Performative Religion Versus The Real Thing

Calling something “performative” is a nicer way of identifying what’s phony–of calling out the posturing of politicians pretending to care about governing, and especially “Christians” pretending they are acting out of genuine faith.

I recently encountered two unrelated examples of that calling out. The first was an editorial from Religion News Service, referencing the just-argued Supreme Court case of the football coach who insisted on praying on the 50-yard line.

That coach, Joe Kennedy (absolutely NO relation!), sued a school district in Washington state after it prohibited him from leading public prayers immediately following games. The editorial didn’t focus on the constitutional argument; instead, the author pointed out that  genuine believers are ill-served by public expressions in secular settings.

This — more than any legal reasoning — is the judgment believers are called on to make. In the exercise of liberty, we can recall the words of St. Paul: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” 

Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.

The essayist pointed to scriptural evidence that “Christ himself not only does not require showy, potentially coercive public prayers — he teaches against them.” Kennedy’s prayers, he notes, “may have provided psychological uplift to him, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.” And he worries that “emboldened conservative justices” will “open the door to more nominal, cultural Christianity. It seems that in the era of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all so-called conservative Christians really want.”

Research by political scientists and religion scholars alike has documented the use of precisely that “cultural Christianity” by White Christian Nationalists intent upon retaining their status as the “real Americans.” Their panic about “replacement” and loss of cultural hegemony is producing ugly accusations of “grooming” by LGBTQ citizens, and other despicable charges defended as protected expressions of religious piety.

Which brings me to the really excellent example of how genuinely religious people can and should respond.

Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow describes herself as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” She had been accused by a GOP colleague of being a “groomer,” the latest right-wing slander against anyone who supports the rights of LGBTQ children. Rather than ignoring the accusation, or walking back her support, she grounded her position in her own faith.

  “I want every child to feel seen, heard, and supported,” she said, “not marginalized and targeted if they are not straight, white, and Christian.”

As the author of the linked article pointed out, 

To understand the power of McMorrow’s words, you have to understand that “straight, White and Christian” is the default cultural and political setting in this country. Throw in “male” and you’d have the top of this pyramid. Just ask Tucker Carlson.
When you’re none, or not all, of those identities, you’re made to feel it. Your intellect, dignity and value are called into question. Demagogues gin up fear of you for electoral gain. Your very life becomes a political piñata whacked around by people who don’t have to live with the consequences of what they have wrought. Look at the anti-trans legislation littering the land or the “don’t say gay” law in Florida.

Activists who aren’t “straight, white and Christian” have pushed back against bigotry for many generations, and they have secured hard-won advances. But especially in this new front in the United States’ oldest culture war, those voices could use some backup. Enter McMorrow. …

The author makes an important point: McMorrow’s response should be a “blueprint for Democrats who are accustomed to cowering in fear of Republican culture war attacks.”

Too many national Democrats are letting the incipient “groomer” charges go unchallenged or are assuming they’re too ridiculous to gain traction. They’re ridiculous, yes — but that doesn’t mean they can’t gain traction. (Have you seen today’s Republican Party?)

I am not religious, and I have frequently expressed contempt for self-identified “religious” figures who are intent upon imposing their purported beliefs on others. Like Coach Kennedy, their public expressions of piety are purely performative. That said, I have great respect for people who  genuinely look to their religious traditions for lessons on what constitutes moral and ethical behavior, and for guidance on how they should treat their fellow humans.

There was a saying “back in the day” to the effect that the religious right is neither. We need more people like Mallory McMorrow, who are positioned to illustrate what the real thing looks like.


  1. And now we get to see what happens when the god squad removes Americas right to reproductive freedom. 70% of America is going to be pissed …but then what? This will likely get very ugly very soon. Hang on – here we go again.

  2. My one thought: Christian evangelism IS cancel culture. Period.

  3. Im going to be like Bill Maher here, “ if someone is white, a Christian and believes in his country vs believing like george soros does in destroying nationalism because thats what Hitler used, does that ultimately make them Hitlarian or evil. My stepfather was an elder in our church, white male who believed in freedom for all and at the age of 18 dropped bombs on Germany. Does that make him evil? Does his belief system of live tolerance but willing to go the distance to eradicate evil, is that all bad?
    From here we can start the discussion, if not there is no humility on either side to hold a discussion.
    The points made by the author sre correct in many ways. But are we looking at the heart of the individual and applying the constitution to make sure he is not bending the rules. Supreme court justices ultimately argue and you can hear their argument on either side some shifting away from what is correct. Those on the left immediately questioning his goal of being there and those on the right seemingly trying to dismiss hos intentions. Ultimately we can hope there is again a middle ground where we can freely express without being censored, because you never know the intentions of those censoring mayblead to ghe demise of s free coyntry

  4. I also have a problem with saying one nation “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and having “In God We Trust” on our paper money.

  5. Patrick – Your comment may come in very handy when in conversation with those pseudo Christians.

  6. The descriptive term “performative” applies to almost everything in the USA today. So what isn’t fake or phony?

    Finding authenticity is rare in this world. Canceling “fakeness” should keep everyone busy while our faux leaders get closer and closer to a nuclear war. Maybe climate change won’t kill off the world’s population after all.

    It does make you wonder. What is the sense of having a super-yacht when all the Earth is scorched?

    Will Musk and Bezos escape to the moon with a handful of their cronies before the detonation of the nuclear warheads? Will, there be an auction, or will it be a blind draw?

    The ludicrous has become the norm.

  7. “Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.”

    As Sheila; I am not religious but am aware of Bible quotes heard through my many years, used to point-prove. One that is often (mis)quoted and (out of context) is Matthew 6:6: “…go into your closet to pray and shut the door…”. I keep my Bible and a copy of the Constitution of the United States of America next to my computer for reference. “Performance Religion…” reference can be found in Matthew 6:5: “And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are, for they love standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they shall be seen. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.” “…The Real Thing” can be found in Matthew 6:6 regarding going into your closet and shut the door to pray. Trump’s appointees and the GOP are reaping their reward while 70% of Americans will lose their right regarding women’s health care.

    This morning we are being inundated with the feared but expected action by the Supreme Court of the United States; their “synagogue” being their public rendering by the Supreme Court of their political decision of the GOP to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Both Kavanaugh and Amy Whatsername were asked during their Senate hearings if they would vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade and both stated they would NOT vote to overturn a standing Supreme Court decision…but here we are. “Performance Religion” winning out over “The Real Thing”. The two newest members of the GOP “God Squad” proving themselves to be liars; exactly what we expected when we witnessed their lies spoken under oath.

    The Coach Kennedy situation “…genuine believers are ill-served by public expressions in secular settings.” is an excellent example of the Bible’s many confused sermonizing quotes. Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” What happened to “…go into your closet and shut the door to pray”? “The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.”

  8. The Supremes gave religion a victory when they told Boston that the city violated the rights of a man who asked to fly his “Christian” flag on the flagpole outside of city hall. This is the most dangerous SCOTUS in our country’s history. Thank you Mitch McConnell.

  9. History shows that religiously-based civic decisions served NO ONE except those churches run by ideologues. Nothing has changed because religion is just organized fantasy developed to collect power and money to its operators. See Joel Osteen’s billion dollar empire for a prime example.

    Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University has expelled students for reporting rape on campus. There’s no religion there. It’s ALL performative. The New Life Church in Colorado Springs continues to destroy young minds with fear, guilt and total obedience to the father figure. One of my former students belonged to that church, but when the head minister came out as a gay cocaine dealer, she snapped out of it. (“Saving the Seed Corn…” by Vern Turner on and

    This batch of SCOTUS right-wingers are the absolute worst group in our history – with regard to the preservation of liberty and the Constitution and the rule of law.

  10. Gosh…gulp…agreeing with Todd today. Maybe because I am well into the magic 1984 book by Neil Postman, “Entertaining Ourselves to Death”. EVERYTHING is performance – sports, politics, religion, etc. the shining and re-shining of objects. Thousands of people huddled in the basement of a factory waiting to die – boring.

  11. OMG – from the Guardian this morning, “performance” NYC “Style”. Need more evidence of “ME performance”?

    “Politics – personal, contemporary and historic – were close to the surface on New York’s Upper East Side on Monday night as 600 guests, invited to celebrate America’s Gilded Age at the Met Gala, offered their own interpretation of style and the multitude of meanings dress carries, then as now.

    The singer Alicia Keys wore a cape celebrating New York union history. New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, who had said he’d been “dying to go” to the fundraiser “for years”, arrived on the red carpet wearing a jacket with decorative forearms and lapels that paid homage to the city’s transit system. The back of his coat read “End Gun Violence” in red lettering.

    The former secretary of state Hillary Clinton came in a dress inspired by friendship quilts inscribed with the names, she explained, of “gutsy women” of the 19th and 20th century liberation movements.

    Politics at the event returned again when Kim Kardashian appeared on the red carpet in the iconic dress Marilyn Monroe wore to coo Happy Birthday to President Kennedy in 1962.”

    “The Former” must be smiling big….

  12. The most powerful aspect of any species is diversity. Without it all individuals would succumb to every existential threat.

    We just went through a pandemic that only killed some of us. If we were all the same it would have either killed all of us (extinction) or none of us (not be a pandemic at all).

    Diversity = survival and the opportunity to enhance capabilities for the next challenge.

    It should be celebrated not discouraged.

    That’s the rationale for freedom of speech and religion.

  13. In re the latest outrage perpetrated by the Trump-McConnell court > Codification of Roe will not be enough to safely reinstate Roe; we must also add four justices to a court which has abandoned stare decisis since any such legislative codifications will be subject to judicial scrutiny and we need to blunt both branches of government from herding us back to the cave.

    As to today’s topic> We have always had religiouos phonies among our number, but we have never had better means of communicating such phoniness to the gullible and profiting therefrom. We now have TV preachers who live in mansions and have jet planes at their disposal – hardly descriptive of the young Jewish philosopher and his ragged band of followers who roamed Palestine a couple of thousand years ago. Our Founders tried to fix the problem of church and state with the First Amendment, but subsequent performers weren’t having it. Result? Churches don’t pay taxes, can fly Christian flags over gummint property in Boston etc.

    Perhaps, speaking of stare decisis, the addition of four new justices to the SCOTUS can correct such admixture of church and state along the lines our Founders intended.

  14. Why do we continue to give lip service to the “positives” of religion? Why do we feel the need to show respect for something that deserves no respect?

    I find myself doing that, and guess what? That is performative.

    Religion is a mind virus, a curse on humanity, and must be defeated.

  15. Nancy,
    Under God came from Ike and in God we trust was first used in 1800’s around the Civil War…..personally I would be rid of both

  16. I would like to congratulate JoAnn Green, who commented above (8:01 a.m.).

    She says she is not religious, but she understands the gospels better than most people who claim to be evangelical Christians. Maybe because she has actually read the gospels.

  17. There is a difference in religion and spirituality. Most wars have been fought because of religion.

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