The controversy surrounding Conroy’s departure illustrates how chaplains in Congress inevitably sully religion with politics. Some believe that Ryan fired Conroy because Ryan perceived him to have delivered a prayer that was critical of the Republican tax bill. (Ryan has denied this.) Others believe that Conroy was secretly aligned with the Democrats and find proof in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s disagreement with Ryan’s decision to fire Conroy.
The partisan battle over the chaplaincy escalated when Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) asked for an investigation into the reason for Conroy’s termination, but Republicans voted it down. Next, in the search for a new chaplain, Republican Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.), a Baptist minister who was on the hiring committee for the new chaplain, announced his preference for a chaplain with children, who he believes could better relate to the experience of most members. Some perceived Walker’s support for this qualification to be a thinly veiled effort to obtain an evangelical Christian chaplain to please one segment of the Republican base.
The saga illustrates a problem intrinsic to the House chaplain position: As is routinely the case when religion and government mix, religion takes a hit.
The congressional chaplaincy, like all governmental endorsements of religion, is exclusionary. Taxpayer-funded chaplains, who typically represent and often favor the majority faith, are a painful reminder that some people — often non-Christians and nonbelievers — aren’t yet fully included in our American experiment.
Despite our nation’s exploding pluralism, every congressional chaplain since 1774 has been a male Christian. Yet in modern America, the ways of relating to God are many and varied, and growing numbers of Americans choose not to relate to a deity at all. In this atmosphere, a one-size-fits-all prayer delivered by a taxpayer-funded religious leader isn’t just an anachronism. It’s an impossibility. In today’s religiously diverse America, government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded chaplains don’t unify; they often divide and perpetuate (one version of) Christian dominance in American religious life.
Congressional chaplains are now also unnecessary. Back in 1800, when Congress moved to Washington, the city was still under construction, and there were few houses of worship. Today, the Washington metropolitan area, which is home to more than 6 million people, offers houses of worship of all kinds just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Unlike members of the military or people who are incarcerated (who commonly have on-site chaplains), members of Congress have plenty of religious options. Should members desire a spiritual experience, a wide array of nearby D.C. clergy stand ready to offer one.
Some Americans insist that the chaplaincy is an important tradition in the United States. It is true that during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress supported chaplains in Congress; and after the war, the newly minted U.S. Congress continued the practice. It is also true that the Supreme Court, in a 1983 case that challenged taxpayer-funded legislative chaplains in Nebraska, ruled that the historical tradition of chaplains justified their existence.
But just because something may be allowed does not mean that it is required or right. Traditions, though sometimes important, can also be misguided and perpetuate bias and privilege not understood at the time of their creation.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution and primary author of the First Amendment, was also a member of the House committee that chose the first chaplain. But years later, he concluded that Congress had made a mistake. In an essay that scholars believe was written between 1820 and 1830, Madison asked: “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?” His answer: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.”
It’s time that Congress took to heart this important history lesson and reevaluated the wisdom of having a chaplain.