“In the sense of deciding what religion is, or of deciding which is true or which is false — and which, therefore, is to be sustained and which put down — the American Government knows no religion. It is not for the government, therefore, to pay any one for offering prayer or reciting a creed. … If the government appoints a Protestant chaplain, is it a disobedience of orders for a Catholic to refuse to accept of his services? I see nothing but difficulty and the engendering of constant sectarian feuds and bad feeling, if the Federal Government touches anything that is religious.”
Those words, written by Presbyterian minister William Anderson Scott in his 1859 book, The Bible and Politics, could easily describe events in the U.S. House of Representatives, 2018. Indeed, significant “sectarian feuds and bad feeling” exploded when the resignation of the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the House for the last seven years, was demanded by Speaker Paul Ryan in late April. After all hell broke loose (speaking religio-politically), Ryan reinstated the chaplain on May 3, the same time Conroy rescinded his resignation. Apparently the honorable Speaker decided that getting rid of the Jesuit wasn’t worth the fight.
Reasons for the termination vary considerably, depending on which parochial party you belong to:
- Conroy’s supporters charged that the Speaker’s action was evidence of an anti-Catholic bias fostered by certain congressional Evangelicals.
- Conroy himself reported that one of Ryan’s aides informed him that it was simply time for a non-Catholic chaplain. (Conroy’s predecessor was also Catholic.)
- Conroy’s own lawyer — everybody in D.C. needs a lawyer these days — interpreted the action as clear evidence of religious discrimination. The Speaker’s office labeled such charges “absurd.” (Ryan is himself a Roman Catholic.)
- Some House members speculated that Conroy may have provoked the ire of certain Representatives because of a prayer he gave before the vote on the recent tax cut: “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all.” (Single sentence heresy?)
- Others wondered if Conroy’s earlier invitation to a Muslim cleric to offer a prayer might also have created interfaith difficulties for some House members.
- Speaker Ryan suggested that his initial action was a response to concerns of House members dissatisfied with the pastoral care provided by the priest.
- Representative Mark Walker (R-NC), an ordained Southern Baptist minister, voiced his belief that a House chaplain should be “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family [and] that has some counseling experience. …” As the controversy intensified, the Rev. Congressman Walker acknowledged that he would indeed accept a Catholic priest (celibacy and all) as chaplain.
- Gerald Connolly (D-VA) insisted the “real reason” for member complaints came from “the Christian right, evangelical right, [who] apparently weren’t comfortable with an urban Catholic Jesuit priest.” (Father, forgive the Evangelicals, for they know not what … ?”)
The House of Representatives has had a chaplain since 1789, each charged with opening the sessions with prayer. Chaplains also conduct funerals and weddings, and provide pastoral care for Representatives and their staff-members. The denominational history of the House chaplaincy clearly reflects Protestant hegemony, including: Baptist (7), Christian (1), Congregationalist (2), Disciples of Christ (1), Episcopalian (4), Lutheran (1), Methodist (16), Presbyterian (15), Roman Catholic (2), Unitarian (2), and Universalist (1). (Unitarian-Universalists chaplains outnumber Catholics!)
From the beginning of the Republic, not everyone approved of such an arrangement. James Madison declared that paying congressional chaplains from tax money was “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” For Madison, authentic religion began with the free choice of each individual. “Legal ecclesiastics” promoted, not genuine faith, but “tiresome formality.” Both Madison and Thomas Jefferson strongly resisted the enduring old world idea that “civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment.”
Events surrounding the dismissal and rehiring of “Father Pat” are more than a mere legislative kerfuffle. They provide important contemporary lessons in the enduring dynamics of church-state relations — old tensions, new twists. First, like the country, Congress is so divided that even the prayers of hired chaplains can be subject to political sanctions if they stray from “tiresome formality.” The Rev. Conroy reported that Speaker Ryan responded to his prayer at the tax cut vote by saying, “Padre, you just gotta stay out of politics.”
Second, Ryan’s comment suggests that as well-intended as Father Conroy or other congressional chaplains may be, the nature of their politicized position threatens to rob them of the very meaning of prayer itself. In a deeply divided Congress, even opening prayers must face a non-political correctness test, vulnerable to the disparate ideological and theological impulses of their governmentally-challenging audience.
This kind of “ceremonial prayer,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy called prayers at government functions (see Town of Greece v. Galloway, 2014), while apparently short on substance, fulfills a “religious moment” bound to popular tradition. Such ceremonial prayer isn’t much prayer at all. Real prayer flows from the heart and erupts from the gut, affirming and afflicting the conscience, imploring response of hearer and deity alike.
Third, Jesuit/Evangelical approaches to prayer, pastoral care, and family life are real but reconcilable, particularly if the Congress persists in maintaining a solo chaplain to invoke the Creator before they start tearing each other apart. What must be resisted, however, is a kind of neo-establishmentarianism — de facto privileging of one faith perspective over others — by which a majoritarian faith contingent claims dominance, censoring prayers according to a particular political or religious orthodoxy. We’ve got enough of that in American churches. We certainly don’t need it in Congress.
Here’s a thought: What if Congress hired a Chaplain for Pastoral Care who would see to the spiritual needs of the members and their staffs, but instead of hiring one lone Chaplain for Public Prayer, they threw open the Capitol doors to clergy (and laity) from across the religio-political spectrum, folks exercising their First Amendment freedom and their peculiar faith traditions to pray the way “they feel led.” Then the invited guests would go back home, and leave their prayers with God.