The now-famous invocation freshman Rep. Stephanie Borowicz delivered in Harrisburg last week would have been perfectly appropriate for a church pulpit, or perhaps a tent revival meeting. But not for the podium in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
With all due respect to the spirit that may have moved the Clinton County Republican lawmaker to offer a fervent oration, its tone, content, sectarian fire, and florid repetition of the name of Jesus were gratuitously offensive to many in the chamber, and beyond. Borowicz apparently is a devout Christian — her husband is a pastor — but her incantation utterly ignored, and in essence appeared uncharitable toward her audience.
The swearing-in of recently elected Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, (D., Phila.) as a House member immediately followed the invocation. The first Muslim woman to take a seat in the chamber, Johnson-Harrell had many family members and friends on hand for the occasion. She later described what Borowicz said as “a political statement masked as a prayer,” “Islamophobic," and “xenophobic” as well. Gov. Tom Wolf pronounced it “horrifying.”
Prayer has rightly been banished from public schools for more than half a century, but in Pennsylvania’s statehouse and other houses of American government, the supposedly sacrosanct wall between church and state remains porous, sometimes with divisive results. Prayerful invocations, oaths sworn on the Bible (or in Rep. Johnson-Harrell’s case, the Koran), and references to God are common, if not routine. When the deity being referenced is rooted in Judeo-Christian belief, and presented as a sort of homogenized, even secularized spiritual entity, the moment usually passes with little fuss. It is, after all, a custom.
Customs change, however. Elected officials or even clergy who are given the privilege of offering an invocation at a secular public event no longer have the privilege of assuming their audience shares their faith tradition, or any faith tradition. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and practitioners of Native American or new-age spiritual rites are likely to be seated among the atheists, agnostics, Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Catholics who share the rows with evangelical and mainline Christians of many descriptions.
Borowicz probably didn’t intend it, but her over-the-top performance underscored the risk of enshrining religious expression at ceremonial occasions, and especially in public settings that are inherently political. Her mixing of allusions to Jesus with references to President Trump, surely among the least pious politicians imaginable, gave her invocation an unwelcome partisan cast.
Solemn public occasions deserve better, particular those financed by the taxpayers. A prayer is inherently a form of religious expression, so a moment of silence, rather than “silent prayer" or “moment of reflection,” to name two popular variables, would create space for believers and nonbelievers alike to participate in the camaraderie and community such occasions promise.