Prayer and politics in Congress
bridging the divide
How prayer meetings on Capitol Hill inspire fellowship and foster bipartisan lawmaking, though some argue it is too much religion under the rotunda.
Washington — Sen. Christopher Coons doesn’t get much sleep. Unlike most senators, the lawmaker from Delaware commutes to the capital via Amtrak, often returning home late at night to his wife, three kids, and two dogs.
On Wednesdays, though, the Democrat gets up extra early, at 5:30 a.m., so he can catch the train from Wilmington to Washington, arriving about 8:20. If he walks straight to the Capitol from the station, he can make the second half of the Senate prayer breakfast, a bipartisan hour of personal reflection and faith-sharing among senators.
“It’s the best hour of the week,” says Senator Coons, who is working on a book about the faith journeys of senators, “Profiles in Spirit,” with Elizabeth McCloskey of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics in St. Louis.
After a simple buffet of eggs, bacon, fruit, and other offerings, anywhere from 15 to 30 senators from both parties break spiritual bread at this nondenominational feast. They sing a hymn, share cares and concerns, pray for each other, and hear an inspirational talk from a current or former senator, often about a deeply personal experience. The speakers alternate weekly by party.
On those days when Coons is tempted to ignore the alarm clock, wondering why he should make the effort to listen to a senator who is his political antithesis, he reminds himself “how energizing and insightful those 30 minutes can be,” no matter the ideology of the speaker. Attending the breakfast is his one big piece of advice to incoming senators.
The prayer breakfast is one of the few venues on the Hill where members of both parties mix socially. In a typical week, about a quarter of the Senate shows up, including members of leadership from both parties, according to Coons. Participants drop politics at the door. They observe strict confidentiality. No staff. No journalists. It’s just the senators and the chamber’s chaplain, who leads the singing.
The Senate breakfast and its companion in the House are invisible to the public. Yet that is exactly what makes them so beneficial, say attendees. The confidentiality of the breakfasts allows lawmakers to get to know each other as human beings. They hear about each other’s personal struggles and joys, about concern for family members, friends, and staff. That builds trust and friendship. It can even lead to bipartisan legislation. One participant says that it’s the only time when a senator is speaking and others are really listening.
The meetings have their share of critics, who see them as too clubby, too secretive, and too much religious talk under the rotunda. But in a world where religion can divide people and nations, faith is helping to bridge the political chasm in Congress. While no one thinks the breakfasts will fundamentally change the tenor of one of the most divisive periods in Washington history, they are acting as a moderating influence – and helping to promote a sense of civility and understanding on the Hill.
As Coons puts it, “If you hold hands with someone in prayer in the morning, it’s tough for [that] someone to throw a punch at you in the afternoon.”
Prayer has always been a presence on Capitol Hill. In the 19th century, religious services were actually held in the House chamber because it was the biggest space in a town still under construction and lacking public buildings.
“The House was used for church services, but it wasn’t a church,” says Donald Ritchie, former Senate historian. “It was used for funerals, but it wasn’t a funeral parlor. It was a space that was available.”
Those practices ended in the 1840s, when enough churches had been built to accommodate lawmakers and their families. What still survives from the First Congress of 1789 to this day – and which many secularists object to – are two chaplains, one for the House and one for the Senate, underwritten by US taxpayers. The chaplains, or a guest, offer a prayer at the opening of each day that Congress is in session, and they minister to the members, their staffs, and their families.
When he was the Senate historian, Mr. Ritchie says he often had to answer queries from outraged citizens and visitors who viewed the chaplaincy and opening prayers as a violation of the separation of church and state. But Article 1 of the Constitution allows the chambers to “chuse” their officers, and the chaplains have always been officers, the historian says. As the current Senate chaplain, Barry Black, notes on his web page, the chamber honors the separation of church and state, “but not the separation of God and State.”
The Supreme Court agrees. In 1983, it held that a chaplaincy and opening prayers in legislatures do not violate the Constitution (Marsh v. Chambers). In 2014, it upheld opening prayers at municipal meetings, so long as the practice is not discriminatory. That ruling could soon get a test. Dan Barker, an atheist who founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is suing the House chaplain and speaker for barring him from offering a secular invocation in Congress. The group also objects to the prayer breakfasts, which are organized by the lawmakers.
The Senate and House prayer meetings are rooted in the days of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and the first National Prayer Breakfast in 1953. The two congressional prayer groups host that annual breakfast, which is organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group. The big attraction is the main speaker, the US president, along with a guest speaker.
The forum offers a rare opportunity for Congress, the president, other American leaders, and emissaries from around the world to put politics aside and address the role of faith in public life.
It doesn’t always succeed at that. In 2013, for instance, guest speaker Benjamin Carson, at the time a little-known neurosurgeon, created a stir by criticizing President Obama’s health-care program and progressive tax policies as the president sat just two seats away. Many believe the breakfast launched Mr. Carson’s presidential bid last year.
The House and Senate prayer breakfasts, Bible study groups, and other faith-related meetings on the Hill are far more intimate affairs. But they’ve gained in importance – particularly in the Senate – as socializing across parties has declined, according to Ritchie. With only 100 members, the Senate is a very personal institution, where relationships are important. “Anything that enables them to understand each other better as people is an asset,” he says. “The prayer breakfast has become a greater asset as other events and opportunities have really fallen away.”
To be sure, lawmakers mix now at the Senate and House gyms, at breakfasts for military veterans, and at the annual congressional women’s softball game – to name a few neutral gatherings. But the days of golfing together and attending the recitals of each other’s children have vanished.
Lawmakers don’t live in Washington anymore. That would look bad – making them seem too cozy with the government (even though they are the government). And it would separate them too much from their constituents. Neither do they have much time to socialize during their short workweek in Washington.
“We’re all strangers here. None of us belongs here or lives here,” says Coons, a Presbyterian who holds a master’s degree in ethics from Yale Divinity School and who sometimes guest-preaches on Sundays at various churches in Delaware. The prayer breakfast, he says, “helps humanize this place.”
Both the House and Senate breakfasts strive to include speakers from diverse faiths, and Coons says the Senate breakfast reflects the “wide range of beliefs and backgrounds” of the chamber: liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, Jews, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and mainline and evangelical Protestants.
People attend for a variety of reasons. The meetings offer a spiritual respite from an otherwise hectic life. They help lawmakers cope with demoralizing gridlock. They reveal something about their colleagues that they otherwise might never see. Then there’s the literal breaking of bread – uninterrupted visiting time over pastries and coffee.
“You’re off the grid,” says Sen. John Boozman (R) of Arkansas, who co-chairs the Senate breakfast along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, a devout Catholic who is now Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Aside from the faith part of the hour, it’s “almost like a coffee club,” says Senator Boozman, who is a Southern Baptist. “Once a week, you’re sitting around with people who have become your friends.”
Indeed, this soft-spoken former football player for the Arkansas Razorbacks (his framed jersey hangs in his office) says he would never have really gotten to know his harmonica-playing co-chair were it not for the breakfast.
Yet that is one reason some lawmakers are critical of the meetings – they seem too much like a clannish club. “People think, oh it’s kind of secret, it’s kind of a cabal,” says Senator Kaine. “It’s only secretive because you want people to be free to be really candid about who they are.” He’s been on a mission to invite non-Christian senators to share their stories – as long as what’s said inside the meetings, stays inside the meetings.
One of the oddest political couples in Washington is Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas and Rep. Janice Hahn (D) of California. Choose your antonyms – fire and ice, North and South, oil and water – politically, they are each other’s polar opposite.
“I can’t listen to him on the floor,” says Congresswoman Hahn, seated on a blue leather sofa in her office. Representative Gohmert is famous to C-SPAN viewers for his long end-of-the-day speeches in the House chamber, excoriating the president. The Texan is a favorite among tea party groups. “I can’t watch him,” she reiterates.
Yet there they were in 2014, co-hosting the National Prayer Breakfast. The duo bantered, joked, took little digs at each other, and then turned serious when talking about the teachings of their common Christian faith. He’s a devout member of a Southern Baptist church; she’s Church of Christ.
They also pray together every Thursday morning at 8:00, when their small group of 20 or so Republicans and Democrats meets in a room just off the members’ large dining hall. Along the way, they’ve discovered commonalities: They each have three children – one with the same name; he was a judge and her brother’s a judge; she went to a Christian college in Texas, his home state.
“We’ve become friends, and people find this [particular friendship] the most strange,” says Hahn.
Her Democratic colleagues are surprised when she walks through the tunnels beneath the Capitol complex and Republicans greet her cheerily by name or ask about a family member. “They’re like, ‘How do you know these people?’ I’m like, ‘I’m in this weekly prayer breakfast.’ ” She also attends a small bipartisan, bicameral women’s Bible study group on Wednesday mornings.
Her staff fiercely protects these time slots from other scheduling intrusions. Both Hahn and Gohmert say that scheduling creep of various caucus meetings during the time traditionally reserved for the House prayer breakfast has led to a decline in attendance. Even in the more robust days when the group was twice the size it is now, it still represented only a fraction of the 435 House members.
Like the Senate prayer breakfast, the House version relies heavily on testimonials about a faith journey given by a member or guest. Participants ask for prayers, and prayers are given. Praying together over a marriage that’s dissolving, a child’s drug problem, or an ailing parent, or listening to a person’s faith story, “really does begin to break down barriers,” says Hahn. “You realize everyone’s the same.”
She says it’s not easy to worship with people who don’t share your political beliefs, especially if they advance policies that you consider “disgusting.” But that’s also strengthened her faith.
For many of her Democratic friends, however, that challenge holds no allure. “I’ve heard my colleagues say it’s very difficult to pray with [Republicans] in the morning and have them cut food stamps in the afternoon,” Hahn says. “We think taking care of the homeless, feeding the poor, creating jobs for people – that is our faith. They, I’m sure, feel the same way about us. It’s very hard for them to pray with us after we’ve talked about being pro-choice and funding Planned Parenthood.”
In a phone interview, Gohmert laments the rhetoric of the recent gun debate, and cites Democratic characterizations of Republicans as uncaring and indifferent over gun deaths. That gets “a little demoralizing,” the Texan admits.
But coming together in prayer is something else. “Janice and I have very different views ... but we work well with each other. We share Christian love,” he says. “There’s a bond with Janice that transcends political situations.”
She says much the same thing about him. And they both agree on this: The practical upshot of their friendship is to show others that such a relationship is possible.
Since the duo hosted the National Prayer Breakfast, “people have commented how amazing and how enjoyable it was to see two people that clearly liked each other, got along well, and were from different parties,” says Gohmert.
Hahn agrees. “We were Exhibit A.”
The question is whether – or how much – a faith-supported friendship can actually lead to legislative bipartisanship and problem solving. Kaine offers one answer from his time in state politics, as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and then governor.
For eight years, he participated in a Tuesday prayer group when the state legislature was in session. They called themselves the “dog patrol” because they met at 6:30 a.m.
“I really got to know my colleagues,” he said in a May interview, as bluegrass music streamed from a computer in his office. “Then there’d be a vote on something that would be important to me and someone would vote against it. The first couple of times I’m like, ‘Well, that makes me mad. I mean, I thought we were friends.’ ”
But then he thought about it more. Was he putting in that hour a week just to win three more votes on a bill? He realized that wasn’t the right motive. Neither was he going to fundamentally change another person’s politics, nor would someone fundamentally change his.
For him, the effect of the prayer breakfast in the US Senate is more subtle. The 15-minute testimonials from fellow lawmakers – which range from “churchy” and “doctrinal” to accounts of how a senator grew up or overcame a painful experience, or a member’s aspirations in life – reveal what motivates a person. That’s what helps with the bridge building.
“They know what motivates me and I know what motivates them.” As a result, he says, “I do think they’ll give me a fair shake on the merits.”
One of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, sees an even more direct connection between the relationships forged in the prayer breakfast and work in the halls of Congress. “I’ve gotten to know people through that prayer breakfast. That has led to some positive legislative developments,” Senator Klobuchar says.
She cites her work on international adoptions. It was through the breakfast, which she co-chaired in 2009 and 2010, that she learned Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma has a personal interest in adoption. His daughter, Molly, adopted a baby girl from an orphanage in Ethiopia.
Senator Inhofe ended up being one of two Republican cosponsors on a 2009 adoption bill by Klobuchar. It allows US parents who have already completed international adoptions to bring in older siblings who are above the legal adoption age. The bill became law in 2010.
Klobuchar also notes that “it tends to be the prayer-breakfast people” who prevent reductions in the US foreign aid budget – which is a favorite target for cutbacks. She describes a group of Republicans who attend the breakfast as “very faith-focused, and who like to go to Africa, and believe in helping people in other countries.... [They] have been key to continuing funding foreign aid.”
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The Senate and House prayer breakfasts are hardly the only faith-based gatherings on the Hill, though they’re the best known. Lawmakers – and staff – also gather in other groups, often quite small and intimate.
Some people aren’t comfortable with the testimonial aspect of prayer breakfasts. Some aren’t used to the free-form Protestant way of praying – as opposed to set prayers, such as in the Catholic faith. Still others prefer more readings and study of Scripture.
But it’s not the form of worship, it’s the togetherness that helps bridge the divide in Congress, say lawmakers. Take the Bible study led by Inhofe on Thursday afternoons at noon. It includes three more Republicans and three Democrats, according to Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina.
He calls his study group a “classic example” of a faith-based way to establish trust between members of the two parties. “Once you establish trust, you typically work toward a friendship, and that friendship will lead toward legislative solutions that are bipartisan,” says Senator Scott, who does not attend the Senate prayer breakfast.
One example of that trust is Scott’s legislative effort to make body cameras more widely available to police. It grew out of last year’s fatal shooting of Walter Scott, an African-American who ran from a white police officer after being pulled over for a broken brake light in North Charleston, S.C. – the senator’s hometown. The black man was shot from behind while fleeing, as shown on a private video that surfaced.
The South Carolina senator, the only Republican African-American in the Senate, reached out to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the only black Democrat in the Senate, to work on the police camera legislation. Senator Booker is also in Inhofe’s Bible study group.
“The fact that we’re both attending the Bible study helps a lot,” Scott says, “and once I pushed the legislation forward I called his office and asked him to participate in it, and he said ‘yes.’ ” The legislation, however, is stalled for now.
Scott was recently at the nexus of another faith-based bipartisan push to improve race relations. In March, he and Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat also from the Palmetto State, cohosted a congressional civil rights “pilgrimage” to South Carolina, organized by the Faith & Politics Institute. The institute is a nonprofit that brings members of Congress together in interfaith reflection and travel. It focuses on racial, religious, and political reconciliation.
The spring pilgrimage, which included senior congressional leadership from both parties and chambers, toured historical sites in Columbia, Orangeburg, and Charleston, and culminated in a Palm Sunday service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. Last year, a young white man, Dylann Roof, killed nine black worshipers at the church who had welcomed him as a stranger. Much of the country was amazed at the unconditional forgiveness expressed by the church community toward the shooter after the massacre.
Judging from a documentary film made about the trip, the pilgrimage appeared to move the members of Congress. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island said he had never heard of the 1968 “Orangeburg massacre,” in which state highway patrol officers shot at protesters on the South Carolina State University campus, a historically black college in Orangeburg. Three black men were killed and nearly 30 people were injured in the protests over a whites-only bowling alley. “It’s been moving, and also a little bit stunning” to learn about the massacre, the senator says in the film.
A younger member of the touring congressional group, Rep. Will Hurd (R) of Texas, expressed amazement at his close encounter with civil rights history. Congressman Hurd, a Republican, was born in San Antonio in 1977, nearly a decade after the crucible year of 1968. He’s the son of a mixed-race couple – his father is African-American. “It’s hard for me to understand what you all went through,” he says in the film. “That’s one of the things about these trips. [It] helps me understand that.”
Commenting at a panel discussion about the documentary after a screening at the Capitol in July, Scott said that the response at Emanuel church after the shooting has “significantly” affected his leadership style. “We all seem to be knuckleheads at times,” he said about Congress. “We need to get our act together ... and one of the ways that we do that is by paying attention to a family, a church family, who’s done so.”
Many Americans might come to the same conclusion about members of Congress – that they need to sit down and talk with each other more civilly. Prayer groups are one way they’re doing that.