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What a prayer breakfast joke reveals

We’ve had a revolutionary shift away from Christian morality in standards of political propriety

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., speaks to reporters at the Capitol earlier this year. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

What a prayer breakfast joke reveals

Congresswoman Nancy Mace from South Carolina addressed a prayer breakfast hosted by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, also from the Palmetto State, last week and made headlines. Mace, who lives with her boyfriend, attempted a dose of humor by blithely noting that she rebuffed her boyfriend’s sexual advances that morning because otherwise she would have been late for the prayer breakfast. The inference was obvious: Regular non-marital sex was common for Mace, but that morning, attendance at the prayer breakfast took precedence over sex.

Now, regarding Rep. Mace in particular, we do not know the full circumstances of her life or church. The whole segment of her address talked about how Christ changed her life, which we can be grateful for. But whether she’s not truly converted or just unlearned in what discipleship entails, her comments were gauche, to say the least. Needless to say, repentance and discipleship are in obvious need.

Mace’s domestic arrangement highlights one of the most significant changes in American political life over the last two decades. Historic Christian etiquette is no longer observed, nor is it even expected among public servants or even self-identified Christians. This does not mean that non-marital sex is on the increase necessarily, that public servants are more like to engage in extramarital sex in 2023 than they were 50 or 100 years ago, or even that Rep. Mace is being a hypocrite. It does mean, however, that standards of propriety have moved away from norms that were relatively settled throughout the history of the Christian church and that American politicians are no longer convinced that those historic practices need affirmation in public practice.

It also means American Christianity is just as given to sliding into forms of morally indifferent latitudinarianism as Christianity in any other country. Historically, American politicians understood the necessity of affirming traditional Christian morality for the republic’s moral, political, and social health, even if they did not practice Christian morality privately. Even politicians who did not claim membership in Christian churches felt strongly that the appearance of Christian morality must be upheld for the good of the republic.

What is new is the open indifference to Christian moral tradition that accompanies the open embrace of Christian folk identity and religious institutional life.

Religion has always been intertwined with American politics, but only recently has public participation in religious events become a necessary part of life in American politics, particularly in the Republican Party. Like Donald Trump, Nancy Mace supports socially liberal causes except for abortion limitations. And like Trump, Mace’s religiosity seems more to do with cultural affinity rather than churchly practice. This isn’t necessarily new to American politics, but what is new is the open indifference to Christian moral tradition that accompanies the open embrace of Christian folk identity and religious institutional life. There has always been fornication, adultery, and other types of profligacy in the lives of American politicians. Still, those politicos have not historically placed themselves as the head of Christian political events, organizations, or institutions.

It might surprise Americans to learn that electoral politics features more talk about religion today than 200 years ago. The Founding Fathers urged the population to embrace religion—inferentially Christianity—as a bulwark for republican liberty and practice in the newly independent United States. Even those like Benjamin Franklin, who lived in varying states of relatively open adultery and fornication, saw religion as essential to civil life. Thomas Jefferson’s probable liaison with an enslaved woman on his plantation and his quite open affair—however brief and of whatever nature—with married Maria Cosway did not keep him from extolling the benefits of religion for the American populace. James Madison indifferently attended church and made almost no substantive public statements regarding his religious beliefs or practices. Nevertheless, he, too, upheld religion as the necessary social foundation for healthy free societies. None of these men, however, allowed themselves public or leading roles in the late 18th century’s cultural equivalents to prayer breakfasts.

The generation that followed the Founders proved even more reluctant to use religion for political purposes. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun—the so-called Great Triumvirate of the Early Republic—avoided religious figures who sought association largely because they wanted to separate politics and church. They did not want to separate religion and politics; all three believed, like the Founders, that religion had a role in building the republic’s social and moral foundations.

For most of the republic’s history, politicians publicly maintained long-settled Christian social boundaries regarding marriage and sex, no matter their private lives. Those who were not practicing Christians did not position themselves as religious leaders of religious practice in the political sphere. In our day, it is tempting to ignore the disparity between public identification with Christianity and the respective private practice of conservative politicians in the interest of political coalitions and vote-getting. Whatever might be gained politically, however, risks turning actual Christian piety into little more than a checkmark to please conservative irreligious voters who need Jesus more than they need to win an election.

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.


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