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The Danger of Praying Truth to Power

Praying for those in power is easy. Faith leaders do it all the time in houses of worship.  Especially on national holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. “Almighty God, Father of everyone, we pray for our political leaders, that You may guide them with wisdom in the ways of peace, and lead them to enact policies and laws that serve the welfare of all . . .”   No risk in such typically offered generic national prayers.   In fact, in the face of America’s glaring economic and racial inequities and militarism, such safe, generalized prayers are often another way of folding one’s hands and doing nothing – while producing a vicarious feeling of accomplishment.  Opportunistic lobbyists pay to play.  Chaplains of the status quo pray to play.

But not Jesuit priest, Fr. Patrick J. Conroy, Chaplain of the US House of Representatives. He dared to pray truth to power – in the lion’s den.  Consider the much needed model he provides for faith leaders.

The Republican-controlled House members were preparing a tax bill that favored the wealthy and corporations at the expense of the poor and middle class. The resulting deficit of $1.5 trillion would be made up down the road by cutting the very programs (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) on which countless millions of Americans depend for their sustenance and health care. (See “4 Reasons You Should be Disguisted by the GOP’s Immoral Tax Plan,” By Nish Weiseth, COSMOPOLITAN, Dec. 21, 2017)  Entitlement programs that are insufficient, and need to be increased not cut.

Following the landmark tax bill’s passage, President Trump gathered Republican lawmakers on the White House lawn for a public celebration, at which he said, “It’s always a lot of fun when you win.” (“White House, GOP celebrate passing sweeping tax bill,” By Deirdre Walsh, Phil Mattingly, Ashley Killough, Lauren Fox and Kevin Liptak, CNNPolitics,Dec. 20, 2017)  Trump did not mention his campaign promise of affordable health care for all.  For him, it is about “winners” and “losers” – and the millions of “losers” be dammed.

As this grave inequity was unfolding, Chaplain Conroy prayed in front of the House Members: “God of the universe . . . as the 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.”  Then followed  Conroy’s equally challenging prayerful words to the Members: “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.” (‘PRAYER,’ House of Representatives, www.congress.gov, Nov. 6, 2017)  The House chaplain’s prayer was very specific, allowing no room for spiritual obfuscation.

A prayer mindful of those who “continue to struggle” became a threat to established “order”.  “Shortly after” his prayer, Fr. Conroy reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan “admonished” him: ‘Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.’ ” (“Firing of House Chaplain Causes Uproar on Capitol Hill,”By Elizabeth Dias and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, April 27, 2018)

“Stay out of politics.”  Words that separate religion from life.  That confine faith leaders to giving the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power.  Words that divorce faith from the works of the public square, the justice of the market place and the morality of the  battlefield.

It took over five months for Speaker Ryan to demand that Fr. Conroy resign, or be fired.  Evidently the chaplain’s prayer – “that there are not winners or losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans” – echoed long in Ryan’s ears – and in the ears of certain other House members.  As reported, “Conroy said he was blindsided when Mr. Ryan asked him to resign, and suggested politics – specifically a prayer he gave in November when Congress was debating a tax overhaul – may have been a factor in the speaker’s decision.”  (Ibid)

“Politics” also was suggested by Jonathan Burks, Speaker Ryan’s chief of staff, whom Ryan sent to tell Chaplain Conroy of his removal.  Conroy reported “that Burks told him, ‘maybe it’s time we have a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic,’ and commented on his prayer in November that was perceived as critical of the Republicans’ tax bill.” (“House chaplain rescinds resignation, Ryan agrees to let him stay,” By Christine Rousselle, Catholic News Agency, May 3, 2018)

Speaker Ryan’s reported decision to remove Fr. Conroy as House Chaplain triggered strong criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who accused “him of playing politics” and demanded that he “explain his actions.” Their pressure forced Ryan to make a public statement: “ ‘This was not about politics or prayers, it was about pastoral services.   And a number of our members felt like pastoral services were not being adequately served, or offered.’ ”  But Ryan “was not specific about what pastoral services weren’t being offered.” (“Speaker Paul Ryan says he ousted House chaplain over pastoral services, not politics,” By Mary Spicuzza, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 30, 2018)

Instead of acquiescing and leaving quietly, Fr. Conroy hired a lawyer.  He then wrote a second letter to Speaker Ryan in which he retracted and rescinded his original resignation letter.  He challenged Ryan’s public statement “that my ‘pastoral services’ to some Members were lacking and that I did not offer adequate ‘spiritual counseling’ to others.  This,” he said, “is not the reason that Mr. Burks gave me when asking for my resignation.  In fact,” Conroy continued, “no such criticism has ever been leveled against me during my tenure as House Chaplain.  . . . If it were, I could have attempted to correct such ‘faults.’ ” He also reminded Ryan: “I have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House Chaplain.” And in his rescinding letter, Conroy ended on another reasonable note: “Had I known of any failure in providing my ministry to the House, I would have attempted to make appropriate adjustments, but in no case would I have agreed to submit a letter of resignation without being given that opportunity.  Therefore I wish to serve the remainder of my term.” (“Read: House Chaplain’s letter rescinding resignation,” By The Hill Staff, The Hill, May 3, 2018)

The lack of specific criticism regarding Fr. Conroy not providing “pastoral services” for “a number of” House members was suspect.  “Some members” were reported to have taken “issue with Father Conroy’s decision to invite a Muslim to lead a prayer,” which Iman Abdullah Antepli of Duke University offered “on the House floor in October 2017.” (“Report: House chaplain, a Jesuit priest, was forced out by Speaker Paul Ryan,” By Michael J .O’loughlin, American Magazine, April 26, 2018) But to utter such criticism of Conroy publicly would have exposed the members’ own indefensible Islamophobia.

Nor would certain white evangelical Christian representatives dare to publicly air their anti-Catholic beliefs.  An example is Rev. Mark Walker, North Carolina Republican and Southern Baptist minister, who took the occasion of Fr. Conroy’s impending removal to suggest that the next House Chaplain be a family man.  He told reporters: “I’m looking for somebody with a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here.”  (“Conservative leader: Next House chaplain should have a family,” By Scott Wong, The Hill, April 26, 2018)

Rep. Walker’s anti-Catholic subterfuge was unmasked by American Magazine editor at large and Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin, who reported “hear[ing]  from Catholics who are ‘dismayed’ that a chaplain would be fired for apparently defending the poor, and he worries about the anti-Catholic dog-whistling.“ He added, “ ‘The implication that, as one legislator said, a ‘family man’ would be more suitable smacks of anti-Catholicism . . . By that yardstick, Jesus wouldn’t qualify either.’ ”(“Firing of House Chaplain Causes Uproar on Capitol Hill,” Ibid)

Jesus would not have qualified as House Chaplain for similar — and other — reasons. Like his teaching, ”Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” And, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Also, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5: 6, 7, 9, from the Sermon on the Mount)

“I’m looking for somebody with a little age, that has adult children, that can connect with the bulk of the body here.”  It is assumed that Rep. Walker, and certain of his white evangelical Christian colleagues, would have difficulty “connecting” with a progressive Protestant minister or rabbi who is married.  Or a white female minister, rabbi or nun.  Or a House Chaplain of color.  Or a gay or lesbian clergyperson — even if married.  Or, God forbid, a Muslim faith leader.

The exclusive evangelical Christian beliefs of certain House members are assumed to render them incapable of recognizing the authority of faith leaders who do not look like them nor believe as they do.   To recognize such diversity is to delegitimize the exclusivity of their one true, biblically-bound, belief in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and savior of the world.  Diversity is a grave threat to their understanding of divinity.  Their exceptional belief prevents them from recognizing a universal sign of The Golden Rule (Matthew 7: 12): the rainbow itself is the pot of gold.

For people of faith, it should be the diversity of divinity, and the divinity of diversity — and the commonality of humanity.

The powerfully democratic prayer that Imam Abdullah Antepli’s offered on the House floor last October is assumed to have gone over the heads of Rep. Walker and his like-minded evangelical representatives.  Similar to House Chaplain Conroy, Imam Antepli prayed truth to power:

The Holy One, As your creation, we call you by different names, experience you through multiple paths.  Our human diversity is from you.  As the creator of us all, you made us different.  Enable us to understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences.  Teach and guide us to turn these differences into opportunities, richness and strength.  Prevent us from turning them into sources of division, polarization, hatred and bigotry.  . . . Empower us and these legislators to further improve the culture of inclusion and welcome to all in our nation and beyond.  . . .In your most holy and beautiful names we pray.  Amen. (“A Muslim chaplain’s  Prayer to the U.S. House,”By Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post, Oct. 4, 2017)

Fr. Conroy’s hiring of a lawyer and, in a letter, challenging the duplicity behind the reasons for his firing led Speaker Ryan to reinstate him.  Ryan chose not to go into detail about the “pastoral services” of House members the chaplain was accused of not providing. Instead, Ryan was quoted as saying, “It is my job as speaker to do what is best for this body, and I know that this body is not well served by a protracted fight over such an important post.” (”Ryan Reinstates House Chaplain After Priest Decided to Fight Dismissal,”By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times, May 3, 2018)  Such a “protracted fight” would have exposed the evangelical Christian sectarianism that is believed to fuel some of Washington’s divisive political partisanism.

“Pastoral services” are important to provide, whether for members of the House of Representatives or for members of houses of worship.  The personal and family needs of Representatives and members of congregations require understanding and competent spiritual care.

The issue here is divorcing “pastoral services” from the public square, the market place and the battlefield.  The spiritual life of people of faith does not operate in a vacuum.  It is strengthened or diminished by political, economic, legal and militaristic – and even sectarian religion – forces.

Thus the vested interests of political – and institutional religions’ – power structures need to be challenged when they fault faith leaders whose “pastoral services” naturally take a prophetic turn.  The physical and spiritual well-being and rights of people are interrelated.  “Pastoral services” include following the money – and the related human misery.  Fr. Conroy provides a greatly needed model for all faith leaders.


More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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