Chaplain of the United States Senate

From John Marks of Purple State of Mind:

Ask most people to name someone who works in the Senate, and they’ll probably name a senator. Ask that same person how many people work in the Senate, and he or she might come up with the obvious number: 100.
In fact, roughly 7,000 people work in the U.S. Senate, and the overwhelming majority aren’t elected officials. They’re paid staff of one kind or another, aides and pages and janitors and journalists and police, among many others. You might think of these people as the citizens of a small city, but Rear Admiral Barry Black, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, has another word for them. They’re the members of his congregation.
That’s not quite a metaphor. Like any pastor, Black presides over marriages and funerals, religious holidays and Bible studies, crises and ceremonies. But his flock is like no other. His prayers start the day’s work on the Senate floor, and his advice rings in the ears of many of our elected representatives as they cast their votes. He doesn’t represent everyone in a religious sense—there are plenty of non-Christians under his care—but he’s officially responsible to the body. It’s his job description.
The White House doesn’t have an office of the chaplain, and neither does the Supreme Court, but Congress has two. To that extent, Black and the chaplain of the House of Representatives, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, occupy a singular position in Washington, D.C., and in the political culture at large. In a moment when one of the great, deep cultural battles of the day revolves around separation of church and state, their work exemplifies the opposite. You might say they’re the living embodiment of the intersection between church and state. Their salaries are paid by the U.S. government, but their work is explicitly religious.
The job goes back to the beginning of the country. The first was an Episcopalian, Samuel Provost. Black is the 62nd chaplain of the Senate, and his 2003 appointment was historic: the first African American, the first Seventh-day Adventist, the first military chaplain to hold the position.
We’re thrilled that he took the time to answer our questions.

Q: We see a lot of polarization in our politics, but we often wonder how much of it is theater, how much the evidence of a genuine and growing political, cultural, and religious division in this country. You occupy a privileged place in the Senate and can see the private face of our public servants. What is your perception of the current polarization in Congress? Do we make too much of it? What is the reality behind the perception?
A: There are limits to what I can know about the motivation of our legislators because only God knows the heart. I do know, however, that the legislative process is adversarial like a court room—so there will be colliding stories; there will be a prosecutor and a defense. As a result, you can expect people to sometimes be a little more animated than they would be under a different system.

Q: As a chaplain responsible for the spiritual health of some 7,000 men and women, everyone from the senators and their spouses to the pages, janitors, and journalists, how do you manage to rise above partisan grievances and accord everyone in the body the same measure of respect and dignity?
A: The Bible says that people were created in the image of God. It’s simply a matter of working at seeing the image of God in everyone you encounter. People deserve your respect regardless of their political position.

Q: You have your own political opinions, which you’ve said elsewhere are biblically based and may favor one side or the other. How do you manage to be a chaplain for everyone when religion itself is one of our national flash points?
A: Most of the people on Capitol Hill are Christians, and while there are many different denominations, Christians have far more in common than they disagree—so it’s not nearly as difficult as one might expect. Especially when you talk about Protestant Christians who emphasize the importance of the Bible. I think there’s an openness among many Christians to learn and to be respectful and reserve judgment.

Q: Do you ever admonish senators and their staffs to strive for a more courteous and empathetic relationship with their political opponents, even when the disagreements run hot?
A: I have mentioned in my prayers sometimes that we should strive for civility, that we should learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. In terms of walking up to a senator and admonishing him/her, I haven’t seen the need to do that.

Q: You spoke in a C-SPAN interview about Senate Bible studies in which you discuss the concept of issues that are more “right vs. right” than “right vs. wrong.” That seems a very sane and reasonable way to look at so many of our debates, but we almost never hear the big national issues addressed that way. Instead, one side has to be completely right, the other side utterly wrong. Can you elaborate on that concept? Why don’t we see more of it in our national conversation?
A: Well, the issues that are debated in the Chamber usually have elements of truth in both sides of the issue. If the issue would happen to be blatantly wrong, most people would see that we should do the opposite. But there are pro and con arguments for both sides. That’s when you deal with right vs. right. What might be right for the short term might be wrong for the long term.

Q: You grew up under rough circumstances in Baltimore, one of eight children of a mother with a fourth-grade education, yet you and your siblings have all done extremely well. How did your mother manage to get you all through those hard times intact as a family?
A: First of all, she had a vigorous work ethic. Second, she was biblically literate. She knew the Bible. Third, she invested into Christian education. We all attended private Christian schools. Forth, we belonged to an extended family of a wonderful church where we received support and nurture.

Q: Is there one place or person or moment in your childhood that most vividly conjures up that era in your life? Someone’s home, a church, a neighbor? Could you sketch out some details for us and say why you think that particular memory has stayed with you?
A: One memory that has stayed with me since childhood would be when my mother brought home a sermon record of Peter Marshall, the chaplain of the Senate from 1947 to ’49. I played the record and memorized most of the sermon. That was an introduction to the lyrical beauty to the English language and power of narrative preaching. I had no idea that one day I’d be a successor of Peter Marshall.

Q: You have a prodigious memory, and as a child, for instance, you were able to read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” and recite it quickly from memory. To this day, you can still recite a lot of that story. Of all the things you’ve memorized over the years, are there one or two things—Scripture, poems, prose, speeches—that have stayed with you and have mattered more than the others? That you recite to yourself for pleasure, perhaps. Or inspiration?
A: I entertain myself with almost everything I’ve ever memorized because most of it has stayed with me. I recite passages of Shakespeare, Psalms, and Proverbs while running—or Tennyson’s poetry or James Russell Lowell. I have a smorgasbord of things I can pick from and receive delight from all of it. It’s the joy of not only hearing it again, but also the pleasant experience of remembering when I first memorized it.

Q: After spending some years as a pastor, you became a Navy chaplain. What are the specific demands of that job?
A: You provide for the religious needs of thousands of people in a pluralistic environment of religious diversity … of both Christians and non-Christians. You are the pastor of a flock of people who are prepared to go into harm’s way in defense of our nation.

Q: For a book on evangelical Christianity, I once interviewed a pastor who told me he turned down a job as West Point chaplain because he couldn’t face the prospect of ministering to men and women of other faiths without at the same time trying to convince them to see truth as he did. He was honest enough with himself to know he wouldn’t be much good at the job, he told me, even though he wanted the honor badly. Did you ever have any such considerations when you started the job, knowing that you would have to minister to people who didn’t share your beliefs? Is there any appropriate place for evangelism when one is chaplain in a branch of the military?
A: Jesus said in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them together. When they hear my voice they will be one sheep pen and one shepherd.” It’s this belief that there are non-Christians who already belong to Christ and there are people from various denominations who are serving the same God and Lord. This knowledge helps me not to have a problem to provide for the spiritual needs of all people.

Q: You’ve described yourself in the role of Senate chaplain as the equivalent of a pastor with a congregation, but your church is the workplace for thousands of public servants, and those public servants make laws that affect the lives of the rest of us on a daily basis. It sounds like an awesome responsibility. What’s the essence of your contribution?
A: I insure that people maintain both spiritual and ethical fitness. That’s a critical part of what lawmakers and staffers need if they are to do their jobs well.

Q: A lot of Americans have a serious problem with the presence of any kind of religious expression in government. What would you say to people who may be unhappy at the prospect that their government pays the salary of someone whose express purpose is to address the spiritual needs of public officials?
A: My response would be that our framers sat down and tried to build a government based on philosophy and not power. In 1789, they decided to have a paid congressional chaplaincy. They decided that a few days before they wrote the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment which is intended to prevent a blurring wall between church and state. If we embrace the other ideas of the framers, we need to seriously consider the validity of having a paid legislative chaplain. The Supreme Court agreed with the framers in 1983, Marsh v. Chambers.

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