Published: January 13, 2012
WASHINGTON — The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy invited all the members of the House of Representatives and their families to the holiday reception he was hosting last month as the chamber’s chaplain. He put out hot cider, cookies and a not-quite-functional chocolate fountain, and for the benefit of the children he picked up his folk guitar to perform “The House at Pooh Corner.”
Amid the well-organized cheer, though, Father Conroy noticed one subtly disquieting scene. It was apparent that two of his guests, representatives from opposite sides of the partisan aisle, and both sent to Washington to do the nation’s business, had never even spoken directly to each other before.
Nearly five months before that Christmas party, the chaplain of the Senate, the Rev. Dr. Barry C. Black, offered the opening prayer for a rare Sunday session. The Senate was deadlocked along partisan lines on a measure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The imminent prospect of a default on government bonds or a downgrade of the federal credit rating had not been enough to overcome the fierce dispute between Democrats and Republicans.
“Save us, O God,” Dr. Black pleaded in his prayer, “for the waters are coming in upon us. We are weak from the struggle. Tempted to throw in the towel. But quitting is not an option.”
In these two episodes, one private and the other very public, one can grasp the unusual and supple roles being played by the House and Senate chaplains. At a time when Congress is stunningly unpopular, with approval ratings in various recent polls around 12 percent, Father Conroy and Dr. Black serve as pastors to what must be one of the most reviled congregations in the country.
That harsh reality puts these clergymen in the position of trying to nurture civility within this fractious flock and trying to explain to a skeptical public that all is not as dire and broken as much of the citizenry plainly believes. They encounter senators and representatives not through speeches and sound bites but as participants in prayer breakfasts and Bible studies, or in casual moments in the Capitol’s cloakroom or restaurant or gym.
Very different paths brought the ministers to their respective roles. Dr. Black, 63, a Seventh-day Adventist, spent 27 years as a Navy chaplain, rising to the rank of rear admiral, before being appointed to the Senate position in 2003. He is the first African-American to be a Congressional chaplain. Father Conroy, 61, a Roman Catholic from the Jesuit order, had devoted much of his career to college chaplaincy and social-justice work. Named to his House post last May, he is even newer to the job than the chamber’s 87 first-term members.
“I’m dealing with a Crock-Pot,” Dr. Black put it, referring to the Senate’s reputation for deliberation. “He’s got a microwave.”
In the current session of Congress, the contrast between the appliances has been less evident, with showdowns over the debt ceiling and the payroll tax extension and dozens of filibusters and cloture votes. A deeply divided electorate seems to agree only on its disdain for Congress, and President Obama appears to be designing a re-election campaign that will cast Congress as villain.
“I’m a little more philosophical,” Dr. Black said in an interview last month. “I have a long view of history. We’ve had secession from the Union. I was in Alabama in the 1960s, drinking water from fountains labeled ‘Colored.’ It took 50 years to pass meaningful civil rights legislation. So I see things as cyclical in terms of polarization.”
Over in the House, Father Conroy prepared for his job in part by reading “American Lion,” Jon Meacham’s best seller about Andrew Jackson. The bitter rivalry between Jackson and Henry Clay in Congress has provided him with some assurance that “it’s not an unprecedented thing in American politics for there to be recriminations and a lack of civility.”
Particularly as a Jesuit, though, Father Conroy said he looked to the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who taught the importance of recognizing “godliness in the other.” (In the saint’s time, that meant Protestants, not the Tea Party or liberals.) The chaplain has also been striving to understand why the House can seem so resistant to that generosity of spirit.
“One of the things that’s true today that hasn’t been true of the past 30 years is that there are fewer civilizing forces,” he said in a mid-December interview. “The members’ families don’t live here. It’s easier on Friday to get on a plane and go home. So Congressman A’s spouse isn’t friends with Congressman Z’s. Or their kids don’t play together. You have no social bonding at all. The only relationship those congressmen have is as opponents.”
With its six-year terms and polite protocols, the Senate is at least in theory constructed for friendship and compromise. But it is also, as Dr. Black pointed out, the arena for two parties, two philosophies, two historical narratives, two analytical lenses. Its rules regarding filibuster and cloture put obstructive power in the hands of a determined minority.
“I’m amazed there’s as much civility as there is,” Dr. Black said. “I am gratified to see people of faith, who may be re-enacting the Thrilla in Manila in the chamber, holding hands at a prayer breakfast. I have a unique window that the general public doesn’t have.”
What both chaplains yearn for is a public with perspective on itself. The warring senators and representatives of Washington did not wind up there by accident or coincidence. Somebody elected them. To put it scripturally, Father Conroy said he finds himself thinking of Luke 6:41: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
“The American Congress,” he said, “represents the American people. Is it any surprise they got what they voted for? It’s easier to blame Congress than to look in the mirror.”