In Church, Members Leave Politics at the Door
Members of Congress are rarely anonymous on Capitol Hill. They sport distinctive lapel pins, ride “Members Only” elevators and often face packs of reporters.
There’s at least one place in the neighborhood, though, where lawmakers can blend into the crowd: church.
Many Members attend services at local churches while they’re in Washington, D.C. There, local religious leaders said, lawmakers are no different from the other faithful in the pews.
“For the most part, when Members have come here, somebody else had to tell me they were Members,” said Andrew Walton, a pastor at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church. “They just want to come and worship like everybody else.”
“We try to see ourselves as a neighborhood church,” he continued. “It just so happens that the Congress and Supreme Court are the people in our neighborhood.”
The Hill is a faithful place: Only six Members — about 1 percent — do not specify a religious affiliation, according to data collected by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum. The 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic, the data show. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole. There are 39 Jews, 15 Mormons, three Buddhists, two Muslims and one Quaker in Congress.
Because they often return to their home districts on the weekends, few Members have a regular place of worship near the Capitol. Those seeking immediate guidance can pay a visit to the chaplains elected by the House and Senate who lead prayers, organize Bible studies and officiate at weddings and funerals.
Sometimes, though, lawmakers will join local congregations to celebrate their faith.
Two churches are especially famous for their connections to Congress: St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, which are often called the House and Senate Catholic churches, respectively, because of their locations on either side of the Capitol.
“Any given Sunday, you never know who might be sitting in the pews,” Walton said. “Just occasionally, you’ll have a Member of the House who’s in town and comes in. … It’s sporadic, and maybe its just a one-time thing.”
Worshipping alongside such powerful — and partisan — individuals can present challenges to church leaders. Many work to avoid politically divisive topics such as tax policy or health care.
“As a priest, my interest is in souls, not in votes,” said Father Carter Griffin of St. Peter’s.
They also consider the amount of time their parishioners already spend focusing on policy.
“I find myself trying not to talk about politics as much because people live and breathe politics here,” Walton said. “We try to offer a place where people can have a break from it and a different perspective on it.”
Churches in the Capitol Hill area also bring together some strange bedfellows. Many local congregations serve outspoken Democrats and Republicans alike. Churches, though, provide a rare forum for bipartisan cooperation.
The Rev. Monsignor Charles V. Antonicelli, a pastor at St. Joseph’s, remembers several food and clothing drives where prominent staffers from opposing parties came together to help out those in need.
“They realize we are all Catholic Christians,” Antonicelli said. “Even if we disagree on how best to effect policy, we have something very important in common.”
“There are people with extraordinarily different political views who ordinarily run in different circles,” Griffin said. Church gives them the opportunity to get to know one another, he said.
Most clerics said their parishioners tend to avoid clashing during church activities and save their debates for later. “I’m sure they go out to lunch and argue about estate taxes or whatever,” said Andy Johnson, a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
The nature of the Capitol Hill neighborhood lends local congregations a few other peculiarities. For one thing, many who attend services are well-educated and informed. Pastors here often find themselves tailoring their sermons to keep their listeners engaged.
“The challenge is to be up to date, to be current, to be intelligent, and to really know the faith myself so that I can help others to understand it,” Antonicelli said. “We want to make sure we speak in educated terms.”
And since political tides can sweep a party into or out of power overnight, the neighborhood’s residents are constantly in flux. Congregations are vastly different from one year to the next, local clerics said. And bringing together a busy, disunited group of people can be tough.
“The constant transient nature of the church is a real challenge in trying to build community,” Johnson said.
No matter who sits in their pews or for how long, the neighborhood churches share one goal: to remind the faithful that no matter how important their jobs are, their ultimate focus should be deeper.
“Their jobs are to rightfully improve things in this world,” Johnson said. “But that’s not ultimately where our hope is. If our party loses, we still have hope in Christ.”