The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy has brought new attention to a political office that’s more than 200 years old: chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Padre, you’ve just got to stay out of politics,” was the message House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered to Conroy before asking him to step down.
Fellow lawmakers questioned Ryan’s actions and his motivations. Eventually, the determined reverend rescinded his letter of resignation.
How did Conroy meddle in politics? By speaking up during debates on tax reform this way:
“As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, 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.”
You might wonder why our country — founded on the principle of separation of church and state — has an official religious officer in the House (and Senate, too).
The daily proceedings of the Continental Congress from the Thirteen Colonies were opened with a prayer. On May 1, 1789, the first day the U.S. Congress was in session, the first order of business was to perpetuate that practice. The Rev. William Linn was elected the first House chaplain, a chair that has been occupied almost consistently by clergymen (no women, yet!), save for the Civil War years.
The daily prayer — or, today, coordinating the presence of guest chaplains of other faiths to deliver said prayer — remains the main business of the House chaplain, even though the position now also includes pastoral counseling for the House, as well as officiating at marriages and funerals for House members.
My Judaism is a tradition with a set liturgy. To the best of my knowledge, Islam also has fixed prayers. The notion of different daily prayers, like every person ever to hold the post of House chaplain, seems particularly Christian.
This rabbi’s understanding of daily prayer is that it is meant to focus intention and behavior towards holy ends. Grace at a table allows those about to eat to experience gratitude for satiating their hungers. Invocations at meetings help insure sacred ends guide seemingly mundane agendas. An opening prayer at a session of Congress, it seems, is meant to help focus elected officials on the dignified and elevated — religious people might say “sacred”— nature of their public service.
If reminding elected officials of their loftiest ethical obligations is the purpose of an opening prayer, and if the role of the House chaplain is to provide a daily dose of morality on Capitol Hill, it is hard to argue that this is the season in which to cease the practice.
Still, we need to be honest with ourselves about how even the most “ecumenical” House chaplain violates the separation of church and state.
In my Jewish tradition, there were well-defined roles for public servants of all different kinds. In our Bible, kings dealt with affairs of state, and priests ran religious ritual. The moral voice of antiquity belonged to the prophet, who was almost always outside the official, organized communal structure.
Our earliest prophet was Amos, who railed against the economic injustice of ancient Israel during the time of Jeroboam II. Amos decried the wealthy elites who “defraud the poor and rob the needy.”
Amaziah, high priest to King Jeroboam, effectively told Amos to go home — a Biblical version of “Prophet, you’ve just got to stay out of politics.” Despite Amaziah’s request, Amos never delivered any letter of resignation.
Should Conroy, who channeled his inner Amos, have been fired for reminding Congress that they served all Americans and that their work was meant to benefit rich and poor alike? Hardly. In fact, I wish he had delivered the message more effectively.
Should Conroy, or anyone, be appointed to be the moral voice of the people who appoint him?
Such is not the way of the prophet. The true prophet is not beholden to any Republican or Democrat.
The true moral voice remains with those who can challenge the system without becoming entangled in it, without being reliant upon it for salary and prestige.
The best way to bring a chorus of religious and moral voices to America — and to our elected officials — is not for Conroy to resign his office but for Congress to retire the position and allow for truly free moral voices to weigh in on the deliberations of our government.
Seth M. Limmer is senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. Sun-Times CEO Edwin Eisendrath is a member of Limmer’s congregation.