Why do many people have the view that history is linear, moving toward a cataclysmic end? How much does biblical history affect the way we think about ourselves, our country? How do ethics and morality fit into the political games played in Congress and the government agencies?
These and hundreds of other questions have been pondered once a month for the last two years by a group meeting in the basement of the Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill. They are not academicians or theologians. Most of them are high-level public officials and congressional aides, with schedules so crowded that they often conduct business during breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Unlike discussion groups on ethics and public policy held periodically by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Center for Theology and Public Policy, this group limits its discussion to how present-day issues relate to biblical theology and history.
"In our political setup, nothing allows for the spiritual element," said the Rev. Dr. Arnold F. Keller, Jr. "It can come to the point where these questions are no longer raised, and that can be very dangerous." Keller is pastor of the Church of the Reformation.
He and his congregation hired the Rev. Leopold W. Bernhard two years ago. His only duty is to minister to the group called the "Public Affairs Sector."
On a recent evening, 44 persons made up the interfaith group, many of them high-ranking bureaucrats. Bernhard, a man with a warm personality who wears rimless glasses and conservative black garb, spends a lot of his time visiting White House staff, congressional offices and federal agencies to attract people to the meetings.
He and Keller also have managed to host a few affairs for members of Congress in the Rayburn Building, but haven't really gotten a regular discussion group of lawmakers going. Sen. Richard Stone attended a breakfast discussion of Jewish law and said that he found a perusal of "historical and religious underpinnings of issues . . . helpful," according to press secretary Jean Parvin.
Parvin found the idea of a discussion group for aides so attractive that she immediately called Bernhard after she relayed Stone's message to a reporter and asked to be invited to the next monthly meeting.
"Actually, we started with friends, and the word spread from there," said Bernhard.
"We have to be very careful not to tie any of our discussions to specific pieces of legislation so they don't think we're trying to influence them," Keller said. "The Lutheran Churches of America (which funds the project along with its Maryland Synod, or district) has a government liaison officer (lobbyist) in Washington just like all the other churches. That's his job."
Both pastors feel the church's location two blocks from the Capitol on East Capitol Street made outreach to Hill folks a natural thing.
Bernhard is a native of Germany and is a longtime friend of Keller. Bernhard came to Reformation church from the pastorate of St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northeast Washington. He led similar forums with lawyers and medical people in Chicago in the 1960s.
The people who attended a recent meeting appeared thirsty for the chance to reflect.
"Some of those in the seminar have some care about where we are in the United States, as well as some religious cares in these conflicts, such as the Middle East," said Pat Duryee, a Labor Department attorney. "By sharing our feelings on these questions, we can find common ground . . . I think these kinds of people are likely to be found in the churches."
Milton Kotler, head of the National Association of Neighborhoods, likes the group because "I have worked 20 years trying to get things done in communities. It's always neighborhoods fighting city hall, city hall fighting neighborhoods. Both get worn down. Not enough gets done. There has to be a better way. I come here because I'm looking for a new approach."
Kotler has been a friend of Bernhard "for years" and has attended since the first meeting in April, 1976.
The discussion topics are chosen by the group or by Bernhard and usually begin with the presentation of a discussion paper submitted by a member. Bernhard fills the gap when there are no volunteers.
Some of the topics have been the human aspects of unemployment, ethnicity as a biblical concept, history in the context of nuclear technology, how do churches line themselves up in the political spectrum, women's rights, equal rights and biblical roots for these concepts and abortion as a theological issue.
Bernhard was asked about the heavy flavor of philosophy and the scholarly air of his writing style.
"My uncles and grandfathers were professors in Germany.So that approach is not strange to me . . . And then I'm old enough to have a classical education." He graduated from the University of Berlin in 1933 and the University of Zurich in 1937. He immigrated and was ordained in the U.S. in 1940.
Bernhard said he once admired an old man "who preached the best sermons, poetic, beautiful and really masterpieces. I asked him once how he did that. He never attended a meeting beyond 9 p.m., he was at his desk at 5 a.m. and studied till he went to his office at 10 a.m. . . I followed his example."