Opinion

Opinion: We Just Can’t Shake That Old-Time Religion

Nation’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor not that far in the past

Recently ousted House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy speaks during a memorial service in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Sept. 27, 2017. His removal by Speaker Paul D. Ryan set off a small furor. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

“Bless your heart” is a phrase I got to know well when I moved from the Northeast to the South several years ago. Though often spoken in soft, sympathetic tones, there was nothing blessed about the sentiment. And when those three syllables were delivered in an email, usually after I wrote a column a reader did not like, they landed like a punch to the gut.

Oddly enough, it was commentary on faith and values that elicited quite a bit of high dudgeon, topped only by the historically reliable topic of race, which, like religion, carries the taint of a North versus South, “them” against “us” spiritual split.

It was no surprise, then, that one of the most recent dust-ups in the sandbox called the U.S. House of Representatives was over religion — most specifically, the faith, message and suitability of the chamber’s chaplain — or that it, too, had its share of regional side-choosing.

Watch: Booing, Interruptions On the House Floor After Chaplain Resignation

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Catholic, educated by Jesuits, the order of outgoing House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy, asked to hand in his resignation by Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., also a Catholic, who has decided not to run for re-election in November.

That ye be not judged …

Back to those disparaging emails I received when I questioned what I thought to be the more unforgiving and un-Christian policies of faith leaders of every sort, including the visible evangelicalism that has traditionally defined the Bible Belt — most began not with salutations but with a promise of prayers that would be said for me so I would see the light, accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior and avoid eternal damnation.

Much like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ reported statement that she would pray for correspondents’ dinner comedian Michelle Wolf, they came off as gifts wrapped in judgment and the knowledge that without immediate divine intervention I was on my way to Hades.

“Thank you, I guess,” would be my unspoken answer, figuring I could use all the prayers I could get; it did not take long to figure out that to many of the letter writers, Catholicism and Christianity were mutually exclusive. Though I did not always disclose my faith, my name was a clue. Even my parish was hardly a secret in Charlotte, North Carolina, a big city where, nonetheless, “Where do you attend church?” was a question you might hear right after “Where do you work?” at some social gatherings.

For a nation founded on the principle of freedom of — and from — religion, we seem to spend a lot of time arguing over that topic, over who belongs and who does not.

Ask your Muslim or atheist friend. At issue this past week was the mystery of why the House chaplain was essentially given the old heave-ho. Putting aside the very valid question of whether taxpayers should be paying for someone to offer prayers and spiritual advice for politicians, despite clear evidence that a lot of them need it, the circumstances surrounding the firing were worth exploring.

My Roll Call colleague Patricia Murphy has done a great job of sorting out the mess, as well as explaining what exactly a House chaplain does and was meant to do since the office was established with the Continental Congress in 1789. Was it Conroy’s prayer for a fair tax bill with “benefits balanced and shared by all Americans” that did him in?

In 2018, given the state of political partisanship, perhaps we should not be surprised. But this battle may have electoral legs.

The truce between evangelicals and conservative, mostly white Catholics has at times been uneasy and tenuously made, in part because of agreement on issues that include abortion and same-sex marriage, and also the status solidarity that drove white ethnic Catholics to jeer Catholics who look like me (and even a cardinal) when school and housing desegregation came to my home state of Maryland in the 1960s and 1970s.

The social justice versus social conservative debate has continued through the anti-war and civil rights priests and nuns on one side or the other to the Nuns on the Bus who supported the Affordable Care Act and Catholics who thought the law a moral intrusion.

Troubled history

But the country’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor is not that far in the past. The candidacy of our country’s so far only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, caused concern from prominent Protestant leaders, including the Rev. Billy Graham before the pastor and the president found common ground.

When the chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, GOP Rep. Mark Walker of, yes, North Carolina, said the next chaplain should be “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, … you’ve got the wife, the family, things you encounter,” it didn’t take reading between any lines to interpret that recipe of ingredients not adding up to Catholic.

Warner has resigned from the committee searching for the replacement for Conroy, only the second priest to hold the post.

Protestants have divisions of their own, but white evangelicals have the microphone since their guy was elected to the presidency with their strong support, something Donald Trump continues to count on as long as his policies, if not his moral decisions, pass muster. Trump has also picked fights and made up with Pope Francis, who, though not beloved by Catholic conservative critics, still drew crowds that more than rivaled the president’s during a U.S. visit.

Are those white Rust Belt Catholic voters, who have leaned Republican since Ronald Reagan, paying attention to Conroy’s abrupt ouster? Will their own immigrant backgrounds lead to a split over the administration’s strict immigration policies, already criticized by both liberal and conservative clergy? And as Catholics of color strengthen the church in America, will their ignored voices and causes take on added significance?

Yes, faith is always political, and in a midterm election that will be critical and close, no one wants to make any voter mad.

So, though Ryan’s controversial move may be forgotten by November, it will be interesting to see who replaces the priest who so noisily left the building. It takes a special kind of speaker of the House to make such a bold, defining move on his way out the door, “Bless his heart.”

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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