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    • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently asked the House Chaplain, Rev. Patrick Conroy, to resign, igniting a controversy.

      I'll be honest: until now, I didn't even know there was a House Chaplain.

      So I looked it up. Not only is there a House Chaplain, there's also a Senate Chaplain. Among other duties, the congressional chaplains open each session of the House and Senate with a prayer.

      In theory these positions are non-denominational, but in reality every chaplain so far has been from a denomination of Christianity. I have a hard time imagining Congress electing a Muslim chaplain, or an atheist chaplain.

      It seems strange to me that Congress, which is responsible for representing the interests of all Americans regardless of religious beliefs, has official positions for religious leaders that are, in practice, filled only by representatives of Christianity, and that those religious leaders perform ceremonial duties as part of every session of the two houses of Congress.

      What do you think?

    • Wow, I didn’t know this either. They have all been Christian but it’s interesting to see the list of guest chaplains. It’s a long list of reverends, cardinals, rabbis, imams (not many of those), Monsignors, etc. (funny how iOS capitalized two of those words but not the others).

    • Hmmm, you may have seen this but James Madison had some fascinating things to say around 1817 after his term as president:

      Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness, the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.

      The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.


    • There are plenty of examples of religion in government. The media have often followed Presidents to church now and again-recall Reverend Billy Graham was even an advisor to many. The California Senate even has a Chaplain.

      Personally, I don't have a problem with the idea.

    • According to the Washington Post, they've had a Seventh Day Adventist, when only 2 members of Congress were 7dA. In theory, then, you'd think Judaism would have a chance...but yeah, that'll be a wait, I'd say. As for atheist chaplains, apparently there aren't any in the armed forces yet (though I recall they had their first pagan one years ago), and armed forces chaplains are sometimes used as a precedent for this kind of chaplain.

      My feelings are mixed. When I think about just having a thoughtful, intelligent person, trained in this specific cross-religion activity of chaplaincy, available to lawmakers for discussions or counseling, that makes some sense to me. If you replaced them with a therapist, the therapist might not be able to discuss ethical questions with lawmakers freely if they thought it was non-therapeutic -- whereas chaplains are free to nettle or discomfit a congressperson. The WaPo article I linked first quotes a Catholic policy adviser saying “Chaplains should not make us comfortable. They should challenge us."

      But I am willing to bet VERY FEW if any politicians over the years have trundled to the chaplain to discuss the ethical underpinnings of their votes, or what they should do about X or Y policy. That's the sort of thing TV politicians do, not real ones. So all they're actually doing is opening the proceedings of our legislative branch with prayers. Which does feel wildly inappropriate in terms of the Grand Separation.

      I like ritual though, and I think beginning something serious benefits from a moment of ritual. Sometimes the place of prayer in the public life of the republic can be filled by poetry. Only Democrats have had inaugural poems thus far, but I think they're rather lovely. It might be a little whimsical as a way to open Congress, however. Maybe they could have someone dramatically read sections of the Constitution? But then some lector would read the Fifteenth Amendment and get booted for being too political.

    • But I am willing to bet VERY FEW if any politicians over the years have
      trundled to the chaplain to discuss the ethical underpinnings of their
      votes, or what they should do about X or Y policy.

      It would certainly be interesting to find the answer to this, but it's unlikely to be possible.

      I think Madison had it right, but mostly I think it doesn't make much difference in this case. Unlike, say, abortion or contraception policies--which may be influenced by religion--opening prayers in Congress just don't affect government's impact on people's lives. If they had a strict rotation to include all faiths (and an occasional poet), it would probably still have no impact.

      A strict separation of church and state seems like an idea worth defending, but one should be pragmatic about it. The Church of England is a state church, but it doesn't affect governance there, and religious freedom is unfettered. In the US, government policies for education, healthcare and civil rights are all being influenced by religious factions, which seems more worrisome than a ritual prayer in Congress. Best to choose one's battles.

    • > opening prayers in Congress just don't affect government's impact on people's lives.

      I don't agree with this. I agree it doesn't have a direct impact but it has a subtle subconscious context that does indirectly influence our representatives. It implies that religion plays a part in politics. Even though we don't have a national religion, Christianity has a strong pull on a lot the policies and laws that are put into place. Prayers in Congress just reinforces this.

    • If there are 435 members of Congress and 300 of them believe in some form of religion (or not), then by definition, religion plays a part in government.

    • I certainly agree that religion plays a part in politics, and hence, government. That's pretty obvious. But do you really think there would be the slightest change in legislation if Congress eliminated the opening prayer? What policies would change?

    • There would be no immediate change if Congress eliminated the opening prayer. But it does legitimize the bias of religion in politics. By eliminating the prayer the hope would be that over time this bias and influence would be minimized and/or eliminated.

    • eliminating a prayer won’t eliminate bias. That’s like suggesting desegregation will eliminate racism. Here we are 50 years later and racism isn’t dead yet.

    • Don't get me wrong, we've come a ways. But the thing is, eliminating one thing does not necessarily make another just go away.

    • I'm thinking "Christian" is capitalized because Christ is considered a proper noun (maybe?) Not sure about Monsignor.