By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
I’ll admit that I had no idea who was serving as Chaplain of the House of Representatives until the recent controversy over the forced resignation of Fr. Patrick Conroy, S.J. But if someone had told me only that a Catholic priest had just been fired as House Chaplain, I would have guessed that he was a Jesuit.
The Society of Jesus has been a thorn in the side of princes and popes for centuries. Jesuits have been periodically banned by kings and suppressed by the Church, but they have always returned to continue speaking truth to power, inspired by a rich tradition of Ignatian spirituality and a fierce intellectual independence. My own alma mater, Jesuit High School in El Paso, Texas, occupied a campus built by Mexican Jesuits during a period of anti-clerical political repression in Mexico.
While I was still contemplating the meaning of the termination, the resulting political outcry resulted in Paul Ryan’s capitulation to political reality and Fr. Conroy’s reinstatement. But the question remains: what was behind the request for his resignation? The explanation initially provided, that he was not meeting the “pastoral needs” of his congressional flock, struck me as contrived. Nor did I buy into the excuse that he was a victim of generalized anti-Catholic attitudes among certain House members. The correct answer, I believe, lies behind Fr. Conroy’s own comments that he had been asked to “stay out of politics” following a prayer before the opening of a House session on the then pending tax overhaul bill. The words of that prayer suggest that Fr. Conroy’s sin was primarily theological.
The flap over Fr. Conroy’s prayer was not Paul Ryan’s first Jesuit rodeo. In 2012 he spoke at Georgetown University in defense of a proposed budget that would have privatized Medicare and substantially cut funding for Medicaid and food stamps. Although he argued that his plan was in keeping with Catholic “social doctrine as best I can make of it,” his comments were met with a letter signed by numerous members of the Georgetown faculty asserting that “your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
I am one who shares James Madison’s view that a system of paid government chaplains violates the Establishment Clause. And I am not persuaded by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), in which a majority of the Court essentially held that religious ceremonial traditions of sufficiently long duration are entitled to a sort of Establishment Clause exemption when they “become a part of the fabric of our society.” 463 U.S. at 792. Since there is no risk that I will ever serve on the Supreme Court, the Marsh decision is safe for the present.
But the Conroy controversy illuminates some of the flaws in that decision. It appears that a portion of the offending prayer called on Congress to enact tax legislation that “guarantees that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” For many of us, those words reflect both a secular and a religious standard that laws ought not favor the economically privileged at the expense of the poor. For many in the evangelical community, however, they express a radical rejection of a brand of theology that regards wealth as evidence of God’s favor and poverty a consequence of sin and slothful behavior.
It is not a state secret that President Trump and a majority of evangelicals maintain a tight embrace. His Evangelical Advisory Board is largely comprised of purveyors of prosperity theology and Christian dominionism, a belief that Christians must control every social and political institution in order to establish a theocratic republic governed strictly by biblical principles of righteousness, as dominionists define them. Paula White, a member of the board who professes to be the President’s spiritual adviser, has proclaimed that Mr. Trump was “raised up by God.” The President’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jersusalem has been hailed by evangelicals who look forward to the rapture. And the choice of Mike Pence as Vice-President convinced most evangelicals that a new day had dawned for the promotion of their legislative policies.
In line with Paul Ryan’s Randian views of society, Christian dominionists oppose any government funding of social welfare programs, regarding it as a form of charity reserved for faith-based organizations. Fr. Conroy’s prayer, therefore, although consistent with the Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine, was indeed heretical, as contrary to the emerging evangelical religious-political orthodoxy, a merger of fundamentalist Christian thought with Republican small-government philosophy under the banner of laissez-faire capitalism as a biblical mandate.
Which brings us back to Marsh v. Chambers. The great political divide in this country has been accompanied by a great religious divide. A toleration of divergent religious opinion is increasingly absent from contemporary dialogue. The Marsh Court relied on a bit of nostalgia, evoking a history framed by an inoffensive Protestant tradition of generic recognition of the Almighty. That time is gone. Religious institutions are demanding an increased role in the formulation of public policy, and an increased share of public funds. Fr. Conroy’s prayer was a reminder that there are many, and varied, versions of religious thought.
The current state of Establishment Clause jurisprudence is best described as a mess. There is a need to restore that clause to its rightful place as a defender of religious pluralism. But that will require a return to a classical understanding of church-state separation and a rejection of current efforts to make government the exclusive agent of one narrowly drawn definition of religious truth. That will not happen under the current Administration.
Sources: Elizabeth Dias and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Firing of House Chaplain Causes Uproar on Capitol Hill,” New York Times (April 27, 2018); Jason Le Mare, “Donald Trump’s Spiritual Adviser Paula White Is Telling Women And Megachurch Pastors To Vote Republican In November,” Newsweek (April 25, 2018); Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic (April, 2018); Sean Illing, “This is why evangelicals love Trump’s Israel Policy,” Vox (December 12, 2017); Chris Lehmann, “How the prosperity gospel explains Donald Trump’s popularity with Christian voters,” Washington Post (July 15, 2016); Jason Hackworth, “Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States,” (University of Georgia Press 2012); Ariel Edwards-Levy, “Paul Ryan Defends Budget’s Catholic Principles At Georgetown University,” Huffington Post (April 26, 2012).
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