Democratic state Rep. Ed Stafman arrived at the capitol building in Helena, Montana, on May 1, ready to give the invocation that customarily opens each day’s session. Stafman, who is also a rabbi, had chosen text from Isaiah 58, a Yom Kippur standby in which God says fasting only means something when you “let the oppressed go free…share your bread with the hungry [and] take the wretched poor into your home.”
But Stafman never got a chance to deliver that message. A fellow legislator told him that she didn’t know why but his invocation had been canceled and that a Christian legislator would give the invocation instead. “You could see in her face she was despondent,” Stafman said in an interview. “She seemed embarrassed having to deliver the news.”
Later in the session, Stafman raised a point of personal privilege and rose to speak. He noted the heavy Christian content he’d heard others give in previous invocations and charged that “the reason I was canceled is because I’m not Christian and was not offering Christian prayer.”
Stafman stared straight at the man who had ordered the last-minute switch, House Speaker Matt Regier, and said tartly, ‘’’Thank you, Mr. Speaker!” Regier said nothing, Stafman recalled. “I was never given a reason.”
Although the exact motive was never confirmed, outright antisemitism was certainly a possible explanation. But in a state with an evangelical governor and Republican legislative supermajorities entranced by Christian nationalism, the reality is more complex.
“These people would be appalled if you called them antisemitic,” Stafman said in reference to his Republican counterparts. In addition to Israel, they trumpet support for the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement (which maintains a presence in several cities throughout the state). Antisemitism or not, representatives of Montana’s small Jewish community of around 5,000 were quick to respond.
“We choose not to infer antisemitic intentions in denying Rabbi Stafman the chance to lead this prayer,” Rebecca Stanfel, director of the Montana Jewish Project, wrote in a letter to Regier on May 4. “But in this period of unprecedented antisemitism, even unintentional acts of exclusion can signal exactly that.”
Regier at first declined to respond. But eventually he wrote an op-ed in the Helena Independent-Record deploring antisemitism. Much of it, however, was devoted to how Republicans supported a measure opposing BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel while Democrats defeated it twice. Canceling Stafman’s invocation, Regier wrote, was nothing more than an effort to shuffle among all the state reps. He noted that Stafman had already given one invocation, soon after the session opened in January.
Rebecca Stanfel wrote in a second letter that Regier’s response left her “perplexed, troubled and—most of all—deeply saddened.”
Stafman believes he may have incurred the wrath of Regier and other state house Freedom Caucus members by introducing a measure allowing women with “sincerely held religious tenets” to obtain exemptions from state anti-abortion laws. Opponent activists and legislators said the bill would sanction Satanism and child sacrifice. To Stafman, the slurs were eerily similar to language that appeared on leaflets distributed around the same time in his district in Bozeman. They bore the markings of the National Socialist Movement, an overtly Nazi organization, and cited Christian Bible verses from John and Revelations, telling Jews, “You belong to your father, the devil,” and referring to “the synagogue of Satan.”
Stafman, 69, had been a lawyer in Florida specializing in death-penalty defense and civil rights. In the 2000 presidential election, he was on the Florida legal team representing Democratic candidate Al Gore against the ultimate victor, President George H.W. Bush. He undertook a mid-life career change and became a rabbi. Ordained by the Jewish Renewal Movement, he was hired by Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman in 2008. He took emeritus status in 2018 and in 2020 won a seat in the state house as a Democrat. He was re-elected in 2022.
Stafman believes that ultimately Regier and Republicans singled him out not because he’s a Jew, but rather because he’s the wrong kind of Jew in their eyes.
“Jews who are excluded tend to be progressive Jews,” Stafman says. “Call it what you want.” He adds: “I have close Christian friends who are appalled by this. (Regier and other Republicans) hijacked the Christian label and turned it into something else.”
The cancellation unfolded in the shadow of a much larger news story: Regier’s effort to silence Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Democrat. In a debate over an ultimately adopted legislative ban on gender-affirming care for minors (including puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy), Zephyr said Republican legislators would see “blood on their hands.” Regier and Republicans banned Zephyr from the House floor for violation of decorum rules. The removal made national news and gave Zephyr a spotlight for advocacy.
Unlike its solid-red neighbors Wyoming and Idaho, Montana was until recently a purple state. Its progressive tradition in part springs from labor organizing among the state’s copper and silver miners in the 20th century. As recently as 2014, Montana had a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators.
Although their numbers were always small, Jews gravitated to Montana in the 19th and early 20th centuries as financiers and suppliers of equipment and clothing for mining. Jews were also mayors and state legislators. In the 1890s, the merchant communities built synagogues in Helena and Butte. Last year, Stanfel led the Montana Jewish Project’s successful effort to reacquire Temple Emanu-El in Helena, 87 years after the Jewish community sold it to the state of Montana for $1.
But Montana also has a long history of harboring vocal white supremacist and antisemitic groups. For 2022, the ADL’s HEAT (hate, extremism, antisemitism, terrorism) map recorded 65 antisemitic and white-supremacist incidents—a significant number in a state of 1.1 million people. (That’s 5.9 incidents per 100,000 residents, compared to neighboring Idaho with 4.3, and more populous western states such as Washington with 3.1, Texas with 2.5, and California with 2.1.) In many respects, hate groups are the analog of Christian nationalism, which Paul Miller of Georgetown University defines as “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”
Along with his father Keith (a state senator) and sister Amy (also a state representative), Matt Regier has invoked his brand of Christianity as part of a broad effort to curtail abortion, deny LGBTQ rights and ban drag story hours on public property, including schools and libraries. Keith Regier has indicated that he uses the Bible as a legislative guide. “Legislation with a biblical foundation will serve Montana well.”
The Regiers represent districts in and around western Montana’s rugged Flathead Valley, which has turned into a ground zero for the building of the Christian-only “American Redoubt”— described as a relocation strategy to concentrate white Christians in western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Firms with names like “Black Rifle Real Estate” and “Survival Realty” cater to far-right survivalists who believe the mountainous region is an easily defended safe haven for a time when the rest of society collapses.
There is no evidence that the Regiers or other legislators have been involved in hate-group activity. But the coalescence around social issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and drag shows is hard to ignore. “Those running for legislative office may feel they have to appeal to the hate-group side,” says Bishop Laurie Jungling of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Montana Synod), who expressed dismay over the cancellation of Stafman’s invocation. “There are individuals in the legislature who may not be card-carrying members but are influenced by these groups. I just can’t believe otherwise, given what they’re doing legislatively.”
Opening picture: Rep Stafman with his dog. (Photo credit: Ed Stafman for Montana)