Chaplain's dismissal stirs debate

Posted: May 5, 2018 at 2:43 a.m.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) dismissed the Rev. Patrick Conroy last month as chaplain of the chamber, a decision that has ignited a faith and politics debate.

Conroy, who was reinstated by Ryan on Thursday after the chaplain sent him a letter rescinding his forced resignation, is supposed to arrange the opening prayer when the House is in session and offer a pastoral role to all members.

As the first Jesuit and second Catholic chaplain of the House, Conroy has filled a role that dates to the Revolutionary War.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress sanctioned the role of military chaplains, and it chose Anglican minister Jacob Duche to be its first chaplain in 1774. The Founders debated how to pick someone among the different denominations represented, but they ultimately decided that the main question was whether the person supported the American Revolution.

Duche's prayers were politicized, said Spencer McBride, author of Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America. But as long as the clergyman was criticizing Great Britain, McBride said, it was considered OK. But then Duche resigned his role and switched sides to favoring Britain. He wrote a famous letter to George Washington urging him to give up the fight and was exiled to Britain.

"We see this tradition where Americans don't mind if clergymen speak on politics, so long as they agree," McBride said. The Continental Congress then appointed two chaplains -- a Presbyterian and an Anglican -- with the goal of not showing favoritism.

Why did they decide to open congressional sessions with prayer? In 1787, Benjamin Franklin proposed prayer as a way of encouraging discourse during the Constitutional Convention, citing how it helped during the American Revolution.

Initially, McBride said, the role was focused on ensuring a daily prayer before session. Later, the role of counselor was added so members of Congress could meet with the chaplain over personal matters. But the chaplain was never intended to be involved in day-to-day legislative efforts.

"It's about signaling that Congress had the backing of God, or they were trying to act with the interests of God in mind," McBride said.

In a 1983 decision the Supreme Court upheld the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer offered by a paid chaplain. The case, Marsh vs. Chambers, involved a Nebraska lawmaker who had challenged the state legislature's chaplaincy practice. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court cited history and tradition in determining that the chaplain did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

In 2014, the Supreme Court determined in Town of Greece v. Galloway that town boards can begin sessions with prayer.

A debate began nearly 20 years ago over whether the House should elect a Catholic priest or a Presbyterian minister as chaplain. In 2000, then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appointed the Rev. Daniel Coughlin of Chicago, the first Catholic priest to become chaplain. (The Rev. Charles Constantine Pise became the first (and, to date, only) Catholic chaplain of the Senate in 1832.)

In 2011, Conroy, who was teaching at a Jesuit school in Portland, Ore., was nominated to the chaplaincy by then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and was elected by the House in 2011.

Chaplains serve in all kinds of places, including in the military, universities, hospitals, prisons and corporations. The position of chaplain differs from the usual role of a religious leader in that the chaplain does not necessarily lead a group of worshippers who follow the same tradition.

The chaplain's denomination is not necessarily intended to reflect the majority of the members of Congress, said Ronit Stahl, author of Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. For instance, the Rev. Barry Black, who was elected to the Senate chaplaincy in 2003, was the first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position.

"The question isn't about, does the Senate have a lot of Seventh-day Adventists? That's not the issue," Stahl said. "The role itself demands someone who wants to, seeks to work with anyone and everyone."

Rep. Mark Walker, (R-N.C.), one of the leaders of the committee searching for Conroy's replacement, told reporters Thursday that he's looking for "somebody more of a nondenominational background, that has a multicultural congregation."

Some Americans have expressed concern over whether a chaplain is being political, Stahl said. "That's a very narrow understanding of politics and religion ... religion and politics intermix all the time," she said.

A bigger question, Stahl said, is whether the nature of the chaplain role is to be pastoral or prophetic -- one that ministers to the needs of individuals or speaks to broader concerns. "If you're going to give prayers that are more than just vague thank yous, you're probably going to hear statements that feel potentially uncomfortable," she said.

As for the current House chaplain, many Catholic observers have been baffled by Ryan's dismissal of Conroy, including John Carr, who was a policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops. Carr described Conroy as "scrupulously nonpartisan."

"Chaplains should not make us comfortable. They should challenge us," Carr said. "The polarization in political life is being reflected in religious life."

Religion on 05/05/2018