A Habitual Violation of the Constitution

This week I want to focus on a small story that got insufficient coverage in the Trump glut of news, since it merely is about two of the most important founding principals of our Republic: freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

You may have heard that on April 16, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced that Fr. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and the House chaplain since 2011, would be stepping down. A day later, it turned out that Conroy was not leaving voluntarily but that the Speaker’s chief of staff had told him to resign or be fired. Conroy duly tendered his letter of resignation, to take effect on May 24.

But then in strode Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader and former Speaker herself, to Conroy’s defense. Pelosi takes her Catholicism as seriously as her politics—yet she once endured a six-year estrangement from her mother, with whom she’d been very close, when her mother stopped speaking to her after Pelosi refused to abandon her pro-choice position. Now, Nancy was stubbornly fighting for Conroy, and as other members of the House, Catholic and non-, from both sides of the aisle, signed onto his defense, it became . . . well, a Thing. It seems that anti-Conroy feeling had been building for some time among Christian evangelicals in the House who felt that “this damnable priest” was embodying too well his Jesuit order’s reputation for being liberal and intellectual. For instance, the chaplain by tradition often invites members of other faiths to deliver the morning prayer in his stead, and Conroy had invited a Muslim imam not just once but twice. Gasp! Then, when the House was debating how to make their ultra-conservative tax bill even more conservative, Conroy had dared say in the morning prayer, “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.” After that apparently incendiary comment, Speaker Ryan warned Conroy, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Tell it to the loaves and fishes guy, Paul.

Anyway, at some point Conroy realized that he had been elected to the post by the whole House, and that Ryan couldn’t demand his resignation after all. So he promptly withdrew it, noting that if they wanted him out they’d have to actually fire him without his cooperation. (Ryan should have known better than to ever mess with the Jesuits; the Jeddies usually win.) The Speaker of the House backed down. Conroy was reinstated.

All of which would be a small, amusing story about hypocritical political religiosity. Except for a little thing called the Constitution, except for a small group of flawed but brilliant radicals called the Framers.

Freedom of speech does not stop at the doors of the House of Representatives. Freedom of religion, by the way, also means the freedom to follow no religion whatsoever. In a strange way, Ryan was right in saying that a churchman should “stay out of politics,” although of course he had very different reasons for saying that, reasons that did not include the principle of the separation of church and state.

In truth, there should be no chaplain in the House of Representatives or the Senate to begin with.

Most of the framers were in fact agnostics, atheists, unaffiliated “Freethinkers,” or “deists,” believing in a sacred force of science or nature, and they were obsessed with the separation of church and state. In my book, Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating The Religious Right, I quote the Framers at length, and their quotes are incredibly bracing.

For instance, James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, opposed all use of “religion as an engine of civil policy.” He accurately prophesied the threat of “ecclesiastical corporations,” and in his great essay, “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, and Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1817,” he writes, “Is the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative . . . the establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of constitutional principles . . . better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of chaplainships for the Army and Navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. . . . Religious proclamations by the executive branch recommending thanksgivings and fasts are shoots from the same root. . . . Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers . . . such acts seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. . . .”

George Washington was a Freemason and a deist, always carefully referring to divinity as “It” and never mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in any of his literally thousands of letters. He weathered heavy criticism for rarely attending church; when he did, he stood during prayers while others knelt, and he always made a point of leaving before communion. John Adams was a Unitarian deeply influenced by the Enlightenment; one of his most famous quotes in a letter to Jefferson, reads, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” Then there’s Thomas Paine: “My own mind is my church.” Ben Franklin, who called himself a deistic scientist, was memorialized by his close friend Dr. Priestly, who wrote of him, “It is much too be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever . . . and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.” And of course from Jefferson, our legacy includes booksfull on the subject—including a razored and rearranged secular bible, The Jefferson Bible—all of which could be summarized by his simple directive, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”

How far, how tragically far, we have already fallen away from the vision of the Founders, when a Jesuit priest is censored for mentioning the rights of poorer citizens of the Republic—and when he does so as chaplain of the House of Representatives, a post that exists by now in habitual violation of the Constitution.

But habits can be broken. . . .