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Why Does Congress Still Have a Chaplain?
John Young, December 1999 -- As much as Washington types exalt the framers of the Constitution, the last thing most of them want to do is take the founders’ words literally.
   Otherwise Congress would abolish the office of House chaplain and state a firm commitment to keep government out of religion.
   There’s a better chance that porcupines will fly.
   Rather than heed the origins of religious freedom, policy makers much prefer to pander to sectarian majorities to demonstrate their godliness.
   That's why they couldn't bear to part with the office of House chaplain, staffed by you and me at $277,000 a year. It is our investment so that if ever lawmakers lose their religion, they can find it down the hall and around the corner past the men's room.
   Fascinating concept. We can privatize everything from welfare to satellite repair. But when it comes to religion, Capitol Hill can't leave the service to the private sector.
   Nearly 175 years ago James Madison, acclaimed as father of the Constitution, told Congress that having a paid, on-site chaplain was ridiculous. Not only was it foolish for government to provide for Congress what it could find at the church down the block, but naming a chaplain from any sect would exclude the others, an official pronouncement sounding suspiciously like state-established religion.
   The majority would choose a Protestant, of course. The minority could sulk.
   Those warnings have a particular ring these days in light of recent complaints by a front-runner for chaplain who was passed over, he believes, because he is Catholic.
   Madison had warned way back when that Catholics and other non-Protestants had virtually no chance of serving in such a capacity. Since then, only two Catholics have been House chaplain. No Jews. No Hindus. No Muslims. No Buddhists. No surprise.
   The issue of faith and favoritism raises itself--or should--every time government decides to walk on hallowed waters.
   Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have voiced support for increasing the role of churches in carrying out state and federal social services.
   This drew words of warning recently from the 400-member Texas Faith Network, including pastors, rabbis and clerics of other faiths.
   It criticized the reliance on faith-based groups to deliver social services on two grounds: First is the notion that government could somehow "pass the buck" to churches and elude its responsibility to the needy.
   Second is the guaranteed favoritism that would be exercised when government chose religions to carry out these services.
   Bible-loving Christians? Step right up. Catholics? Just go light the holy water. Black Muslims? Check back with us. Krishnas? Uh, we’ll call you. Heaven’s Gate? The number you have reached has been disconnected.
   James Madison is not amused. But by now he should be accustomed to being ignored.

Copyright 1999 John Young: John Young is opinion page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald in Waco, Texas. This essay was distributed nationwide in December 1999 by Cox News Service and is reposted here with permission.

 

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