A Response to “The Separation of Church and State”

A couple of issues of The Dickinsonian ago (the April 9th edition), Virginia Cady wrote about the issue of the separation between church and state, especially in relation to chaplains and prayers in Congress. It was an interesting read, and it has also gotten me into thinking in recent weeks about the past history and the current purpose of this office

In regards to the history of this office, Cady was correct that “opening the Senate with a prayer has become a tradition.” In fact, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the Office of the chaplaincy was constitutional, the majority opinion did so because the Office of the Chaplain is “deeply ingrained in the history and tradition of this country.” This fact is not up for debate; instead, it is the question of whether this is a good tradition to have. It is on this question where I disagree with Cady, in large part because the concerns she raised are already addressed by the office.

One such concern is that the office is not sensitive to certain faiths, especially faith traditions that do not believe in God with a capital “G.” This is simply not true because there have also been guest chaplains who have come from a variety of faith traditions, including Hindus  and people from various Native American faith traditions, among others. The traditions I just mentioned hold beliefs different from the ones held by most members of Congress (presumably, most members are Christian); as a result, prayer is often led by people whose beliefs are contrary to many of those in Congress. To go a step further, what I just mentioned does not seem at all different from Cady’s concern regarding atheists listening to Christian prayer.

Another concern brought up by Cady was on the issue of “separation of Church and State” and “Separation of God and State,” especially in terms of trying to “keep religious views from effecting government decisions.” The very same website she cited in her editorial made it clear that religious views and its impacts on government decisions is a non-issue, since the office is supposed to be nonpolitical. In other words, the nature of this office is such that religion is not supposed to factor into government decisions.

Amid all of the talk of what the Office of the Chaplain is or is not, it is very easy to forget how a chaplain in Congress can be useful. The chaplain is there to provide resources for people of a variety of faith traditions on Capitol Hill. Considering the amount of time some people spend on Capitol Hill, it is an important resource at that. Ultimately, “resource” is really the best way to describe the job of the Office of the Chaplain, regardless of the faith traditions of the chaplain and/or members of Congress.

While times and traditions change, such changes in traditions should be directed at harmful legislative procedures such as the filibuster, not a harmless person such as the chaplain of the House or Senate. Unlike Congress itself, the Office of the Chaplain makes an effort to serve everyone, attack no one and harm no one. In a world like the one on Capitol Hill, such efforts should be lauded, not attacked.