The recent flap over the firing and subsequent "un-firing" of House chaplain Rev. Patrick J. Conroy raised a number of questions about House Speaker Paul B. Ryan (R-Wisc.) and his motives.
Lurking just below the surface, however, were even more compelling questions: How did a nation founded on separation of church and state end up with taxpayer-funded chaplains in Congress? Is it proper to keep them?
Those questions weren't highlighted as the kerfuffle dragged on. Instead, the focus tended to be on what happened behind the scenes that led to Conroy's initial downfall and his return.
Some media accounts said that Ryan was angered by a prayer Conroy delivered Nov. 6, 2017, during the debate over the tax bill. Conroy prayed in part, "May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans."
Ryan reportedly interpreted the prayer as being critical of the GOP's policies toward the poor. According to some accounts, he told Conroy, "Padre, you just got to stay out of politics." (Ryan denies this, insisting he acted to remove Conroy because the chaplain wasn't doing enough pastoral counseling for members.)
In the ensuing uproar, House members didn't hesitate to fling charges at one another as they tried to sort out what happened. One thing they didn't consider was the option of simply abolishing the position.
As the country considers the controversy, it's helpful to step back and ask a bedrock question: How did a nation founded on the separation of church and state end up with so many taxpayer-funded or officially designated chaplains in Congress, and in state legislatures as well?
The answer goes back to the period prior to the American Revolution --a time when the proper relationship between church and state was still being hashed out.
The Continental Congress, a body consisting of delegates from the 13 original U.S. colonies, was formed in 1774 and provided a national government during the war. Most members of the Continental Congress, who came out of an era in which many colonies still had established churches, saw no problem with appointing an official chaplain. Although no chaplains were present, nor official prayers offered, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the new Congress created during those deliberations accepted the idea of a chaplaincy.
At the time, there was some discussion about whether a chaplain could represent the diversity of religious beliefs without taking sides, but concerns over the legality of the move were apparently not discussed --although it should be noted that the appointment of the first congressional chaplains, the Rev. William Linn (Presbyterian) in the House and the Rev. Samuel Provoost (Episcopalian) in the Senate, occurred in 1789, two years before the Bill of Rights was adopted.
Ironically, James Madison, who served on a joint committee that created the congressional chaplains, later criticized the system in his writings.
America's fourth president, Madison was a longtime advocate of religious freedom. He was considered a "founding father" of the Constitution and was a primary author of the First Amendment. He addressed the chaplaincy issue in a series of essays scholars believe were drafted between 1820 and 1830. Known as the "Detached Memoranda," the essays cover a range of topics, including religious freedom.
In one essay, Madison asked the question, "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?"
He then answers himself: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national...