are hired by a majority vote by the members in each chamber.
Though they serve as individuals and are not meant to represent any specific religious denomination, all elected chaplains to date have come from Christian traditions, though on occasion, guest chaplains from other religions are invited to give invocations.
Christians are now complaining that “turning the other cheek” is nothing more than liberal talking points.
One of the initial actions taken by the first U.S. Senate in 1789 was to select the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, Episcopal Bishop of New York to serve as the first Senate Chaplain. The first Chaplain elected in the House of Representatives was William Linn on May 1, 1789. The tradition of opening each day’s sessions with a chaplain’s prayer was established by Rev. Jacob Duche who led the first opening prayer at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 7, 1774.
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Congress justifies as its Constitutional right the hiring of religious chaplains by invoking Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5: “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers.”
One of the framers of the United States Constitution, James Madison, disputed Congress’ interpretation by arguing against the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress in his 1817 “Detached Memoranda”:
“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion,” he asserted. “The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes… The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles…
The Supreme Court settled the matter of the constitutional right of legislatures to hire chaplains at public expense in its Marsh v. Chambers (1983) decision. The case involved whether the Nebraska legislature had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by opening each session with a prayer directed by a chaplain paid for with public funds.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the practice does not violate the Establishment Clause using precedent as justification. This ruling, however, went against the Supreme Court’s previous Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) decision, which set out a three-pronged test for the constitutionality of statutes: (1) if it has a primarily secular purpose; (2) if its principal effect neither aids nor inhibits religion; and (3) if government and religion are not excessively entangled.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing the majority opinion in Marsh v. Chambers, stated in part:
“In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
The Supreme Court, however, disregarded the issue of precedent when, in 2022, it overturned Roe v. Wade (1973), unraveling the legal right to abortion for nearly the last 50 years in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. The Court left it to the states to decide whether they would legalize reproductive rights.
Since Dobbs, many state legislatures have also banned mifepristone and misoprostol, the safe and effective drugs used in medication abortions. The national drugstore chain, Walgreens, was the first to ban the drugs even in states where abortion remains legal.
Several organizations sued the government for access to reproductive care, including abortion. Some of Jewish and Muslim organizations sued on religious grounds since their respective faith communities allow abortion.
A press release of Muslim Advocates stated, “The Supreme Court’s radical decision to overturn Roe v. Wade represents a dangerous Christian nationalization of American law and kicks open the door to future reversals of the right to contraception, the right to marry whomever you want and even the right to teach your children a language of your choice. By upholding a law that defines life as beginning at conception, the U.S. Supreme Court has enshrined the religious doctrine of one minority religious community into law — violating the First Amendment principle of religious freedom…”
In a CNN op-ed last year, historian Amanda Tyler defined Christian nationalism as “a political ideology and cultural framework” that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s providence in order to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. Christian nationalism demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life, buttressed by the active support of government at all levels.
Anthea Butler distinguished, more specifically, the definition of white Christian nationalism: “Simply put, it is the belief that America’s founding is based on Christian principles, white protestant Christianity is the operational religion of the land, and that Christianity should be the foundation of how the nation develops its laws, principles and policies.”
Though I rarely offer comparisons between events transpiring before and during the ascension of the German Third Reich and the contemporary United States – since to do so could result in trivializing one of the most horrific episodes in human history – I am nonetheless haunted by certain parallels that demand voicing.
I highlight, in particular, the parallels between white Christian nationalism and Nazi portrayals of sex, sexuality, gender, and gender expression. The Nazis launched a divisive and brutal anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ program that was, among many other things, anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-sexuality education in schools.
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 2
The Nazis ruthlessly enforced and eventually extended Paragraph 175, the section of the German Penal Code dating back to 1871 with the unification of Germany: “Unnatural vice committed by two persons of the male sex or by people with animals is to be punished by imprisonment; the verdict may also include the loss of civil rights.”
Nazi ideology rested on the assessment that homosexual (males) lowered the German birth rate; they endangered, recruited, enticed, and corrupted youth; that a possible homosexual epidemic could spread; that homosexuals are “potential oppositionists” and enemies of respectable society; and that sexual relations between people of the same sex impairs their “sense of shame” and undermines morality, which inevitably will bring about the “decline of social community.”
Even before taking power, appearing in their daily newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter 14 May 1928, the Nazi party argued: “Anyone who thinks of homosexual love is our enemy. We reject anything which emasculates our people and makes it a plaything for our enemies, for we know that life is a fight, and it is madness to think that men will ever embrace fraternally. Natural history teaches us the opposite. Might makes right. The strong will always win over the weak. Let us see to it that we once again become the strong. But this we can achieve only in one way — the German people must once again learn how to exercise discipline. We, therefore, reject any sexual deviation, particularly between man and man, because it robs us of the last possibility of freeing our people from the slave-chains in which it is now forced to toil.”
While Nazi ideology and practice rejected lesbianism as well, they did not criminalize same-sex sexuality between women because they believed that so-called “Aryan” lesbians could at least birth children for the “New Germany.”
On the other hand, Heinrich Himmler, Gestapo head and chief architect of the Reich’s anti-homosexual campaign, justified his actions by arguing that male homosexuals were “like women” and therefore, could not fight in any German war effort.
Subsequently, he conducted surveillance operations on an estimated 90,000 suspected homosexuals, arrested approximately 50,000, and transported somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 to a number of concentration camps throughout the Nazi dominion. Very few survived.
Upon taking power in 1933, under their Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, the Nazis took over all youth groups and converted them into Hitler Youth groups. One action taken following consolidation was to eliminate all signs of “homosexual corrosion” because it allegedly posed a threat to state control by “fostering political conspiracies.”
Nazi leaders purged all boys suspected of “homosexual tendencies.” They tried and convicted an estimated 6,000 youth under Paragraph 175 between 1933 and 1943.
Hitler also proposed eliminating all sexuality education from the German school system and encouraged parents to take on the primary responsibilities for sexuality instruction within the home.
Alfred Rosenberg, one of the Nazi’s chief ideologues said, “The emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement is the first demand of a female generation trying to rescue nation and race, the eternally unconscious, the foundation of all civilization, from decline… A woman should have every opportunity to realize her potential, but one thing must be made clear: Only a man must be and remain judge, soldier, and politician.”
Englebert Huber, a Nazi propagandist, dictated the “proper” place of women in the Third Reich, as figuratively (and literally) beneath men: “In the ideology of National Socialism, there is no room for the political woman….[Our] movement places woman in her natural sphere of the family and stresses her duties as wife and mother. The political, that post-war creature, who rarely ‘cut a good figure’ in parliamentary debates, represents the denigration of women. The German uprising is a male phenomenon.”
The Nazis added Paragraph 218 of the German Penal Code to outlaw abortions and establish a national file on women who had undergone – and doctors who had performed – abortions.
In their increasing obsession with “purifying” the social sphere, Nazi leadership enacted the “Decree for Combating Public Indecency,” which included such provisions as working to eliminate prostitution; closing all bars and clubs that “are misused for the furtherance of public indecency” including “public houses solely or mainly frequented by persons engaging in unnatural sex acts” (i.e. homosexuals); closing kiosks and magazine stands in libraries and bookshops “whether because they include nude illustrations or because of their title or contents, are liable to produce erotic effects in the beholder.”
Pope Pius XII maintained a position of neutrality and rarely spoke out against the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, a silence for which he was roundly criticized in some circles. But on April 3, 1933, The Vatican praised the Reich on this policy:
“The Vatican welcomes the struggle of National Germany against obscene material. The strong measures that Prussia’s Minister of the Interior Göring has ordered for the combating of obscene writings and pictures…have received serious attention in Vatican circles. It will be recalled that Pius XII, in his recent encyclicals, has repeatedly and vigorously stressed that defensive actions against obscene material are of fundamental importance for the bodily and spiritual health of family and nation, and he most warmly welcomes the type and manner…with which this struggle has been undertaken in the new Germany.”
The Connecting Strand
The Nazi regime connected multiple forms of oppression when Heinrich Himmler reorganized the Reich Criminal Police Bureau to centralize operations by creating a national file on male homosexuals, transgender people, what they referred to as “wage abortionists” (women and their doctors), and to monitor the production and ban the use of contraceptives for “Aryan” women.
Within this Bureau, they established The Reich Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion, which in the single year of 1938 alone, conducted 28,366 arrests for abortion, and 28,882 arrests of male homosexuals.
The common thread running through Nazi ideology regarding gender, gender expression, and sexuality was an intensive campaign to control individuals’ bodies and the bodies of members of entire communities in an attempt to also control their minds.
Women and LGBTQ+ people were constructed as second-class and even third-class citizens in Nazi Germany, and it’s happening again today, as the current political discourse indicates. But women and LGBTQ+ people are certainly not victims. Through it all, individuals and groups have resisted and challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal white Christian nationalist constraints.
I hope, though, that we as a society can learn from the tyranny of the past.