Do We Really Need Chaplains in Congress?

Earlier today, Fox News Channel’s Gretchen Carlson hosted a discussion of Senate Chaplain Barry Black, the man who’s been in the news lately — and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” — for his morning reprimands of Congress.

Carlson’s “diverse” panel included a Catholic priest (who supports what Black is saying), a Jew (who opposes the comments but used his time to rail against ObamaCare, nonetheless), and American Atheists’ Dave Silverman (who thinks the whole idea of a government chaplaincy is silly, if not downright illegal).

The discussion went exactly as you would expect — in all different directions since they all had different talking points.

But at least Silverman made sense:

“… What every religious preacher does is they take their own opinions and they assign those opinions to their God. They say, ‘My God agrees with me. It’s objectively true and this is the way that you should behave.’ This is not what should be appearing on the Senate floor. What we should do is take the $500,000 allocated to the chaplain’s budget and bring in some people to mediate the Senate… There is no need to have a chaplain in the Congress; it is a waste of money.

Indeed, Black’s Senate office alone includes himself, a Chief of Staff, a Director of Communications, and Executive Assistant, all at a cost to taxpayers of over $400,000 (and then you have the House Chaplain’s office, too).

Black does more than just deliver a one-minute sermon (contrary to what Silverman said in the clip), but it’s all money that could be better spent elsewhere. It’s also a budgetary item that seems pretty safe, given how no Democrat or Republican would want to be the one to suggest getting rid of the position. (Try explaining that to religious constituents.)

When you factor in how Chaplains in both Congress and the military do not currently cater to non-religious people — remember: atheists are currently banned from taking on the role — and how the Senate Chaplain has almost always been a Bible-believing Christian (with the exception of a couple of Unitarians, both of whom were still believers), it’s just another government benefit for Christians.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Bill Kodak

    LOL I can go one BETTER! Do we really need CONGRESS!

    • Chris

      And what would you recommend as a substitute for the legislative branch of the federal government?

      • Bill Kodak

        I did say LOL. Lighten up, pal.

        • flyb

          It’s Francis. “Lighten up, Francis.”

      • Itarion

        Why need a substitute? Except for the national parks, I’ve not been hearing much complaint over the shutdown…

        EDIT: Yes, I get it, I’m an oblivious asshole who lives mostly independent of the government’s operation due to some accident of birth.

        • C Peterson

          The loss from shut down science programs is immense, and may take years to recover from.

          • Itarion

            This is true, but science isn’t by necessity the exclusive domain of the government. SpaceX, anyone?

            Frankly, the US government wasn’t doing much for science anyhow, compared to the rest of the world. Certainly not enough for my tastes. But I take your point.

            • C Peterson

              Actually, long range research pretty much is the domain of government. SpaceX isn’t science, it’s engineering, and it’s built almost entirely on the foundations of publicly supported research. Just about every major commercially important bit of technology is similarly based on publicly supported research. There really is no model for privately funded basic scientific research in today’s world.

              And while US scientific research has been moving in a disappointing direction in recent years, it still remains the best and most productive in the world.

              • cyb pauli

                I find that people who are not involved in the sciences really have no idea what goes on or just how much the government supports science. Basically when the NIH money turns off, so does a lot of research. I say NIH because I’m in neuroscience, but I also work in an anthropology department and when federal lands are closed, guess what archaeologists can’t dig. Everything is grinding to a halt.

                • C Peterson

                  And I’m a professional astronomer. My specialty is meteoritics, space dust and debris, and the near-Earth space environment. This is almost completely government supported (with a strong international contribution) and is important both in terms of the abstract science as well as numerous practical areas.

                  The last two conferences I attended suffered from the required withdrawal of their NASA participants. Equipment that collects valuable data is sitting unused, space assets are at increased risk, future researchers are considering other specialties.

                • cyb pauli

                  Have you heard about all the genetics mice they’re having to kill? I don’t know if our labs are killing their rats, because I work with EEG now (I’m a student) and my advisor works in neuroimaging. We have thousands of rats though for cognitive psychology studies. It’s miserable that all that genetics research is getting ruined!

                  We also have (outside the university) a huge national lab that is part of the Department of Energy. If the budget isn’t approved soon, hundreds of people will be laid off… It isn’t good for science or the economy.

                • C Peterson

                  Ouch. I’m also concerned about an entire Antarctic research season being lost. Many people don’t realize how long it can take scientific programs to recover from even a short hiatus. Probably some non-scientific ones, as well.

                • Peter

                  I find that people who are not involved in the sciences really have no
                  idea what goes on or just how much the government supports science.

                  I knew someone who was going to grad school on a NSF fellowship, and complained to me “I pay all this money in taxes, and I don’t feel I get anything back in benefits.”

                • Watry

                  Speaking of anthropology, I’m an (unpaid) intern at a CRM firm this semester. Most of their contracts come from the state DoTransportation, but are at least partially federally funded. They have enough ongoing work to stay open right now, but AFAICT an ongoing shutdown would eventually mean no new contracts, so it potentially affects the private sector as well.

                • cyb pauli

                  People also dont realize just how much money the government gives the private sector in the form of contracts either. Good point.

              • Itarion

                SpaceX may be engineering rather than science, but it shows that much of what has been the domain of the government can be completed by private firms as well. A major shift from public to private research would take more than a little while, but it would also free the sciences from being victims to the ridiculous and often pointless power plays the US government seems to continuously make.

                • C Peterson

                  SpaceX will survive as a government contractor. It wouldn’t even exist but for years of government investment in science and technology.

                  I don’t think a shift from public to private funded research is economically feasible. Companies exist to make a profit over a fairly short term. Very few companies have the resources or motivation to invest in highly speculative research that, even if it becomes commercially viable, won’t do so for decades. Yet that describes what has historically been the most valuable research.

                • Itarion

                  That’s probably true, and I would hate to subject science to the whims of philanthropists. Does no one wish to science for science’s sake?

                  I intend to go into research, which is why this is an issue for me. It does rather suck that the best stuff is the stuff that’s behind a difficult barrier, but the easy stuff is just so rarely worth having. *sigh

                • http://lady-die.deviantart.com/ LizzyJessie

                  The problem with putting scientific research into the hands of business interests is that under the current patent system the businesses will consider any and all research and their findings to belong to corporate. No other lab would be able to reproduce the experiments or publish their findings without paying a licensing fee. Nor would other areas of science be able to utilize the findings in related works.

                  This is already a problem in a number of fields. Especially within the medical sub-sciences where we can see valuable research being locked up behind a patent thicket. At the university level, we are seeing researchers being urged to patent their findings at the risk of some other university or corporation doing the same and locking up the studies behind a legal pay-wall.

                  Where science and research thrive on open source documentation, collaborative efforts, and cross field experience, the business model greatly limits or outright restricts the standard process which enables forward progression.

                • Itarion

                  This, too, is true. And sucks. There is no extant sociological construct designed to make science accessible and profitable, as far as I can tell.

        • Baby_Raptor

          If you’re looking, I can give you an earful. It Fucked over our finances, and we found this out with about 6 hours left to correct the problem ourselves.

          • Itarion

            It appears that I am on the wrong side of this debate.

            • Baby_Raptor

              Thanks for being big enough to admit it. That takes a mature person.

        • Ann Onymous

          Food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutritional supplements are being cut off. They matter.

        • blasphemous_kansan

          My father is on furlough. Consider this a complaint, if you haven’t heard one yet.

          • Itarion

            Considered such. It would appear that the truth is I have been not listening, rather than not hearing.

            • Kodie

              Some of our regular students at the studio where I work were not able to register for their classes this month because their parents were furloughed.

        • baal

          We were inches from a banking sector liquidity problem. It may still happen due to US GOV treasuries not being considered perfectly liquid anymore.

          The US had a GDP shrinkage of 8% (huge fucking losses) in the last quarter of the Bush the lesser’s admin due largely to a banking liquidity freeze.

      • Bill Kodak

        Largely I would recommend the legislative branch of each of the sovereign states.

        • http://lady-die.deviantart.com/ LizzyJessie

          The Articles of Confederation failed early on and were replaced by the current Federal-State system that we have today. The second attempt also failed and ended in a civil war. I have my doubts as to how a third attempt would be successful seeing how a number of State level governments appear to have an even less regard for their citizens than the central government does.

          • Bill Kodak

            Nevertheless state government is closer to the people and easier to change when the people act. Centralized state power throughout history has very often been the agent of history’s most repressive and often evil tyrannies.

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              Not hardly, no. Texas has gerrymandered itself all to hell, and it’ll take a supermajority shift to change things. Those in power take steps to stay in power, even when the people around them change and don’t want them there anymore. Without federal power forcing Texas to meet certain minimum standards, it would be an even worse shithole in which to live than it is now. Anarchy is no better, and often worse, than tyranny, and letting each of the fifty states turn into little tyrannical dictatorships if they so choose is going to produce worse outcomes than even a national despotic system (which we don’t have and show no signs of moving towards).

              I wouldn’t want to live under Pol Pot, but Somalia’s no cakewalk either. There is a very large middle ground, fortunately. Stop pushing us toward Somalia.

            • Stev84

              It doesn’t make one bit of difference whether people are oppressed by the federal government or the state government.

              Gay people for example now often have more protections through federal law than through state law with the demise of DOMA. And there are several other minority groups who are only protected by the federal government.

            • C Peterson

              And centralized state power has also been the agent of history’s most successful societies- and certainly is so in today’s world.

              Thanks, but I’ll opt for the complete elimination of the states as governing entities at all, and go with a unified government. We are a single country.

            • cyb pauli

              Being that I’m a woman, and black, and queer I must disagree with your position on state sovereignty and community responsiveness.

  • busterggi

    No more than we need any other shaman, witch doctor or other primitive magic user.

  • flyb

    I actually cracked up when the priest said, “Prayer is about conversing with gawwwd.” Especially the look on his face. It was like Obi-wan Kenobi telling Luke to, “Feeeeel the force…”

    • Itarion

      Difference is that Obi-wan wasn’t afraid to prove the Force.

  • Frazzah

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some day that priest will be arrested… he just has that look.

  • cyb pauli

    The fact that there is a Christian preacher praying over the Senate, instructing Senators from the Bible four nights a week, along with in God We Trust being printed on our money and one nation under God being said in the Pledge by the Senate every session angers me to my core. How can you focus on administering legislation when you’re talking to imaginary characters and invoking magic? Chaplain Black said point blank that Senators go to him to ask what they should do about legislative matters. They are supposed to be asking the American citizenry what to do, not a preacher representing Gawd. It’s a damn shame. This is exactly what the establishment clause is about. Why the pretense that Protestant Christianity is not our de facto state religion?

    • Itarion

      It’s not a pretense, it’s the ideal. Not much more than a dream at this point.

    • Kodie

      So wait. There’s one guy who has the power to advise multiple representatives? How do they screen people for this position? Why, if they are in need of religious counsel, can’t they go to their own church or whatever and ask? It’s not that I think it’s a good idea for someone to ask their preacher for political advice, but there’s no good reason for anyone to have that much power or influence over our political system. That’s why there are so many representatives. I don’t even care if this position is filled by an atheist, that’s too much power especially for an unelected position.

      • Stev84

        Electing the chaplain would make no difference.

    • FTP_LTR

      Hopefully the preacher is telling them just that: “Don’t ask me, go ask your constituents” but I doubt it.

      So glad I’m far, far across the waters.

      • Itarion

        you have my envy. May it keep you warm at night.

  • xtotec

    they are utterly worthless, typifying in a single minute the worst aspect of american politics — a bunch of scared, subservient, weasels sucking on the money trough.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    We are pretty much stuck with this.

    The courts are unlikely to tell congress how to conduct its affairs.

  • Jakey Eldred

    $500,000 is a drop in the bucket and she acts like it can be ignored. That’s why the country is in financial trouble. $500,000 this $500,000 that wants over needs. Out of that entire discussion that statement sickens me

    • Itarion

      Yeah. I was thinking that elected officials, instead of setting their own wages, should just take the median income of the country. And can we please cut it out with campaign financing? Take from the same pool, instead of harvesting your own private fields. All of you politicians look like asshats. (And I love that word. Really I do.)

  • Rain

    Yeah they didn’t exactly stay on topic. Back to the topic: Yeah he can say whatever he wants, including shaming the lawmakers. Okay glad it’s settled.

  • Rain

    Dave should have picked @MrAtheistTie instead of @MrAtheistPants for his twitter name.

    • Rain

      Great tie.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Do we need religious leaders anywhere that isn’t a church (or other house of worship)?

    No.

  • Oranje

    I like the idea of someone holding up a mirror to Congress as a kind of conscience. They certainly need one. But there’s no reason such a position needs to be religious.

    • allein

      And there’s a lot of reasons it shouldn’t be..

  • Dave The Sandman

    I’d love to be in a panel interview with that Father Brown from Faux Noodles. I wouldn’t be able to help myself…..soon as he started talking about morality or stuff id just turn round and say:

    “Hang on a minute. Didn’t you used to work with that Father Marciel bloke in south America….you know…. the one that was a serial sex abuser and molested all those boys? So you worked for years with a serial sexual predator, one whose crimes were covered up by your bosses in the Vatican…. then you sit here and lecture us on morality and law. Tell me Father…. do you know what the word “Hypocrite” means?”

  • DougI

    There are plenty of beggars on the streets of DC, we certainly don’t need to be giving one that “works” in Congress $500k to do so.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Barry Black: “The hypocrisy of trying to sound reasonable while being unreasonable”.

    Is he talking about Congress or pastors?

  • Terry Firma

    “What we should do is take the $500,000 allotted to the chaplain’s budget and bring in some people to mediate the Senate.”

    Typo. It’s supposed to be “medicate.”

    • Gringa123

      I loved when he said to bring in somebody “useful.” So true

  • Gus

    We probably shouldn’t have chaplains in Congress, but right now I’m kind of glad we have Black, since he can rebuke them so stingingly in language they understand. Now half of them (at least) are too stupid to realize what he’s doing, but it certainly is entertaining for me. I’ll also point out that all his prayers for God to get Congress to get its act together have had about the same effect that prayers have in other situations, i.e. none.

  • baal

    I can’t listen to Father Johnathan. He’s so far off the truth every time he speaks that I want to thrown things.

  • DeFKnoL

    Well kudos to Fox for even giving Dave a voice in this.

  • billwald

    Yes. We need Catholic, Orthodox Episcopal . . . anyone with a “confession” tradition chaplains in Congress. Why? Everyone needs a person to talk to who will not spill his guts without paying a lawyer or a shrink to listen. This is my most important complaint against Protestant Christianity.

  • Katherine Harms

    I’m a little confused why an atheist would complain that the chaplain believes in God. I am certainly confused why an atheist would want a job that calls for the job-holder to counsel people in spiritual matters.
    This country still includes people who believe that everyone ought to have the opportunity for spiritual counsel. Nobody in the House or the Senate is required to consult the chaplain. The chaplain is there when needed or wanted. The chaplain would never refuse to counsel with an atheist. Even atheists encounter situations and issues that can benefit from wise counsel beyond themselves.
    Until the nation comes to its senses and disassembles and discards the Affordable Care Act, there are much bigger financial problems than the cost of the Senate chaplain.

    • FTP_LTR

      Everyone ought to have the opportunity for spiritual counsel” – agreed, but this is different from “Employers should pay for a spiritual counsellor to be available for their employees

      I don’t see any problem with Senators or Representatives (forgive me if I have the terminology wrong, I’m a distant observer) seeking spiritual counsel. I do, however, see it as bizarre that an employer should provide this service, unless it’s a religious organisation.

      The House and Senate should have free* bars…

      “This country still includes people who believe that everyone ought to have the opportunity [to have a relaxing beer]. Nobody in the House or the Senate is required to [visit the bar]. The [bar-man] is there when needed or wanted.”

      [* Clarification added because I know that many governments - UK, Australia, etc - have subsidised facilities for members of parliament and guests]

    • Kodie

      Do you have a chaplain at your job, or what do you do when you need ‘spiritual counsel’? You go ask your own pastor for it. In the military it may be different because people move around a lot and either aren’t established with a local clergy-person or they are in a remote location, and/or they can’t leave base. Also their problems directly involve life and death and killing and things normal people are supposed to avoid doing. I don’t think government representatives suffer from similar obstacles of proximity or crises of conscience and PTSD symptoms, etc. It’s a strange amenity that makes sense to provide in certain situations. It is kind of like how they have a chapel in a hospital, it’s an amenity like a water fountain or a cafeteria. It’s not ideal, but it’s close by and you get sort of what you needed without having to go very far from the waiting room outside of surgery. Why would our legislature need a chaplain on staff?

      And it’s not “wise” counsel, it’s specifically religious, even if it’s watered down and generic. It’s not that the chaplain believes in god, it’s that specifically, that is part of his job description and the role he plays, which is completely odd with a secular government. It’s not that we want to deprive representatives of counsel should they seek it, but that they don’t need this amenity on the taxpayer’s dime – especially when they are often so eager to cut this and that and take away from desperately needy people, and calling them lazy and thieves. They have more than enough perks without supplying them with their own house chaplain! That is absurd. Do you think it makes sense for the government to supply, say, free dry-cleaning, free haircuts, maybe someone to walk the senator’s dog twice a day? Maybe they get all that too!

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Why is the government paying for an explicitly religious person who counsels people based on that religious tradition (even though there are many religious traditions out there) and thus potentially has great influence over many Senators and/or Representatives? Why does the position of chaplain exist at all? If people are troubled, they can see their own personal spiritual advisers or a trained therapist, but it is not and should not be a government’s job to provide such a person.

      Also note that the ACA will save people and the government money, is already saving people money, will save lives, and doesn’t actually do anything to threaten the finances of the US. Do please read economists who aren’t from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal once in a while, thanks.


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