Last month, the House of Representatives was awash in drama as Speaker Paul Ryan requested that the House Chaplain Patrick Conroy resign, only for Conroy to rescind his resignation a few weeks later.
Before delving into the intrigue involving the Reverend and the Speaker, it is important to define “House chaplain,” as many were unaware of the position’s existence prior to this April. The Chaplain of the House of Representatives is an official elected by the House of Representatives and serves a two-year term. The chaplain’s duties are to open each session of the House with a prayer, to offer counsel to House members, and to perform ministerial duties in and around the Capitol. The chaplain is meant to be a spiritual guide and not a representative of a specific religion or sect. However, in the 229 years since the Constitution created the position, it has only ever been filled by Christians, and almost exclusively by Protestants.
The current House chaplain, Reverend Patrick Conroy, a former lawyer and current Jesuit priest from the state of Washington, has occupied the position since his election under Speaker John Boehner in 2011. He is the second Catholic to hold the position and, as a Jesuit, belongs to the liberal branch of Catholicism. His time in the House was uneventful until last month. Ryan abruptly requested that Conroy resign his post, which is an unprecedented action in the history of the House. The sudden and seemingly random request created shock and outrage in Congress and across the country as well as within the House. Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina stated, “What has been done is absolutely absurd and ridiculous,” and that “Catholics and Protestants alike will rally for the chaplain.” Father James Martin, editor of America, the national Jesuit magazine, went after Ryan, tweeting, “a Catholic Speaker of the House fired a Catholic chaplain for praying for the poor.”
Catholic civil rights organizations have even gone as far as accusing Ryan of being anti-Catholic, which is a controversial move given that Ryan himself is a Catholic. This was compounded upon when Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, who was on the committee tasked with finding a replacement, stated, “I'm looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here.” Walker’s statement implies that he has no intention of nominating another Catholic, who, by doctrine, would be celibate. While many have come to Ryan and Walker’s defense and denounced the idea that there is an anti-Catholic conspiracy in Congress, Ryan’s move is not entirely unrelated to religion. Conroy is a Jesuit, a member of the most progressive branch of Catholicism and which has a long tradition of “speaking truth to power.” In keeping with this tradition, Conroy stated last September in his opening prayer before a House meeting to discuss tax reform that he hoped that the representatives would “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” This is what allegedly prompted Ryan to ask for his resignation, as Ryan perceived this as Conroy supporting the Democrats. However, Catholics have come forward stating that Conroy was simply being a good Christian and praying for equality and aid for the poor, as the Bible commands.
Conroy has responded to this, saying that he does believe that Ryan’s actions were retribution for Conroy’s opening prayer last September. Conroy alleges that Ryan approached him after the session and said, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” Ryan has denied that Conroy’s firing was politically motivated but has not elaborated further.
Conroy, perhaps realizing that the tide of public opinion was behind him, took a stand in early May, penning a strongly-worded letter to Ryan in which he announced his intention to remain at his post and dared Ryan to actually terminate his employment. Ryan immediately acquiesced, and Conroy is back at his post.
This conflict between Ryan and Conroy, however petty it may seem, has raised serious questions about politics and religion in America. Ryan has been accused of “politicizing one of the last apolitical parts of Congress.” House Democrats believe that Conroy was targeted because Ryan thought he seemed to be leaning more left than right.
This raises the question of whether it is even possible to depoliticize religion. Each religion has its doctrine which it requires its members to follow above all else. How could that possibly be true if one is also participates in a secular government? For example, if a Democrat congressperson is a Christian, how could he or she support pro-choice legislation?
On the other side of the aisle, as Conroy suggested, if a Republican congressperson’s religion promotes equality and assisting the poor, how could he or she vote for tax cuts that favor the wealthy? It appears that we have not solved the question first raised when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for President in 1960: If religion determines a set of rules, values, and loyalty to a higher principle or God, how could a religious person be part of secular government where it is asked that you put the needs of this country above everything else? It seems impossible to keep religion out of one’s politics, but that is exactly what the Founding Fathers asked for.
The answer, then, to how the separation between church and state is maintained is that it is not. Any American child knows the phrase “separation of Church and State” as it applies to our government. Any American who has taken US History could also most likely point to the Declaration of Independence, which appeals to the “the laws of Nature and of Nature's God” or the numerous state constitutions that originally mandated that all officeholders be Christians or the fact that every single President has been Christian. The Founding Fathers, despite their efforts, wove Christianity tightly into the fabric of America.
Despite the latent Christianity within American culture, it appears that many American citizens did not even know that there is a House Chaplain. America is becoming increasingly more secular. Maybe twenty-first-century America can do what eighteenth-century America could not and actually separate church and state. This secularization is being resisted by individuals and groups determined to bring Christian values back into the cultural and political mainstream. President Trump recently moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move that many believe was prompted by the “Rapture” Christians in his cabinet, Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, who believe that the Jews returning to Jerusalem is key to the Second Coming of Christ. Moreover, Trump is pulling funding from several groups that perform abortions or abortion referrals. Secular as we may be, politicians like our President are still allowing Christianity to guide their decisions.While Trump certainly appears to provide evidence to the contrary, the question remains: is there still room for religion in America? Many religions teach charity, humility and kindness, which are values that could only serve to make American society better. Conroy serves as an excellent example of what a modern-day American religious teacher can be: he is known for preaching the acceptance of LGBTQ+ community members and for ending racial discrimination. He asserts that the Church needs to take on the larger teachings of their faith, like love and acceptance, and leave the archaic and discriminatory minutia behind. Conroy appears to be a religious person who can contribute important values that will only serve to further deepen and equalize our democracy. And where does that leave the role of the House chaplain? Arguably, this is one of the more salvageable parts of religion within government because the role is meant to facilitate debate and it is not restricted to Christianity—the next chaplain could, in theory, be a rabbi or an imam. However, if America is truly going to make the separation, God should most likely be left outside the House, at least in terms of reciting prayers. Only one thing is for certain at this point: the role of House chaplain may be up for debate, but Patrick Conroy is not going anywhere before his term concludes.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.