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The democratic sin of congressional chaplains

Historic appointment of Margaret Kibben obscures need to abolish antiquated position

Outgoing House chaplain Patrick J. Conroy speaks with incoming chaplain Margaret G. Kibben as they walk through Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Sunday.
Outgoing House chaplain Patrick J. Conroy speaks with incoming chaplain Margaret G. Kibben as they walk through Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Sunday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On the last day of 2020, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that for the first time in history a female minister would serve as the new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. But if Pelosi had wanted to make real progress, she should have just abolished the position.

As a Baptist minister who believes in gender equality in the pulpit, my concern is not with retired Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben as a minister. Rather, I remain opposed to government chaplains. Shattering the glass ceiling hardly seems like a celebratory moment when we use those shards to puncture the wall between church and state.

During the founding era of our nation, my Baptist predecessors argued for religious liberty for all. That advocacy included blasting governments for collecting taxes to pay the clergy of the established churches. Colonial Baptist preacher Isaac Backus criticized such a “tax for worship” that Massachusetts used to “compel them to support their way of worship.”

“We freely confess that we can find no more warrant from divine truth, for any people on earth to constitute any men their representatives, to make laws to impose religious taxes, than they have to appoint Peter or the Virgin Mary to represent them before the throne above,” Backus wrote in 1773. “What government on earth ever had, or ever can have any power to make or execute any laws to appoint and enforce sacrifices to God!”

James Madison, the key crafter of the U.S. Constitution that prohibited religious tests for office and in the First Amendment prevented the government establishment of religion, made similar arguments about congressional chaplains.

“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles,” he wrote after serving as president. “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.”

In particular, Madison complained that “the tenets of the chaplains elected shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.” Thus, he called it a “naked deformity” that put religious doctrines and practices to a vote as the majority decides who will serve as chaplain to the minority.

Madison also extended his concern to the problem of military chaplains that set the precedent for Congress claiming “political authority in matters of religion.” Kibben comes to her congressional post after previously serving as a chaplain in the Navy and Marine Corps.

Pelosi claimed Kibben “will serve the Congress and the Country well.” But that’s only true if we ignore many in both categories. After all, Madison’s point about the creeds and consciences of the minority seem even more applicable today.

More than one-third of Americans claim a religious tradition outside of Christianity, be that unaffiliated, atheistic, Jewish, Muslim or one of many other religions found in our pluralistic nation. Yet, each of them must pay for a Christian minister to pray and perform other sectarian tasks.

And even with Americans who profess Christianity, many will find significant differences with the Presbyterian doctrines of Kibben. Why must Baptists, Catholics, Mennonites and others be forced to pay a Presbyterian to pray and do ministry? Why should Presbyterians be forced to pay the salary of the previous House chaplain (a Catholic) or the current Senate chaplain (a Seventh-day Adventist)?

Among members of the House, about 10 percent publicly claim a religious belief system that isn’t Christianity. Why must they listen to these prayers just to do their jobs and represent their constituents? There are even more Jewish members of the House than Presbyterians. Thus, we find a minority of members with a privileged spiritual access under the dome of democracy.

And many Christians do not believe the Bible allows women to serve as ministers. I disagree with them, but those believers shouldn’t be forced to pay for a woman to pray and minister. The government shouldn’t get to pick winners and losers when it comes to religion.

I don’t want a Baptist congressional chaplain any more than I want a Presbyterian, Catholic or Seventh-day Adventist. If members of Congress wish to pray, they may do so — even while sitting in the chamber. If they wish to consult a member of the clergy, they are free to do so. But they shouldn’t force the rest of us to pay for it.

So my prayer is the next speaker will make a truly historic move and end the antiquated position of government chaplain. It is time to stop the democratically sinful practice of taxing Peter to pay Margaret to pray. 

Rev. Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, and the author of four books on religion and politics.

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