Holy smoke

How the selection of the next House chaplain has turned into the latest political war on Capitol Hill.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

From the comfort of his home in McLean, Va., the Rev. Charles Wright gushed with anticipation over his new job. Wright had just been chosen to serve as the next chaplain of the House of Representatives, and the Presbyterian minister told a reporter he could hardly wait to join that "wonderful family on Capitol Hill."

Little did Wright know how dysfunctional that family could be.

News of Wright's appointment in November spread like wildfire through the corridors of
Congress, and so spread the word that Wright was actually the third choice of an
18-member selection panel and that the GOP leadership had rejected a more
popular applicant -- a Catholic priest.

The controversy grew even uglier as lawmakers -- mostly Democrats --
accused their Republican colleagues of bigotry for having asked
the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, the supposed top contender for the job,
"inappropriate questions" during the interview process. Football
stud-cum-congressional star Steve Largent, R-Okla., came under
considerable scrutiny for asking whether O'Brien planned to wear his
Roman collar around the Capitol and whether it might be seen as "divisive."
Another Republican was said to have suggested that a celibate priest might
have difficulty relating to members of Congress and their families in his counseling role.

By December, allegations of anti-Catholic rhetoric and bigotry among the GOP
ranks were making national headlines, Democrats were demanding a review of
the selection process, O'Brien was making a public stink about being snubbed
and Republicans were scrambling to explain themselves.

John Swomley, the president of Americans for Religious Liberty, fired off
a letter to all House members imploring them to "reject the nomination" of
the Presbyterian Wright as chaplain to "remedy a deeply flawed process that suggests the
unconstitutional application of a religious test for public office."

Swomley noted that in the 210-year history of the House, all 58
chaplains have been Protestants; and only one of the Senate's 61 chaplains has
been Catholic.

Even the Kansas City Star chimed in with an editorial calling on Congress
to "rethink the whole system of legislative chaplains" and save the taxpayers
some money in the process. The chaplain, who is one of five "officers"
appointed by the House, makes $132,000 annually. That's only slightly less
than the $136,700 earned by the members of Congress he advises.

In defending their chaplain choice, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.,
and Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, argued that they had rejected
O'Brien not because he was a Catholic, but because they believed Wright had
the "best interpersonal and counseling skills."

O'Brien, they argued, simply lacked the experience they were looking for,
despite the fact that he had served as a part-time chaplain at the Walter
Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and had taken classes in stress management counseling
and counseling the addictive personality. He also served five years as
an associate pastor of a parish in Milwaukee, where he directed adult
education programs and youth ministries and worked with many of the 3,000
families attending the church.

For his part, Wright also had impressive credentials -- he currently works for the National Prayer Breakfast Movement and has served as a pastor at various Presbyterian churches in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The GOP leaders further argued that the 18-member selection panel was
merely responsible for narrowing down a broad pool of applicants and forwarding
three names to the House leadership for a final vote by Hastert, Armey and Minority
Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. In selecting Wright, Hastert and Armey didn't seem bothered that the majority of the selection committee's members preferred O'Brien. They said they were unaware of dissenting voices and that they were irrelevant, anyway -- even if prominent Democrats like Gephardt had openly criticized the move.

A GOP -commissioned report on the selection process released earlier this month
showed that O'Brien had received 14 check marks in his favor -- the most of any candidate
in a final tally taken by the search committee. The second-place contender received 10.5 check marks, but Wright had gotten only 9.5.

Angry Democrats demanded to know why the House leadership would convene a
committee to select a chaplain and then blatantly ignore the panel's recommendation.

Meanwhile, defensive Republicans asked why Hastert would have created a search
committee in the first place if he had intended all along to exclude certain
candidates and favor others? Hastert believed the committee would have made the process more fair, but he could have avoided the whole messy affair by exercising his authority to forward a candidate for the House chaplain vote.

Under attack from all sides, GOP insiders charged that O'Brien badly flubbed an interview, and accused
Democrats of simply fanning the flames for political gain.

As news of the controversy spread beyond the Beltway, editorial boards
across the country slammed Republicans as anti-Catholic bigots and demanded
answers. Polling by the National Republican Congressional Committee,
the campaign arm of the House GOP, showed a serious backlash among Catholic
voters, a critical swing vote -- and Republicans began circulating a 1998
article from Crisis Magazine illustrating a pattern of electoral
losses for Republicans in times when they have lost Catholic support.

House and Senate chaplains, for better or worse, have been around since
the First Continental Congress and were originally intended to provide
lawmakers with pastoral care and guidance when they were away from home -- the same way a chaplain provides his services to military troops in the

Today, the chaplain offers the daily morning prayer that begins each
legislative day, offers invocations at a number of events, conducts wedding
ceremonies for members of Congress and their staff, assists members in their contacts with
religious groups and provides pastoral counseling to lawmakers and their

"You do have a lot of stresses and pressures for the members and their
families. The chaplain has played a very considerable role in counseling,"
said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar and political analyst at the
American Enterprise Institute and longtime friend of O'Brien's. "The
chaplain is someone they can turn to ... to make them feel a little bit better
about themselves."

Interestingly, Capitol Hill's ongoing chaplain spat is not exactly a new
chapter in congressional history.

According to the Congressional Research Service, a "period without
appointed chaplains lasted from 1857 to 1859, when questions were raised by
citizens who objected to the employment of chaplains in Congress and the
military as a breach of the separation of church and state."

That's only half the story.

"Some critics also alleged that the appointments of chaplains had become
too politicized," Mildred Amer, a CRS specialist in American government,
wrote in a CRS report that was issued last year.

Congress' solution back then was to have local clergy volunteer to serve
as chaplains -- but it wasn't very effective. Finding volunteers to perform the
time-consuming duties and respond to the unpredictable demands
proved difficult, and lawmakers soon returned to selecting official House and
Senate chaplains.

Other critics wonder whether the employment of a House chaplain might be a violation of constitutional church-state separation. "The answer is not to try to improve the selection process, but to abolish the post of chaplain," said Barry Lynn, executive director of
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "Such a move would be
in keeping with the church-state separation principle provided in our

But most members, staff and other congressional insiders wince at the
suggestion that they abolish the office of the chaplain -- and they've little
to worry about. After all, the courts are on their side.

In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the position, arguing that it was, in effect, historically sanctioned. In a
majority opinion, the court said that legislative prayer is "deeply embedded
in the history and tradition of this country" and had become "part of the
fabric of society" and didn't interfere with the "principles" of religious

Moreover, it didn't seem to bother the nation's founding fathers.

"It can hardly be thought that in the same week Members of the First
Congress voted to appoint and to pay a chaplain for each House and also voted
to approve the draft of the First Amendment for submission to the States, they
intended the Establishment Clause of the Amendment to forbid what they had
just declared acceptable," the court pointed out.

When a related case, Murray vs. Buchanan, challenging the
constitutionality of Congress having paid chaplains, came before the United
States Court of Appeals shortly thereafter, the appellate court simply
dismissed the case, noting that the Supreme Court had already settled the

Now, with the 2000 election cycle closing in on them, GOP lawmakers hope to remedy
the chaplain crisis by introducing members on both sides of the aisle
to Wright before his candidacy is brought to a full House vote in
February. According to GOP aides, Hastert feels that once his colleagues become more familiar with
Wright and his plans for the office of the chaplain, concerns about O'Brien
will fade.

Hastert, in fact, has asked Wright to be the featured speaker at an
upcoming GOP retreat for members of Congress.

In politicizing the selection process, the current Congress has tarnished the image of an important position and made it less desirable for prospective chaplains. As James
Ford, a Lutheran who has filled the chaplain post for the last 21 years, explained in a memo to the search committee last year, part of the allure of the role is that the office of the chaplain is "non-political."

"There is so much 'politics' here that Members and staff may welcome the
opportunity to speak and to know someone who doesn't have a political
agenda," acknowledged Ford.

In light of recent events, members would be well served to follow Ford's
lead -- and keep their politics out of the chaplain's office.

By Amy Keller

Amy Keller is a senior staff writer for Roll Call.

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