March 2000 Church & State | Viewpoint

The chaplain of the House of Representatives has always been a Christian - not a Jew, not a Muslim. Moreover, the chaplain has always been a male. And more than that, he has always been a Protestant. Does that smack of an establishment of religion? You bet.

The proof came recently, when for the first time a Catholic priest was considered for the job, and rejected - this despite the fact that a screening committee had put him first in its recommendation of three finalists. That recommendation was overridden by those theological experts, Dennis Hastert and Dick Armey.

There is some disagreement on what went on in the interviews held with the priest, Father Tim O'Brien, a Jesuit professor of political science. O'Brien said he was asked questions that revealed an evangelical bias. Armey, whose word I would trust as soon as I start eating Texas cactus, maintains this is not true - which is as good as saying, "Stop lying, Father O'Brien."

Both sides agree that discussion of the Bible took place. That alone is enough to go against James Madison's complaint that no governmental action should be based on an assumption that "the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth."

My complaint is not so much with the House leaders who rejected the priest as with the priest who let himself be considered for the post. O'Brien teaches political science for Marquette University, so he should know something about America's greatest contribution to political thought - the separation of church and state.

Madison, who drafted the First Amendment that enshrines that principle, was very clear about what it entailed. He opposed the appointment of any chaplains to the military services or to political bodies. He said that religion is not within the competence of the state. He praised Thomas Jefferson for not issuing Thanksgiving proclamations as president. When Madison yielded to pressure during his own presidency and did recognize Thanksgiving, he came to regret it, and denounced his own action after he had left office.

Defenders of prayer in schools have logic on their side when they say that it makes no sense for children not to be able to pray as a body when the Congress prays every day in the opening of its session by the official chaplain. But the solution to this inconsistency is not to restore prayer to the schools. It is to remove it from the Congress.

The Religious Right thinks that we have gone too far, recently, in separating church from state. Madison would say that we have still not gone far enough. We are breaking the First Amendment in all kinds of ways, from the tax exemption given churches to the use of the motto "In God We Trust."

He said that religion is simply outside the "cognizance" (jurisdiction) of the state. This was an expression of esteem for religion, not of dismissal. It is too important a matter, and too close to the individual conscience, to be subject to definition by the secular authorities.

Insofar as we have observed Madison's amendment, religion has been the beneficiary. America, the first government to be founded without divine sanction, is the most religious country in the economically developed world. Religion prospers when it is freed from politics. That liberation should be completed.

Madison opposed even the listing of religious ministry as a profession in the census, since "the general government is proscribed from the interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion, and it may be thought to do this in ascertaining who are and who are not ministers of the gospel."

 That is the text the House committee should have been pondering, not the Bible, when it quizzed a priest on the word of God.

Garry Wills is adjunct professor of history at northwestern University and winner of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal.© 1999 Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.