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Doug Mastriano and some Pa. GOP leaders think Christianity and government should be linked

Mastriano, a state appellate judge, and other figures used a rally about William Penn this summer to express Christian Nationalist views

  • Sam Dunklau
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the 2022 Republican candidate for governor, addresses a crowd gathered for a rally celebrating William Penn in the state Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

 Sam Dunklau / WITF

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the 2022 Republican candidate for governor, addresses a crowd gathered for a rally celebrating William Penn in the state Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

As state budget talks went into overtime last month, a dozen or so Republican lawmakers gathered in front of a seated crowd in the state Capitol rotunda. They spoke about Pennsylvania’s founding father, William Penn, and signed a proclamation celebrating his legacy. 

They talked about how religion influenced the 17th-century Quaker – and that they believe he wanted Christianity and government to mix. People like state Sen. Cris Dush (R-Cameron) referenced the Pennsylvania Great Law, Penn’s frame of government written in 1682.

“It shows clearly that Penn intended to carry his religion into his government and to give the greatest possible measure of freedom to the people,” Dush said.

Each time the point was raised, the crowd of about a hundred applauded. 

They cheered the loudest when state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) got up to speak. As the GOP’s candidate for governor, Mastriano has melded his religious beliefs into his campaign messaging.

Sam Dunklau / WITF

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the 2022 Republican candidate for governor, waves to members of a crowd gathered for a rally celebrating William Penn in the state Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

He underscored the connection as he spoke. Mastriano said he sees parallels between Penn’s life and his own, claiming both have been persecuted for their faith. 

“William Penn landed in jail many times for his faith. He was mocked in the media, ridiculed, castigated, as we’re seeing today,” Mastriano said.

Penn was arrested and acquitted in 1670 for preaching about Quakerism in a London street. Many in the English government looked down on Quakers at the time, believing their tenets violated social norms. 

Mastriano has never been arrested or jailed – but his amplification of false claims about the 2020 election and his movement past police lines during the January 6th attack have come under scrutiny.

Mastriano then weaved in his campaign slogan “Walk as Free People,” as he criticized media outlets for “castigating” his supporters’ belief system. He offered no evidence for his claim.

“They give us adjectives that are not fitting for people who are just living as they see fit. They want to walk as free men and women. That was William Penn’s dream,” he said.

The state senator did not take questions from reporters following the event and has not responded to a separate request for comment. 

A growing number of Republican lawmakers across the country are calling for Christianity to be explicitly intertwined with government affairs. One went so far as saying the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state shouldn’t exist. 

In Pennsylvania, the idea that religion should be part of governing has caught on with people beyond Republican lawmakers. Mastriano, Dush and the others were joined at last month’s rally by a sitting Commonwealth Court Judge, Patricia McCullough.

Senate Republican Communications Office / via

This screenshot shows Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough delivering a speech at a rally honoring William Penn at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

She talked with the crowd about Sir William Blackstone, an 18th-century English jurist who’s still cited by U.S. Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas in cases. 

Blackstone was a controversial figure in his time. As a member of the British Parliament, he supported things like the Stamp Act, which drew condemnation from people like Thomas Jefferson. 

McCullough, formerly the head of Catholic Charities in the Pittsburgh diocese, summarized Blackstone’s legal theory:

“Blackstone taught that all law is based on the natural law, and the natural law is based on the divine law of God, and that any law that doesn’t comport with those laws is not a valid law,” McCullough said before leading the crowd in prayer. 

Messiah University Professor of History John Fea has been studying the larger political movement at play: Christian Nationalism. The movement, defined as the belief that America is defined by Christianty and that the government should keep it that way, has gained prominence in recent years. Scholars say it’s been around for a while. 

Fea said Mastriano and other speakers used talking points from that movement.

“They believe that America is somehow sliding away from its Christian roots, its Christian founding, as they understand it,” Fea said.

Many of America’s Founding Fathers were actually deists, who believe they experience God through nature – rather than just religion. Fea said Christian Nationalism doesn’t always account for that.

“It’s built upon a faulty view of American history,” he said. “They tend to ignore how the country has changed over the course of 250 years.”

Using figures like William Penn to back up that political platform creates what Fea calls a “usable history.”

“If you can get the founding on your side…you can move the political dial in the direction you want to move it,” Fea said, “because you can show people that we’ve gone astray as a nation in some ways.” 

Near the end of his talk that day in July, Mastriano imagined what Penn would think if he were alive today.

“I think William Penn would be proud of what’s become of our country in many ways, but we have a long way to go, and we’ve lost our way in so many areas in our country,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking that we’ve fallen so low in so many areas.”

Sam Dunklau / WITF

A crowd listens as speakers deliver talks on William Penn at a rally honoring the founder of Pennsylvania in the state Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

But the joining of religion and governance can lead to potential conflicts of interest. That an appellate-level judge spoke at an event loaded with political pronouncements struck legal ethics experts as unusual. 

Temple University Professor Emerita Eleanor Myers said Commonwealth Court Judge McCullough’s presence raises questions about whether she could rule fairly in any cases involving religion.

“The rules require that you be impartial and that you act with fairness toward all parties,” Myers said.

Rule 3-7 of Pennsylvania’s Code of Judicial Conduct says judges have a right to their religious beliefs and can talk about them. McCullough did just that by praying “in the name of Jesus Christ” at the end of her speech last month.

But the rule warns that any activity like that should not “detract” or “interfere” with judicial duties. That’s why, when judges like McCullough speak publicly, they have to consider the context.

“By inviting a statewide political candidate, who clearly was going to and was permitted to deliver purely political speech, that should have potentially given the judge pause,” said lawyer Robert Tintner, who helps handle ethical questions for the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Professional Guidance Committee.

Both Tintner and Myers said there’s a small chance McCullough’s future cases could be affected by the speech.

“If I were Jewish, which I am, if I were Muslim, if I were areligious, and there were a matter to come before the Court that involved those things, I would be concerned about whether or not she could be fair,” Myers said.

“I think there are people that would assume that she was reinforcing certain political positions.”

Sam Dunklau / WITF

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough leads a crowd in Christian prayer at a rally celebrating William Penn at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on July 1, 2022.

Since religion did influence William Penn, experts said it was appropriate to talk about that at the Capitol event. Fea said like a lot of Founding Fathers, Penn did express his belief in God in much of his writing.

But there’s a caveat.

“These founders lived in an 18th-century world where Christianity was the only game in town. Some of them were thinking well ahead to when this country would be more religiously diverse perhaps,” Fea said.

Penn himself made it a law in the 1701 Charter of Privileges that only those “who profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World” could serve in government. But he also wrote that no Pennsylvanian would be punished for practicing their “conscientious Persuasion or Practice,” which was unusual at the time. 

Fea notes that rule applied even to those who weren’t Christian. 


“What would William Penn think about a candidate trying to promote a Christian nation?” Fea asked, pointing to Mastriano. 

“He would, I think, clearly reject that because it would violate the religious liberties and the liberty of conscience, as Penn put it, of all people.”

Mastriano in particular has set the standard for Republican candidates this fall, and religion is a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. He’s repeatedly talked about it at appearances and in social media videos.

As recently as last weekend, he told voters that in Pennsylvania, anyone can “believe whatever they want.” But his campaign slogan, rooted in a Bible verse, speaks directly to those who share his beliefs.

Mastriano’s primary night victory party featured an Evangelical Christian worship service. In a speech that night, the GOP hopeful told supporters that God “chooses people like you and me to change history.”

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