« Multiple-Choice Law School Exams | Main | Comments on Prawfs »

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Spring Break...

So my spring break was mostly lost to work, but a really fun part of that work was interviewing the two current congressional chaplains -- the Rev. Barry Black on the Senate side, and the Rev. Daniel Coughlin on the House side.  They are quite remarkable people and they have quite a remarkable job. 

I should say, first off, that they were incredibly gracious.  I was surprised they even agreed to see me after I sent them my paper, which focuses on some very uncomfortable and unfavorable episodes in the chaplaincies' history.  But they read it, offered helpful comments, and seemed very appreciative that someone had uncovered these historical details about the institution they care so much about. 

Anyway, here are some things that came up in the interviews that other faculty here found interesting:

(1) The chaplaincy is no sinecure.  The chaplains counsel members, sometimes staffers.  They arrange Bible studies.  They take around dignitaries, especially those with religious positions (i.e., Vatican personnel, the Dalai Lama, Muslim clerics).  They still do the opening prayers.  (One chaplain told me he considered it his most important and most sacred duty.)  What surprised me was this -- they also apparently try to attend all final votes on legislation, standing outside the voting chamber to greet members as if welcoming them to worship.  (One chaplain actually made that joke, saying it reminded him of his days in the parish.)

(2) The chaplains are vigorous fans of the separation of church and state.  I tend to avoid that phrase myself; whenever a speaker uses it, I usually wonder what they mean.  But they kept on bringing it up.  They consider the chaplaincies as furthering that ideal; they see their jobs as evidence of America's commitment to religious liberty and religious tolerance.  It took me awhile to understand what they meant.  But their point is that their daily work involves facilitating mutual understanding and respect between religious groups.  Especially after 9/11, they say, the message that America accepts all religious groups is one that needs to get out. 

(3) Legislative prayer in the Congress is radically different than legislative prayer in states and local governments.  After talking with one of the chaplains for a few hours, he wanted to know why I was so down on legislative prayer.  I spoke of some of the recent problems that had gone on in state and local legislatures, and he was horrified.  And I realized the very serious political checks on legislative prayer in Congress.  There are "guest chaplains" -- outside ministers who come in to give the prayer for a day.  But they are screened somewhat by the congressperson that chooses them.  And they meet with the congressional chaplain, who gives them guidance on speaking to a general audience.  They also probably restrain themselves.  The Senate is an awesome place; no one wants to be an embarrassment.  And finally, if they do go too far, they don't get invited back.  Compare all that to legislative prayer at a county commissioner meeting -- where it's easy for any yahoo to get control of the microphone and say literally anything in his prayers.  There, obviously, the potential for abuse is staggeringly high.  So let's just say that federalism didn't come out so well on this trip.

Posted by Chris Lund on March 23, 2009 at 02:19 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference My Spring Break...:


Your link to Coughlin also goes to Black's page.

Posted by: Jay | Mar 24, 2009 11:46:36 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.