May 2000 Church & State | Editorial

Since the Supreme Court declared officially sponsored religious worship in America's public schools unconstitutional in 1962, we've watched an endless parade of members of Congress launch misguided efforts to "put God back in the schools."

We've had to endure school prayer amendments, blatantly illegal legislation designed to sneak state-sponsored prayer into the classroom through the backdoor and, most recently, pious platitudes from Ten Commandments crusaders, who simplistically believe that tacking religious decrees on schoolhouse walls will solve all of America's social ills. At times, the bombast has been nearly unbearable.

But as the recent flap over the appointment of a new chaplain in the House of Representatives proves, Congress is quite ill-suited to exercise authority over any aspect of Americans' religious lives.

The House spent nearly half a year fighting over whom to hire to recite a bland, watered-down "non-denominational" prayer before a mostly empty chamber every morning. In the end, Republican leaders chose a Roman Catholic priest for purely political reasons: They wanted to neutralize charges of anti-Catholicism hurled against them by Democrats and woo a key voting bloc for November's elections.

According to press accounts, Hastert called Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and asked for a list of suitable Catholic clergy. After a telephone interview, the speaker selected the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, flew him to the capital and swore him in. So what if the Constitution forbids a religious test for public office? The ordeal was over.

To make matters worse, the Republican National Committee quickly moved to exploit the new chaplain for partisan ends. Alerting the news media, the RNC sponsored a Roman Catholic mass and reception to honor Coughlin. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson even took part in the service as a reader.

House Democrats squealed about this shameless politicization of the chaplaincy, but they are far from innocent in this affair. Although considerable evidence exists that sectarian sentiments played a role in the House leadership's initial selection of a Protestant nominee over a Catholic priest, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the incident was exploited by the Democrats to win points at the polls in November.

Thus, our nation's political leadership--both inside Congress and elsewhere--managed to take the selection of a new House chaplain and turn it into a partisan political firestorm. It wasn't Northern Ireland, to be sure, but one certainly got a whiff of that kind of sectarian bitterness. If the House can't even tend to its own religious needs without almost coming to blows, why on earth would anyone trust them with the religious lives of our children?

Here's a sobering dose of reality: Some politicians talk about God, faith and religion so much not because they personally are devout or greatly interested in things spiritual. They do it because they believe standing up for "God and country" will reap rewards at the ballot box. This is cynical and manipulative. It turns religion into a political football and breeds religious divisiveness. Such divisiveness nearly brought the House to fisticuffs. We don't need it in our public schools.

As the House chaplain flap dragged on, some members of Congress got so frustrated they apparently toyed with the idea of abolishing the post. We wish they had. Stripped of their taxpayer-financed chaplain, members of Congress would be left to do what a lot of other Americans do when they feel the need for spiritual guidance: Go the house of worship of their choosing.

Maybe then members of Congress would learn that prayer and religion are private matters and that highlighting the religious differences between our citizens never leads to anything good.