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Opinion: A New Religious Schism — What’s the Chaplain’s Job?

Lawmakers need to leave politics out of the job

The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, blesses the walnut tree during a tree planting ceremony in memory of Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., on April 18. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, blesses the walnut tree during a tree planting ceremony in memory of Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., on April 18. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was preparing to take over as House Chaplain in 2011 after being appointed by Speaker John Boehner, the Jesuit priest told The New York Times that he readied himself, in part, by reading “American Lion,” Jon Meacham’s biography of President Andrew Jackson. Conroy told the Times that reading about the vicious rivalry between Jackson and Henry Clay in Congress showed him that “it’s not an unprecedented thing in American politics for there to be recriminations and a lack of civility.”

That much has always been true. But what is unprecedented, seven years after Conroy accepted the job, is that the House chaplain himself is now at the center of the recriminations and lack of civility in Congress that he once sought to counsel members beyond. For the first time in history, the House chaplain has been asked to resign and nobody seems to know why.

“I was asked to resign, that is clear,” Conroy said in a recent interview. The reasons? “Unclear.”

Most House members say they don’t know why Conroy was asked to leave, either, but many suspect it has to do with the prayer Conroy offered in the middle of the tax cut debate when he prayed to God, “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.”

Watch: The Prayer That Might Have Landed House Chaplain in Hot Water

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Is talk of balance and sharing political? Apparently so. Shortly after that prayer, Conroy said Ryan told him, “Padre, you’ve just got to stay out of politics.”

After an uproar inside the House, Ryan told a gathering of conservatives in Milwaukee last week, “This is not about politics or prayers. It was about pastoral services. And a number of our members felt like the pastoral services were not being adequately served or offered.”

More questions

But Ryan’s explanation, which was meant to clarify the reasons Conroy lost his job, only leads to more questions. What are “pastoral services” in the House today, and how can any member of the clergy be expected to provide them to 435 members of the House without complaint or controversy?

This is a group of people who cannot agree on legislation, calendars, spending or basic math. How could any member of the clergy be expected to give conservatives, liberals and everyone in between equally effective religious counsel, often in their darkest hours? And more importantly, why is a taxpayer-funded position still being asked to do so anyway?

The job of the House chaplain is as old as (or technically older than) the institution itself. The tradition of opening legislative sessions with a prayer, as well as electing chaplains, began with the Continental Congress in 1789 and has continued ever since.

Many pieces of the House chaplain’s job today are noncontroversial. The chaplain’s office describes its “primary duty” as opening each House session with a prayer, as called for by the Rules of the House, or coordinating a guest chaplain to fill in, which happens frequently. The chaplain also arranges funeral services for members and staff, hosts religious delegations from foreign countries, and provides prayers at official events on Capitol Hill.

But the office also “serves members and their family, as well as staff, with spiritual care and counsel.” That role can mean many things to many people. But for some members of the House, it was that last piece of the job they wanted Conroy fired over.

Roll Call reported that some Republicans felt Conroy didn’t do enough to come find them when they were going through tough times. Rep. Mark Walker, who is a Baptist minister, said a House chaplain should be “someone who goes to the person who’s hurting.” 

Like, not a priest?

Walker also said he thought the chaplain should be “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans or Democrats as far as what we’re going through back home — you’ve got the wife, the family, things you encounter — that has some counseling experience or has managed or worked with people, maybe a larger church size, being able to have that understanding or that experience.”

If you’re Catholic, as I am, that could make you think Walker doesn’t believe a Catholic priest like Conroy could ever do the job right.

Rep. Bradley Byrne said, “If we’re hearing that there’s some members that felt like their pastoral needs weren’t taking care of, then we need to find a pastor. And a pastor is not the same thing as somebody who’s just administrative, who gets to say the prayer every day.”

It’s true that he’s not describing a pastor. But when did the House chaplain become the personal pastor for every member of the House? Unfortunately for Conroy, that seems to be what some members are looking for.

I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible for any one person to meet the spiritual needs of 435 different people from at least a dozen different faiths and religious traditions. It shouldn’t be the job of any government employee to give personalized religious guidance to members of Congress anyway.

The jobs of leading prayers, arranging services and welcoming international visitors all seem totally legitimate for the House chaplain. The traditions of the House call for it, and the members clearly want it.

But complaints that he should meet members’ deeply held religious requirements seem antiquated and inappropriate. If a chaplain could counsel members through crises and inspire them to be their best selves, on top of opening every day with a prayer, it would be appreciated, of course. But how can it be required?

I know from experience that senators, House members and staff can benefit from impromptu prayers with the chaplains, including on Sept. 11 and during other major crises. But most members would probably get more personally and professionally out of joining a local church on Capitol Hill for their spiritual needs and leaving the politics out of the chaplain’s job expectations, if not out of his job description altogether. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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