What Would Jesus Say?

The Reverend Patrick Conroy

“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told the Reverend Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House of Representatives, last November. Then, last month, Ryan asked for Conroy’s resignation. The chaplain’s last day on the job will be May 24.

Ryan evidently thought Father Conroy’s prayer on the House floor, prior to passage of the Republican tax cut bill, cut a little too close to the bone. “May all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle,” the reverend prayed. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”  

A week later, Father Conroy said, he heard from a staffer from Ryan’s office, “We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political.” Conroy thought the comment indicated that other members had talked to the speaker “about being upset with that prayer.” Father Conroy claims he had no intention of being political regarding the tax legislation, and, a few days before he was asked to resign, the chaplain said he understood that he had the “one job in the U.S. where I absolutely have to abstain from politics!”

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

Ryan and other members of the House Republican caucus apparently can get a bit touchy when they believe they are accused of ignoring “others [who] continue to struggle.” Conservative Republican sensitivity may have been heightened because Father Conroy is a member of the Jesuits, an order that has a reputation for liberalism. But, regardless of Father Conroy’s personal beliefs, his prayer was a call for compassion, not a political screed. He continued such prayers after the criticism, praying, in one instance, “For peace and reconciliation where those virtues are sorely needed.” He opened another House session asking the members “to pray for the unemployed and those who work but still struggle to make ends meet.” Four days before last Christmas, Father Conroy prayed “that the work done and being done [in Congress] redound to the benefit of all, most particularly those whom You favor: The least among us.”

Jesus would have agreed: “When you make a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed” (Luke 14:13 — all citations from the King James Version of the New Testament). Jesus said he came to preach “the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Jesus repeatedly beseeched the wealthy to sell their earthly goods and give the proceeds to the poor. The Sermon on the Mount opens, “Blessed are the poor…” (Matthew 5:3).

Televangelist Joel Osteen

Many Republicans, however, have shunted the biblical Jesus aside in favor of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, which sees wealth as proof of religiosity. TV preachers like Joel Osteen argue that the being rich is a sign of God’s grace. This version of Christianity is not new: the Puritans brought to colonial New England a belief that success in business, while it did not earn one salvation, indicated God’s approval. Max Weber called this the “Protestant ethic,” and he linked the Protestant Reformation to the rise of capitalism.  

Speaker Ryan is a Catholic, but he appears not immune to the allure of the Prosperity Gospel, which is popular among Southern evangelicals. Ryan has spent much of his political career fighting for tax cuts for the wealthy and attempting to convince his colleagues to eviscerate Medicare and Social Security. Several years ago, he was admonished by the Catholic hierarchy for proposing “disproportionate cuts in essential services to the poor.” 

Mick Mulvaney, budget director

No one should be surprised that Republicans support firing a priest for praying for justice for the poor while they skew legislation in favor of the very wealthy and tolerate corruption in the current administration. Republicans argue that most middle class American received a tax cut in last year’s $1.5 trillion tax bill, but the big winners were corporations and the super rich. That is no surprise, given the ethos expressed by budget director Mick Mulvaney, who spoke of the unwritten rules that applied when he was in Congress: “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” I am pretty sure Mulvaney did not spend a lot of time talking to the poor among his constituents. 

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is not much troubled by the plight of the poor; he has proposed tripling the rent charged poorer families living in subsidized housing. Carson personifies heartless policy; several of his colleagues in the Cabinet embody a rising kleptocracy. Environmental  Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sins are too numerous to list here, but he is only one of many who have lived high at the public trough. Pruitt wants to cut the agency’s budget by 25 percent while flying first class and spending recklessly on such foolishness as a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth. Apparently, Pruitt fears transparency as he destroys the environment. Others, such as Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department and former head of the Department of Health and Human Services Tom Price have also taken advantage of their public offices.

Representative Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican

The ugly spat over the House chaplain got uglier when Representative Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican and a Baptist minister, said that he hoped the next chaplain comes from a nondenominational church because he or she could relate better to members with families. “What’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members male, female,” Walker said. Catholic Democrats quickly labeled Walker’s comments anti-Catholic and criticized his suggestion that celibate priests cannot minister to families. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, countered, “To be excluding one religion up front, that has all sorts of connotations coming from the evangelical community.”

King expressed displeasure at the “official” reason given for Father Conroy’s dismissal: Member complaints of his inadequate “pastoral care.” King said, “To me, it was an unsatisfactory answer…. Anyone who I know who deals with [Father Conroy] has the highest regard for him.” King was not alone in criticizing Ryan’s firing of the chaplain. Several other Republicans joined many Democrats, of all religious convictions, in condemning the move.

What would Jesus say about silencing the voice of Father Conroy in the House?  “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Posted May 1, 2018

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