May 24 will be the last day on the job for the Rev. Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the House of Representatives. Recently the speaker, Paul Ryan, asked Conroy to resign; he complied.
Little takes place in Washington that isn’t political. And while Conroy doesn’t know why he was asked to resign, he suggests that it may have something to do with his session-opening prayer that asked lawmakers “to guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Conroy says that Ryan pulled him aside and said, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
All sorts of questions arise. Do First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech apply if your audience is a higher power? Does Conroy’s termination represent a clash between progressive Catholics like Conroy and Pope Francis and conservative Catholics like Ryan? Is the vacant chaplaincy an opportunity to replace a Catholic with an evangelical who represents a religious persuasion that has acquired some prominence by its support for Donald Trump?
Or maybe this unseemly episode provides an opportunity to ask this question: Does the House of Representatives really need a chaplain?
Besides certain pastoral duties, the chaplain’s most public role is organizing the prayer that opens House sessions.
This practice dates back to our republic’s founding, but it was controversial from the beginning. During the summer of 1787, the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia were struggling to reconcile the disparate interests of the big states and small states. Tensions and frustrations mounted in the heat. Benjamin Franklin, already 81 and well into his dotage, suggested that the members begin each session with a prayer for heavenly assistance.
The deists and skeptics among the delegates must have rolled their eyes. Ron Chernow’s recounting of this episode in “Hamilton” reports the legend that Alexander Hamilton resisted Franklin’s suggestion of a daily prayer for divine intervention by jesting that the convention did not need “foreign aid.”
But such was the respect for Franklin that his suggestion prevailed and — who knows? — maybe it helped, though the godly hand did not reach so far down into details of our Constitution that it was able to do something about slavery.
We’ve lived with this strange anomaly ever since: Although the founders clearly intended for our revolutionary new form of government to embody an entirely different relationship between church and state than prevailed in England, we have spent many millions in taxpayers’ dollars supporting chaplaincies in Congress.
In fact, the House chaplain makes $172,500 per year, and operating his office — the chaplain has always been a man — costs around $500,000.
But neither the House nor religion is well-served by the maintenance of a government-sponsored religious position.
Priests, prophets and preachers, unless they are merely insipid figureheads, are inherently political; they have things to say about society. In the old days they called out governments that had gone wrong — this is where we get the term “jeremiad.”
But when Rev. Conroy made a very Christian plea on behalf of those who will suffer under the new tax law, he lost his job.
Chaplains serve vital roles in many American institutions, but leading government-sponsored public prayers shouldn’t be among them. Jesus had some thoughts on public prayer: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues … But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
But since our putative Christian nation has a tendency to ignore the inconvenient sayings of Jesus, let’s give the last word to James Madison, who wrote: “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.”
Jesus and Madison seem to agree: Our nation would serve both government and religion better without a House chaplain.