“May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
About a week after House of Representatives’ Jesuit Chaplain Rev. Patrick Conroy invoked this prayer in advance of the Congressional vote on the Republican tax plan, Conroy was approached by a member of Speaker Paul Ryan’s office.
“A staffer came down and said, ‘We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political’,” related Conroy. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer.”
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Soon afterward, when he saw Ryan, Father Conroy said the speaker told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
Early this month, Ryan fired the Chaplain. As Conroy wrote in an April 15 letter to Ryan: “As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.”
While several Representatives on both sides of the isle criticized Ryan for firing Father Conroy for purely political policy reasons, the House Speaker told the House Republican Conference that he took this action because several members felt their “pastoral needs” were not being met.
He argued that politics was not the deciding factor in Conroy’s firing, but rather, it was “based on member feedback about pastoral care.”
The question should not revolve around why Ryan fired the House Chaplain, but rather, why the U.S. Congress installs religious chaplains to invoke prayers in a public institution that is intended to serve and represent all the people and financed at taxpayers’ expense?
Why does the U.S. Congress install religious chaplains in a country that allegedly separates religion from government – so-called “church and state”?
The chaplains in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives open each session with a prayer, they coordinate religious programs, preside over funerals and memorial services, and provide pastoral care for members of Congress, their staffs, and their families.
They are hired by majority vote of the members in each chamber. Though they serve as individuals and are not meant to represent any specific religious denomination, to date, all elected chaplains come from Christian traditions, though on occasion, guest chaplains from other religions are invited to give invocations.
One of the initial actions taken by the first U.S. Senate in 1789 was to select the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, Episcopal Bishop of New York to serve as the first Senate Chaplain. The first Chaplain elected in the House of Representative was William Linn on May 1, 1789.
The tradition of opening each day’s sessions with a chaplain’s prayer was established by Rev. Jacob Duche who led the first opening prayer at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 7, 1774.
Regarding Senate guest chaplains, James Kirkland became the first African-American to open the Senate with prayer in 1965, Wilmina Rowland became the first woman to do so in 1971. Wallace Mohammed was the first Muslim in 1992, and Rajan Zed was the first Hindu to say the opening prayer for the Senate in 2007. In 2014, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, became the first Buddhist to lead the Senate in prayer.
Congress justifies as its Constitutional right the hiring of religious chaplains by invoking Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5: “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers.”
One of the founders and framers of the United States Constitution, James Madison, if he were alive today, would dispute Congress’ interpretation by arguing against the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress, which he did in his “Detached Memoranda,” circa 1817:
“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes….The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles….”
Madison anticipated arguments like Paul Ryan’s stated excuse in firing Father Patrick Conroy for not meeting the pastoral needs of House members.
“If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents should discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expense,” wrote Madison. “Why should the expense of a religious worship be allowed for the Legislature, be paid by the public….”
Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America.
He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating religion and government, where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially-sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger.
While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of their political institutions since he observed the enormous influence churches had on the political process.
Rather than twisting themselves into virtual pretzels in attempting to justify the imposition of Christianity upon the U.S. population, its institutions, its currency, and its public proceedings such as Presidential inaugurals and other official events, government officials should acknowledge openly and honestly the actual text they obediently follow:
And Jesus said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20)