Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage

What Really Happened in Uganda?

Go Down, Elian

A Religious Right Arrives in Canada

A Cardinal in Full

Mormon Women in the Real World

Peanuts for Christ

Feeble Opinions on the House Chaplaincy

by Michael McGough

Capitol.gif (321433 bytes)In 1948, Carl M. Saunders, editor of the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot, called in an editorial for the establishment of a National Day of Prayer. Noting that the United States "is generally classified as a Christian nation," Saunders asked, "Why then should not America pray as a nation in a time when, as a nation, we are in dire need of help and guidance?" Giving the lie to the rueful complaint by editorial writers that no one takes our advice, Saunders was heard, a National Day of Prayer was established, and in 1950 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a follow-up editorial.

Normally, however, editorial writers choose discretion over valor when it comes to religion. Playing on the title of The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus’s 1984 jeremiad against secularism in America, I once suggested that the editorial column in the typical American newspaper was a naked public rectangle. I was reconfirmed in that conviction this spring by the response of my fellow editorial writers to the flap over the initial refusal of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives to appoint a Roman Catholic priest as the House’s official chaplain.

Not that editorial writers were silent about the controversy; most newspapers weighed in on the affair. How could they not, when it involved an issue that was dominating the signed opinion pieces that share real estate with masthead editorials, not to mention the Beltway blabathons on television? But from the beginning of the controversy in December, when it was reported that Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey had chosen the Rev. Robert Wright, a Presbyterian, over the Rev. Timothy O’Brien, a Roman Catholic and reportedly the bipartisan search committee’s favorite, to its conclusion in March, when Hastert defused the controversy by appointing another Catholic, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, most editorial comment was discreet to the point of superficiality.

For many editorial writers, the controversy was the occasion for word play ("this unholy mess") and half-facetious comments about the fact that, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune put it, House members had demonstrated that "they are in need of prayer." To the extent they did take it seriously, editorials in major newspapers analyzed the chaplain controversy in earthbound and formulaic terms. Many editorial writers laid into House Republicans for dividing Americans on the basis of religion and/or indulging the vestigial anti-Catholicism of evangelical Republicans who were reportedly sent into culture shock by Father O’Brien’s Roman collar and celibate life style. The Atlanta Constitution complained that Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey had "mishandled the routine appointment of a new House chaplain and, even if a biased thought never entered their heads, they have managed to convey the impression of being anti-Catholic....They’ve allowed that perception not just among Democrats hoping to take advantage of the flap but among leaders of Catholic groups as well."

The South Bend (Indiana) Tribune, the local paper for the University of Notre Dame, had this exasperated comment: "If Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland can set aside their differences to form a government, one would think the U.S. House of Representatives could select a chaplain without raising the ire of members. But apparently not." Similar comments came from the Dallas Morning News (the belated appointment of Father Coughlin was "a good move at last") and the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Sun-Sentinel ("Most voters no longer care if their presidential candidates are Protestant or Catholic. Congress should adopt the same attitude in its search for a new chaplain"). In the Chattanooga Times, editorial page editor Harry Austin wrote, "If ever there is a time for coming together and presenting an inclusive face to the nation, the occasion to appoint a new chaplain is such a moment. Unfortunately the House GOP leadership has blown this uniquely symbolic opportunity." The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer Journal sermonized similarly: "Rejecting a priest, for whatever reason, not only belittles the work of the committee that selected him, but also sends all sorts of wrong messages."

The minority view, that Hastert and the Republicans were more sinned against than sinning, also was heard. The right-leaning Washington Times thundered on February 26 that two Democratic critics of the House leadership—Reps. Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo—had no right to cry "anti-Catholic" because they hadn’t nominated a Catholic priest for the post. In an editorial after Father Coughlin’s appointment, the Times praised Speaker Hastert for "ending this sad affair" but lamented that Mr. Wright, the Presbyterian candidate who withdrew, had been "the casualty of the ultimate commingling of church and state, victimized by a rogue collection of Democrats and hung out to dry because of his religious affiliation."

Pro-Republican or anti-, many editorials focused on the safely secular issues of due process (Father O’Brien was reportedly the most popular with the screening panel), diversity (it’s time Catholics had a shot at the chaplains job) and electoral tactics (why would Republicans want to alienate such a powerful political bloc?). There was precious little discussion in masthead editorials of two larger and more interesting issues: the convergence, or lack thereof, of Protestant and Catholic theological views; and the related question of whether, assuming that Protestant-Catholic tensions have eased, such a meeting of minds reinvigorates the argument for an official recognition by Congress (and not only in the form of the chaplaincy) of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s much quoted observation that "we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." It’s as if the debate launched by Neuhaus in the early 1980s, and carried forward by restorationists both Protestant and Catholic, had never happened.

To be fair, some editorialists confronted the larger issues of whether it was wise (not to mention consistent with the First Amendment) for politicians to clothe the public square with official prayer for the reasons championed by the Jackson Citizen-Patriot half a century ago. The Des Moines Register, for example, asked: "What in the name of God, or Allah, or the Great Spirit or whatever, is the U.S. House of Representatives doing employing a sectarian minister in the first place?" My own newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, argued that a House chaplaincy should be trumped by Article VI of the Constitution, which says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

But the issue of the propriety of a congressional chaplaincy wasn’t addressed with much urgency. Several editorials got around to the question of whether, in light of all this fuss, the House chaplain’s office shouldn’t be abolished or replaced with an ecumenical rotation. Indeed, newspapers that differed on whether Speaker Hastert had wronged Catholics concurred in that shoulder-shrugging suggestion. Even the Washington Times, after praising Speaker Hastert for the belated selection of Father Coughlin, offered this impatient afterthought: "If the next chaplain appointment devolves similarly, perhaps we’d all be better off with no debate—or, indeed, no chaplain at all."

Realistically, a major newspaper with a diverse readership is not about to embrace the overt religiosity of Carl M. Saunders’ editorial calling for a National Day of Prayer. Even the most omniscient editorial column is agnostic about whether God exists, let alone whether a particular avenue to his attention is especially efficacious. If the alternative to the naked public rectangle is editorials clothed in the raiment of faith, readers as well as editors would prefer that editorial writers keep a respectful silence.

I suspect that even devoutly religious readers would cringe if a Post-Gazette editorial borrowed this sentiment from the Jackson Citizen Patriot: "...a troubled Christian nation should turn to prayer. Its people should lift their voices from a single throat in supplication to the Divine Architect of our destinies, remembering always, ‘Thy will be done.’"

But for just that reason, editorial writers should have been more forthright—less discreet—in asking whether, in the spirit of William O. Douglas, similar sentiments might properly be offered in the halls of Congress by a government employee, Protestant or Catholic.