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Abolish the chaplaincy

National | Congressmen should look to churches for pastoral care

Issue: "Georgia twisters," Feb. 26, 2000

Religion heated up the public square in recent weeks as the choice for the next chaplain of the House of Representatives sparked a political brushfire.

At issue: House Speaker Dennis Hastert's decision to nominate Charles Wright, a Presbyterian pastor, instead of Timothy O'Brien, a Roman Catholic priest, to succeed the retiring chaplain, James David Ford, a Lutheran. A bipartisan committee had recommended Mr. Wright, Mr. O'Brien, and a third pastor for the post. The House has never had a Roman Catholic chaplain, and some Roman Catholics were upset at Mr. Hastert's choice of Mr. Wright.

"It has a stink to it," said William Donahue, president of the 350,000-member Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "What they want to do is keep the chaplain post in Protestant hands." A few Democrats in the House also accused the GOP leadership of anti-Catholicism, a charge House Republicans vehemently denied. A vote on the nomination is expected this month.

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The controversy raises a fundamental question about the chaplaincy, one that makes Mr. Hastert's job difficult: How can he select one pastor to spiritually shepherd a body that includes everyone from conservative and liberal Roman Catholics to conservative and liberal Protestants to Jews to Christian Scientists to Mormons? To the exact extent that any of them take their religion seriously, they will object to a chaplain from a different religion.

So instead of voting on the nomination of Mr. Wright, the House should abolish the $138,000-a-year chaplain position altogether. As important as it is to have religion in the public square, for a variety of reasons the chaplaincy isn't the right form.

On the level of biblical principle, nothing in God's Word authorizes civil authorities to appoint pastors for legislatures. And the religious diversity of the House must exert strong pressure on chaplains to adopt a watered-down, lowest-common-denominator approach, which is anathema to biblical Christianity and which, again, should offend anyone who takes his religion seriously.

This temptation toward accommodation will only become more intense, because the United States is becoming more diverse by the day. How will Christians feel about the chaplaincy if, down the road, one of the parties decides to court America's growing Muslim population by appointing an Islamic cleric to the position? With Muslims already outnumbering Episcopalians in the United States, and with the willingness of many politicians to say and do nearly anything to get elected, this scenario is hardly far-fetched.

But an even more important question is, does the chaplaincy honor God? Certainly there have been chaplains committed to the gospel, but the very nature of the office makes it problematic even for them.

A 1997 incident involving a pastor who was asked to give a prayer before the Nevada Legislature shows why. Larry Rothchild, a Baptist pastor, refused to adhere to the policy of leaving Christ's name out of prayers before that body. The ACLU, as well as many Nevada legislators, objected and Mr. Rothchild was not invited back.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, interested in whether federal chaplains mentioned Christ in their prayers, asked House Chaplain Ford what the policy was for him and guest chaplains. Mr. Ford presented the issue as a matter of taste. "There is nothing saying you can't use phrases like 'Jesus Christ' or 'God,'" he said. "Some ministers will say 'Jesus Christ.' Others won't. There is no prayer for everybody."

But Christians know that a person only has standing to go before God in prayer if, though he is a sinner, God counts him as righteous because of Christ. Christians should not leave Christ out of prayer, and non-Christians should not mention Him just to be polite: It is a grave sin against God to go through the motions hypocritically.

Perhaps as a substitute for having one House chaplain, Congress could provide its members a list of Washington-area pastors who agree to make themselves available to congressmen for counseling and prayer. But even this shouldn't take the place of a congressman's joining a church and placing himself under the authority of its elders. It's in this biblical context that a pastor can spiritually equip Christian public servants to enter the public square to fight for justice and truth, just as he equips other Christians for their callings.

The pastoral office is too important for it to be trivialized (or politicized) by anything less.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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