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Keep the chaplaincy

Commentary | Legislators and their families rely on this historic institution

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

Based on my experience in political campaigns, office-holding, and policy-making, I have developed the following personal axiom: "I don't need enemies; I have friends." This is true of the recent call for the abolition of the congressional chaplaincy. While I expect to hear this call from the American Atheist Society or the ACLU, the call actually came from a conservative commentator ("Abolish the chaplaincy," by Timothy Lamer, Feb. 26 WORLD). Why abolish the chaplaincy? Because, it is argued, there is such religious diversity in Congress that those who take their faith seriously will object to a chaplain from a different persuasion. Interestingly, that argument was also raised when Congress originally gathered in Philadelphia in 1774. As John Adams recorded, "When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship." So what happened? "Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue." That argument hit home, and the next morning after the Rev. Jacob Duché prayed, John Adams wrote, "I must confess I never heard a better prayer. It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here." Two centuries later, Justices Scalia, Rehnquist, White, and Thomas looked back to that Congress, pointing out that "The founders of our Republic knew that nothing, absolutely nothing, is so inclined to foster among religious believers of various faiths a toleration-no, an affection-for one another than voluntarily joining in prayer together. To deprive our society of that important unifying mechanism is as senseless in policy as it is unsupported in law." In short, prayer is a unifying, not a dividing, force. And then there is the argument that the chaplaincy is only symbolic because of "strong pressure on chaplains to adopt a watered-down, lowest-common-denominator approach." Yet, such pressure does not necessarily produce compromise. Simply look at Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, or his predecessor Dick Halverson, or their predecessor Peter Marshall, or many more who prove otherwise. Yet, even if we accept the argument that the chaplaincy is only symbolic, is it a bad symbol? Would it not be a worse symbol to abolish the acknowledgment of God from yet another facet of the public arena? Finally, the argument is advanced that having a chaplain wrongly takes the place of a congressman joining a church. Good idea-but only on paper. Reality is quite different. I personally know several godly members of Congress who no longer attend church in Washington. Why? Because too many insensitive parishioners lobby them at church. What should have been a time of worship, edification, and refreshing unfortunately became just another day of contending with a constituency. The chaplaincy, responding to this need, has begun a number of activities for congressmen so that they can fellowship, worship God, and be edified through a regular, systematic study of the Scriptures. In fact, there are now over 120 members of Congress active in weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings. (By the way, during a recent House vote, nearly 60 members of Congress were slow in appearing and searchers were dispatched to locate them. Where were they found? On their knees in the Congressional Chapel, seeking God's wisdom on how they should cast their vote!) It is precisely because so many in Congress rely on the chaplaincy that few outside observers understand the current controversy surrounding the appointment of a new chaplain for the House. While some attempted to make it a Protestant vs. Catholic issue, it was not. It was a pastoral issue. Many members-and their families-rely on the chaplain as a pastor. Dr. Wright (the Protestant finalist selected by the House leadership) has pastored for decades and, by serving closely with the annual National Prayer Breakfast, has worked with members from several faiths. Conversely, Dr. O'Brien (the Catholic finalist who was not selected) has had virtually no pastoral experience since the 1970s. In fact, he spent the last two decades as a political science professor. The selection for House chaplain-as many of the Catholics on the Hill have confirmed to me-was certainly not a Protestant vs. Catholic issue. Should the chaplaincy be abolished simply because an outsider believes that it is of no tangible service? Should our nation's leaders be deprived of an opportunity to pray with a chaplain and seek God's counsel on the problems they face? Ask those who rely on the chaplaincy, and they will tell you emphatically, "No!"

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