Senate Chaplain Shouldn’t Mix Prayer and Politics

Senate Chaplain Barry Black is winning praise for taking a “bold” daily stand in which he “scolds” senators during the federal government shutdown. He is the “rock star of the government shutdown” in the eyes of Liz Henry, another writer here at The Broad Side.

His insights and criticisms might be mostly correct, but he should shut up about them. Politics is not his job.

Every day the Senate is in session, Black leads a prayer. He has a unique position to address the nation’s elected leaders that no other American enjoys. Such special power demands special care. It is not the chaplain’s place to judge legislative actions, even boneheaded ones that shutdown the government.

When he does, he is not bold; he is weak. Black gives into the temptation to abuse his office. It is not for his god to “deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable” nor for him to decide what is reasonable among lawmakers. That’s for voters on Election Day to do.


Congressional chaplains shouldn’t exist at all. The First Amendment’s religion clause should have kept formal, congressionally endorsed religion out from the get-go. At least that’s what James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and father of the Constitution, thought.

“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds and consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority,” he wrote.

Madison lost that one, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld chaplains and opening prayers before legislative bodies from Congress down to town councils as long as they are traditional, ceremonial invocations that don’t play favorites with one religion over another.

The Supreme Court this fall will take a fresh look at legislative prayer in Greece v. Galloway, a case out of New York that challenges prayer before a town council meeting. The court’s conservative majority could choose to undermine the Establishment Clause even further.

Meanwhile, all American taxpayers, no matter their beliefs or non-beliefs, pay Black to spread Christianity. He earns north of $150,000 per year to give the invocation, lead Bible study groups and host prayer breakfasts.

If America is stuck with a Senate chaplain, the least the people deserve is someone who follows the job description. Black’s recent monologuing goes beyond tending to the religious wants of his flock. His recent opening invocations urge policy action and takes sides in an ongoing political drama.

That might seem bold and important, or at least harmless, when everyone outside of Congress and the tea party agrees with what he says. Congressional approval ratings have taken a nosedive for good reason, and Black’s calling out senators for childishness and intransigence plays well.

But not every issue is so easy. Now that the precedent is set that the chaplain may use his daily pulpit to condemn political decisions with which he disagrees, what is to stop him or his successors from weighing in on more-controversial topics? Many of the people who praise his current efforts probably would be less thrilled if he next condemned abortion, same-sex marriage or uppity women who don’t conform to a conservative Christian model of family.

The Senate elects the chaplain by majority vote. Unsurprisingly, each has been Christian. It is not so hard to imagine a Republican majority in the Senate someday electing and sticking with someone who strongly and officially supports the party’s platform.

In 2007, Black canceled an appearance at an evangelical “Reclaiming America for Christ Conference” after its political nature became clear. At the time, he explained that his appearance would violate the Senate chaplains “historic tradition of being nonpolitical, nonpartisan, nonsectarian.

Apparently that historic tradition no longer matters to him. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s finally time to drop another historic tradition — legislative chaplains.

Chris Trejbal writes custom editorials and opinion pieces at Opinion in a Pinch. He is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image source: Ian Sane via Flickr Commons.

  • Roger

    THANK YOU. How are you the only person saying this!?

    • Chris Trejbal

      You’re welcome, and it beats me.

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