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The House chaplain controversy splits conservatives by religion

The House chaplain controversy splits conservatives by religion

The firing of a Jesuit priest as the House of Representative’s chaplain has touched off an only-in-Washington controversy. House Speaker Paul Ryan fired Rev. Patrick Conroy, apparently for offering a prayer last year in which he called for fairness in pending tax legislation. (Based on the legislation that passed, God didn’t heed his prayer.)

Setting aside the politics (and the question of whether the House should even have a chaplain), the controversy has exposed friction between conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics in the Congress. The rift was quickly exposed Rep. Mark Walker, one of the Republicans on the committee to find Conroy’s replacement, essentially said a Catholic priest isn’t suited for the job.

“I’m looking for 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 … that has some counseling experience … because what’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here,” Walker said. 

In other words, a Catholic priest, who has neither wife or children, isn’t qualified.

Walker, a Southern Baptist minister and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, stopped short of suggesting that Conroy was pimping for the Whore of Babylon. But his comments leave little doubt that, when it comes to religion, he sees a Protestant minister (male only, please) as the only real option. And probably not an Episcopalian either.

The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals has always been a little uneasy. For one thing, the Catholic hierarchy, the group that joined forces with the religious right, doesn’t speak for its followers. No where is that truer than marriage equality, where the bishops where among the loudest voices of opposition and Catholics as a group are slightly more in favor of it than the general public.

For another, as much as the Catholic Church joined forces with the religious right on social issues, it also holds a number of positions that won’t gladden the hearts of conservatives.

The bishops have been adamantly opposed to the Trump administration’s attack on immigrants, even filing a brief in opposition to the Muslim ban before the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was “blatant discrimination.”

As for the tax bill that Conroy believes led to his firing, the bishops were even more adamant that the chaplain was in his prayer. They said that the Congressional legislation “raise taxes on the poor and cut taxes on the rich, violating basic principles of justice.”

The Catholic Church’s positions on issues outside the culture wars doesn’t get much attention. But the Church straddles the political spectrum. That’s why there’s a sizeable number of liberal House members who are Catholic (starting with Nancy Pelosi). They are emphasizing one part of Church teaching, even if they disagree with other parts.

That’s why conservative evangelicals in Congress would have reason to be wary of a Catholic chaplain from a political point of view. (There are also some pretty virulent attacks on Catholicism among some evangelical leaders from a theological perspective.)

The Vatican fed that concern last year by condemning the alliance between hard-line Catholics and the religious right. An article in a Vatican magazine, which was apparently approved by Pope Francis, warned that the worldview of the two groups was “not too far apart from jihadists” because they wished to replace secularism with a “theocratic type of state.”

Of course, Paul Ryan is Catholic as well. But he’s also been influenced by the philosopher Ayn Rand, who glorified the wealthy as deserving winners having to beat back undeserving takers. She celebrated selfishness.

In short, not exactly the Catholic Church’s position.

Rep. Walker’s comments are a signal that religion for him is of a particular type. That’s fine. What’s not is the idea that religion is of that type for everyone.

As the religious right feels its power increasing in the era of Trump, its definition of Christianity is increasingly indistinguishable from Trumpism. It’s as much politics as faith. Where Catholics fit in that equation may not be exactly where they thought.

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