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Church, state’s uneasy intersection

The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, who was fired

The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, who was fired last week as House chaplain, stands on the Capitol steps in Washington in 2016. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

I never believed it was a good idea to mix church and state, and thought that both the Constitution and the Bible more than caution against it.

I never championed the notion of an official chaplain of the House of Representatives. It seemed contrary to my views on separating church and state.

I’m certainly not against organized religion, nor do I look upon democratic government properly practiced with anything but favor.

But mixing the two often proves toxic — as evidenced by the dismissal of House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy. House Speaker Paul Ryan would have us believe that he dismissed Conroy because some members complained about his pastoral duties. (For 30 years I heard congressmen gripe about everything. But this?)

The good Jesuit did pray before his congressional flock that there not be “. . . winners and losers under the new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” Seems telling Congress not to sin, is a sin. So why was he there?

There’s the establishment clause in the law of the land (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) as well as Jesus’ admonition in the New Testament (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God, that which is God’s”).

When we confuse religion with politics, we always get into trouble. Politics is the art of compromise in a very transactional and provable world in which we live. Religion, for those who hold it dear, is what we believe in a larger universal sense that is sometimes eternal yet unprovable to others. For those who hold either or both concepts, there needn’t be conflict among or within ourselves, so long as we respect each other and ourselves.

We betray not our beliefs when we compromise on the decent means by which to meet our goals. Are there not many roads? Are there never to be found unexpected joys along a sometimes longer path?

Compromise is not a sin. It is not a betrayal of one’s faith. It’s an effort to cooperate with others to get to where we want to go.

So, it strikes me as ironic that in politics, usually the strictest of constitutional constructionists as well as the most pious of religious believers outright reject the literal language in this case of separation of government and religion, while simultaneously switching arguments with the most vigorous of libertarians and ardent of atheists now quoting the Bible, clinging to the unalterable notions as originally stated, as if gospel.

But the reality is, there is a House chaplain, always (until 2000) a Protestant, with occasionally a guest chaplain who might be a rabbi, an imam, or holy person suggested to the House chaplain by a member. I must confess that despite my concern on the principle, I, mostly for 30 years, enjoyed the change of pace provided by the opening prayer. Very rarely did it ever cite a name for God recognized exclusively by a specific religion. It brought us together inclusively by reminding us we were there for a common humanity, an unselfish purpose.

And that is the mainstream message of all of the world’s great religions: Treat others as we would like to be treated. It is a Christian message. It is a Muslim message. It is a Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, secular decency message.

The only problem is that now, the former House chaplain, a good and decent man and messenger, delivered it at a politically inconvenient time, as Ryan was trying to pass his tax bill.

Gary Ackerman served in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2013.