The faith journeys of the Senate and Congress on Capitol Hill
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2018 - 12:00am

After a simple buffet of eggs, bacon, fruit and other offerings, anywhere from 15 to 30 American senators from both parties break spiritual bread at this nondenominational feast. They sing a hymn, share cares and concerns, pray for each other and hear an inspirational talk from a current or former senator, often about deeply personal experiences.

The weekly prayer breakfast of Capitol Hill

Francine Kiefer, US Senate staff writer explains that the prayer breakfast is one of the few venues on the Hill where members of both parties mix socially. In a typical week, about a quarter of the 100 senators show up including members of the leadership from both parties. Participants drop politics at the door. They observe strict confidentiality. No staff. No journalists. It’s just the senators and the chamber’s chaplain, who leads the singing.

The Senate breakfast and its companion in the House are invisible to the public. Yet that is exactly what makes them so beneficial. The confidentiality of the breakfast allows lawmakers to get to know each other as human beings. They hear about each other’s personal struggles and joys, about concerns for family members, friends, and staff. That builds trust and friendship. It can even lead to bipartisan legislation. One participant says that it’s the only time when a senator speaks and others are really listening.

Putting politics aside to address the role of faith in public life

In the 19th century religious services were actually held in the House chamber, the biggest space in a town. “The house was used for church services, but it wasn’t a church,” says Donald Ritchie, former Senate historian. Those practices ended in the 1840s, when enough churches had been built to accommodate lawmakers and their families. What still survives from the First Congress of 1789 to this day are two chaplains, one for the House and one for the Senate. The chaplains, or a guest, offer a prayer at the opening of each day that Congress is in session, and they minister to the members, their staffs and their families.

When he was the Senate historian, Mr. Ritchie says he often had to answer queries from outraged citizens and visitors who viewed the chaplaincy and opening prayers as a violation of the separation of church and state. But Article I of the Constitution allows the chambers to “chuse” their officers, and the chaplains have always been officers, the historian says. As the current Senate chaplain, Barry Black notes on his web page, the chamber honors the separation of church and state, “but not the separation of God and state.” The Supreme Court agrees.

The Senate and House prayer meetings are rooted in the days of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and the first National Prayer Breakfast in 1953. The two congressional prayer groups host that annual breakfast, which is organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group. The big attraction is the main speaker, the US president, along with a guest speaker. The forum offers a rare opportunity for Congress, the president, other American leaders, and emissaries from around the world put politics aside and address the role of faith in public life.

Faith-related meetings in the Hill reinforce important relationships

The House and Senate prayer breakfast, Bible study groups, and other faith-related meetings on the Hill are far more intimate affairs. With only 100 members, the Senate is a very personal institution, where relationships are important. To be sure, lawmakers mix now at the Senate and House gyms, at breakfasts for military veterans, and at the annual congressional women’s softball game – to name a few neutral gatherings. But the days of golfing and attending the recitals of each other’s children have vanished.

Lawmakers don’t live in Washington anymore. It would separate them too much from their constituents. Neither do they have much time to socialize during their short workweek in Washington. “We’re all strangers here. None of us belong here or live here,” says Senator Coons, a Presbyterian who holds a master’s degree in ethics from Yale Divinity School. He added that the Senate breakfast reflects the “wide range of beliefs and backgrounds” of the chamber: liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, Jews, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and mainline and evangelical Protestants.

People attend for variety of reasons. The meetings offer a spiritual respite from an otherwise hectic life. They help lawmakers cope with demoralizing deadlock. They reveal something about their colleagues that they otherwise might never see. Then there is the literal breaking of bread – uninterrupted visiting time over pastries and coffee.

It’s almost like a coffee club

“Aside from the faith part of the hour, it’s almost like a coffee club,” says Southern Baptist Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas who co-chairs the Senate breakfast along with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. “Once a week, you’re sitting around with people who have become your friends.” Indeed, this soft-spoken former football player for the Arkansas Razorbacks says he would never have really gotten to know his harmonica-playing co-chair were it not for the breakfast.

One of the oddest political couples in Washington is Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Rep. Janice Hahn of California. Politically, they are each other’s polar opposite: fire and ice, North and South, oil and water. Yet they were in 2014 co-hosting the National Prayer Breakfast. They joked, took little digs at each other and then turned serious when talking about the teachings of their common Christian faith. He’s a devout member of a Southern Baptist church; she’s Church of Christ.

Like the Senate prayer breakfast, the House version relies heavily on testimonials about a faith journey given by a member or guest. Participants as for prayers, and prayers are given. Praying together over a marriage that’s dissolving, a child’s drug problem, or an ailing parent, listening to a person’s faith story, “really does begin to break down barriers,” says Rep. Hahn. “You realize everyone is the same.”

(Reference: Christian Science Monitor Weekly, September 17, 2016)

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