Last month, outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) basically fired the House chaplain, Rev. Patrick J. Conway, who offered his resignation. Yesterday, he wrote a letter to Ryan -- on the advice of counsel (counsel??! Yes, that's how convoluted this whole affair has gotten, angering both Democrats and Republicans alike) -- that he was rescinding his resignation, and explained his reasons.
One of those reasons dealt with the meeting he had with Ryan's Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks. When Rev. Conway asked why he was being requested to step down, he says that Burks told him, “Maybe it’s time that we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.”
As you might suspect, Burks says he strongly disagrees with Rev. Conway's interpretation of the meeting. And he might be right. But given a battle of two recollections, whose side would you fall on? The Chief of Staff to Paul Ryan, or the House chaplain?
Whatever the truth, Paul Ryan has backed off, and Rev. Conway is back in his old job. Not all members of Congress are satisfied, though, still disturbed why he had been asked to resign in the first place, wanting the matter looked into.
I have two reactions.
One is that just imagine if there was a story that a Democratic Speaker of the House -- let's say Nancy Pelosi -- had asked the House chaplain to quit -- for any reason. But most especially imagine if the story got out that Nancy Pelosi had asked the House chaplain to quit because "Maybe it's time that we had a chaplain that wasn't a Catholic." I think holy hell would have roared out, and the walls of Congress would have come tumbling down.
And the other is -- maybe it's time that we didn't have a chaplain for Congress at all.
By the way, President James Madison -- not only a Founding Father of the country, but a founding writer of the Constitution and considered the principle author of the First Amendment -- didn't believe the House and Senate should have a chaplain, arguing that it couldn't be supported by the separation of Church and State in the Constitution. In an essay, he wrote, "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?” In the end, he answered his question: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.”
So, I'm not alone. And in good company.
And so, we get an argument of whether there should be a Catholic chaplain. Or what about a Protestant, or Baptist or Lutheran chaplain? What about a Unitarian chaplain. Woe betide us if we had a Jewish chaplain. Or Buddhist or...yes, dare we even imagine it -- a Muslim chaplain. (Okay, you can quit laughing now. I'm serious. Within context.) Or fill in the blank of your religion of choice. I suppose an atheist chaplain is out of the question, but it would probably be more Constitutionally supportable than the others.
Given how unconstitutional -- not to mention how fraught with controversy -- it is having a House and Senate chaplain, it would seem to me that the best compromise would be that IF you really, absolutely insist on having a Chaplain for Congress...and given, after all, that this is Congress...the Chaplain should be Charlie.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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