Spiritual Squabbles in Statehouses - Word&Way

Spiritual Squabbles in Statehouses

Last week, three Republican state legislators in Arizona filed an ethics complaint against Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton for repeatedly moving and hiding a pair of Bibles owned by the Arizona House for the members’ lounge. They accused her of taking actions that “may have caused offense to the practicing Christians in Arizona, who hold the Bible as a sacred text.” But what the complaint doesn’t highlight is that Stahl Hamilton is a Presbyterian minister.

Stahl Hamilton previously apologized for her “ill-advised prank” as she put the Bibles under couch cushions and in the refrigerator (because biblical revenge is a dish best served cold). She explained she moved the government Bibles as a “peaceful protest regarding the separation of church and state, and in response to the weaponizing of religion in politics.” And she insisted she didn’t mean to disrespect Christianity and should have instead started a conversation with leadership about the Bibles (the only official religious texts in the lounge).

“I hold Scripture very dear to my heart. It is what guides me,” she said from the House floor. “I have the utmost respect for people of all faiths and for those who choose not to have a faith. And because of that respect, I recognize that my actions could have been seen something as less than playful — and offensive. And for those of you who I have deeply offended, I apologize.”

Stahl Hamilton was only caught after the GOP Speaker of the House had a security camera installed in the members’ lounge and then publicly released the footage — an act that sparked complaints from Democrats and Republicans who found it troubling that a private space had been recorded despite an expectation of privacy there. Some lawmakers also asked why the footage was sent to the media instead of just being used to confront Stahl Hamilton. Now that the Bibles are safe, the cameras have been removed (at least that’s what the peeping Speaker says).

But unsatisfied by her apology, three members filed the ethics complaint to attack Stahl Hamilton for concealing “House property” in ways that were “disrespectful in the extreme” and that “scandalizes the community and is offensive to the public sense of morality.” That’s quite a claim, but I guess we should expect such rhetoric considering one of the Republicans is literally the representative from Snowflake.

But the lawmakers haven’t just filed a complaint. One of the representatives, who is a Pentecostal pastor, gave the morning legislative prayer after the release of the security footage of Stahl Hamilton. Before he started talking to God, Rep. Lupe Diaz gave a mini-sermon during an official session of the Arizona House of Representatives about how the Bible is “God’s love letter to humanity.”

Screengrab as lawmakers bow their heads during a prayer by Rep. Lupe Diaz in the Arizona House of Representatives in Phoenix on April 26, 2023.

Adding to the theatrics of the moment, several of his colleagues stood around him to nod their heads, mouth “amen,” and cross themselves. As he read multiple verses and spoke at his desk with a Christian flag on it, Diaz added about the Bible: “Tyrants have attempted to eliminate it, burn it, bury it, hide it, and keep it from people.” (It’s very tragic the persecuted pastor didn’t have access to a Bible after Stahl Hamilton hid the government copies.)

As the pastor-representative kept preaching during his prayer, he said the Bible teaches “we are a blessed nation when we follow his words.” In line with that prayer, the main image on his campaign website is a cross on top of an American flag. There he explained he filed the ethics complaint because he believes the Bible is “the document that our very Constitution is founded on.” With a Christian Nationalistic ideology, he not only disagrees with Stahl Hamilton’s actions, but he also sees no problem with the Bible being given an official, privileged status inside the Capitol.

While the incident might seem like just an odd moment in politics, there seems embedded in it a tension that’s popping up in state legislatures across the country. As our nation becomes more religiously diverse, some are pushing Christian Nationalistic agendas to hold onto a privileged status.

But this doesn’t merely result in legislative efforts like pushing Bible classes, “In God We Trust,” or the Ten Commandments in public schools. It also creates interpersonal struggles among lawmakers. So this issue of A Public Witness looks at other recent faith squabbles in statehouses and how this could impact legislative efforts in a Capitol near you.

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