The Senate Chaplain’s Remarkable Popularity Highlights the Problem With Legislative Prayers

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 16 2013 5:24 PM

Let. Us. Pray.

What’s wrong with falling in love with the amazing Senate chaplain?

Senate Chaplain Barry Black
Senate Chaplain Barry Black in his Capitol office in January 2012.

Photo by Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

When the history books sort it all out for us, the unlikely hero of the government shutdown of 2013 may well be the Senate chaplain, former Navy Rear Adm. Barry C. Black. Amid all the crazy chest thumping up at the Capitol these past few weeks, Black has been preaching truth to power. In one-minute increments of prayer before Senate sessions, he’s been unloading fistfuls of rhetorical whoop-ass upon the folks who have cavalierly broken the government the way little boys burn ants. Black, who has been chaplain for the past decade, has used the crisis of the shutdown to say to the government what the rest of us have long been thinking: “Save us from the madness," he begged God in one prayer. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable,” in another. Last week, after hearing of the delay of benefits for military families, Black prayed, “It’s time for our lawmakers to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” before asking God to “cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.”

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

I suppose one could call it prayer when a chaplain asks God to “Remove from them that stubborn pride, which imagines itself to be beyond criticism. Forgive them for the blunders they have committed.” Or one could just call it a public paddling. Black is careful to be nonpartisan. And yet there can be no doubt that the substance of his remarks are political—and provocative. During the shutdown he has advocated for restoring pay to the Capitol police and giving benefits to the families of service members. As he told the New York Times, “I see us playing a very dangerous game. It’s like the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Who’s going to blink first? So I can’t help but have some of this spill over into my prayer. Because you’re hoping that something will get through and that cooler heads will prevail.”

And that’s why everyone’s gone crazy for Black. (Watch CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield swoon here.) After Saturday Night Live delivered a pitch-perfect sendup of Black’s morning prayers this past weekend—“Lord, bless and forgive these braying jackasses, lest they do something that makes people want to pin them on the floor, shove a sweaty sock in their mouths, and then whoop ’em up and down with a pillowcase full of Skittles”—one thing was abundantly clear: Black, who is, by the way, working for free these past few weeks—is quite obviously the last sane man in Washington.

Advertisement

But perhaps that’s not something folks on the left should be feeling perfectly sanguine about.  Consider that all of this brutal honesty in government is coming from a man of the cloth. In the form of a supplication to God. Consider, also, that it’s his very moral authority, as a spiritual leader, that is leading officeholders to listen closely to him and think carefully about his arguments. Black recently explained that “I've had senators say to me frequently, ‘Keep the prayer pressure on.’ One senator came to me and said, ‘Chaplain, I hope our lawmakers are listening, because I've been following your prayers very, very closely ... and they are really making a difference in my reflections.’ ”

Progressives like what Black is saying because he is currently shaming the heck out of intransigent Republicans. But what if he were talking about the sanctity of life on the Senate floor? Or gently urging the moral value of school prayer? The left would be frantic, just as we get frantic when half the members of the Supreme Court, President Obama’s Cabinet, and members of Congress attend the Red Mass each year, on the Sunday before the court term opens in October.

Ironically enough, the sermon at this year’s Red Mass was not a blistering condemnation of abortion, as it has been in the past (Ruth Bader Ginsburg stopped attending after one such homily), but, rather, a call for civility in government—which actually sounded an awful lot like the teachings of Black. The sermon at this year’s Red Mass condemned the current political landscape as a latter-day Tower of Babel, a "meaningless confusion of words and sound," and warned that “petty partisanship and ever-politicizing rhetoric should have no place at all when men and women of good will come together to serve the common good." Or, put another way, what if the homilist at the Red Mass of 2013 is, like Black, merely using religion to promote universal values of civility, mutual respect, and good governance?

Progressives probably feel pretty stupid objecting to either message, despite the fact that the messenger comes in religious robes. It’s almost hard to recall that conflating secular politics and sectarian religion is something we’ve been accusing Republicans of doing for decades. But when someone is scolding Republicans about their intransigence and doing it in the name of God, it feels doubly gratifying. Not only were they wrong to shut down government, they were also sinners.

So, it’s a pickle. We can’t complain about the overtly religious grandstanding that pervaded the Values Voters Summit (Sen. Ted Cruz compared Values Voters to the biblical Queen Esther) and then cheer for the Senate chaplain when he prays for God to bonk some sense into the legislative branch. Blurring legislating with praying is a game the GOP has been winning for decades now, as liberals hollered furiously. The Supreme Court is about to hear Town of Greece v. Galloway, a major case about the constitutionality of prayer before a legislative session. But the fight seems to have gone out of liberals wary of prayer in civic settings precisely at the moment the question is squarely before the court: In fact, the Obama administration has aligned itself with the idea that praying while legislating isn’t necessarily a constitutional problem. And while the Galloway case is about how we can gauge when the state is “establishing” a religion, even the solicitor general’s office appears to be of the view that a little bit of ecumenical feel-good sectarian prayer before legislators roll up their sleeves to legislate is ultimately good for everyone.

The main question in Galloway is whether the last vestiges of Sandra Day O’Connor’s so-called “endorsement” test for religious activity in the public square will survive or whether government will only appear to be establishing religion if it feels “coercive”—a test Justice Anthony Kennedy prefers. And while nobody will suggest—perhaps with the exception of atheists—that Black’s prayers involve the endorsement of any one religion or sect, it is certainly the case that the Senate chaplain has never been anything other than a Christian.

The questions raised by our love affair with Black have less to do with establishing religion than what we think about a nonsectarian legislative prayer, which takes on distinctly partisan and political undertones. Is there a problem here, or is it simply unavoidable the very instant you agree to have legislative blessings? Or put another way, how can something that feels so right be constitutionally wrong?

We seem to be ever more comfortable in this country with the test set forth by Samuel Adams, who—when contemplating whether to have a prayer recited at the first session of the Continental Congress—famously said, “I hope I am no bigot, and can hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue who is a friend to his country.” Perhaps we are all Sam Adams now. Or perhaps we simply accept once and for all that this is a deeply religious country that needs to see ritual expressions of that religion in otherwise completely secular activities. But for anyone who feels that the issues in Galloway still matterwhether citizens should be forced to hear pervasively sectarian prayers every time they attend a town council meeting—we should acknowledge that the needle has moved yet again this week in favor of more public prayer. I am as avid an admirer of Black, his bravery, and his advocacy as anyone else. And that is precisely the problem.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 25 2014 3:21 PM Listen to Our November Music Roundup Hot tracks for our fall playlist, exclusively for Slate Plus members.