WASHINGTON — The disapproval comes from angry constituents, baffled party elders and colleagues on the other side of the Capitol. But nowhere have senators found criticism more personal or immediate than right inside their own chamber every morning when the chaplain delivers the opening prayer.
“Save us from the madness,” the chaplain, a Seventh-day Adventist, former Navy rear admiral and collector of brightly colored bow ties named Barry Black, said late last week as he warmed up into what became an epic ministerial scolding.
“We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
So it has gone every day for the last week when Black, who has been the Senate’s official man of the cloth for 10 years, has taken one of the more rote rituals on Capitol Hill — the morning invocation — and turned it into a daily conscience check for the 100 men and women of the U.S. Senate.
Inside the tempestuous Senate chamber, where debate has degenerated into daily name-calling — the tea party as a band of nihilists and extortionists, and Democrats as socialists who want to force their will on the American people — Black’s words manage to cut through as powerful and persuasive.
During his prayer Friday, the day after officers from the U.S. Capitol Police shot and killed a woman who had used her car as a battering ram, Black noted that the officers were not being paid because of the government shutdown.
Then he turned his attention back to the senators. “Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism,” he said. “Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”
Sen. Harry Reid, the pugnacious majority leader who has called his Republican adversaries anarchists, rumps and hostage-takers, took note. As Black spoke, Reid, whose head was bowed low in prayer, broke his concentration and looked straight up at the chaplain.
“Following the suggestion in the prayer of Admiral Black,” the majority leader said after the invocation, seeming genuinely contrite, “I think we’ve all here in the Senate kind of lost the aura of Robert Byrd,” one of the historical giants of the Senate who prized gentility and compromise.
In many ways, Black, 65, is like any other employee of the federal government who is fed up with lawmakers’ inability to resolve the political crisis that has kept the government closed for almost a week. He is not being paid. His Bible study classes, which he holds for senators and their staff members four times a week, have been canceled until further notice.
His is a nonpartisan position, one of just a few in the Senate, and he prefers to leave his political leanings vague. He was chosen in 2003 by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who was the majority leader at the time, from a group of finalists selected by a bipartisan committee. Before that he ministered in the Navy for nearly 30 years.
“I use a biblical perspective to decide my beliefs about various issues,” Black said in an interview in his office suite on the third floor of the Capitol. “Let’s just say I’m liberal on some and conservative on others. But it’s obvious the Bible condemns some things in a very forceful and overt way, and I would go along with that condemnation.”
Last year, he participated in the Hoodies on the Hill rally to draw attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In 2007, after objections from groups that did not like the idea of a Senate chaplain appearing alongside political figures, he canceled a speech he was scheduled to give at an evangelical event featuring, among others, Tony Perkins of the conservative Focus on the Family and the columnist and author Ann Coulter.
Black, who is the first black Senate chaplain as well as its first Seventh-day Adventist, grew up in public housing in Baltimore, an experience he draws on in his sermons and writings, including a 2006 autobiography, “From the Hood to the Hill.”
In his role as chaplain, a position that has existed since 1789, he acts as a sounding board, spiritual adviser and ethical counselor to members of the Senate. When he prays each day, he said, he recites the names of all 100 senators and their spouses, reading them from a laminated index card.
It is not uncommon for him to have 125 people at his Bible study gatherings or 20 to 30 senators at his weekly prayer breakfast. He officiates weddings for Senate staff members. He performs hospital visitations. And he has been at the side of senators when they have died, most recently Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in December.
He tries to use his proximity to the senators — and the fact that for at least one minute every morning, his is the only voice they hear — to break through on issues that he feels are especially urgent. Lately, he said, they seem to be paying attention.
“I remember once talking about self-inflicted wounds — that captured the imagination of some of our lawmakers,” he said. “Remember, my prayer is the first thing they hear every day. I have the opportunity, really, to frame the day in a special way.”
His words lately may be pointed, but his tone is always steady and calm.
“May they remember that all that is necessary for unintended catastrophic consequences is for good people to do nothing,” he said the day of the shutdown deadline.
“Unless you empower our lawmakers,” he prayed another day, “they can comprehend their duty but not perform it.”
The House, which has its own chaplain, liked what it heard from Black so much that it invited him to give the invocation Friday.
“I see us playing a very dangerous game,” Black said as he sat in his office the other day. “It’s like the showdown at the OK Corral. Who’s going to blink first? So I can’t help but have some of this spill over into my prayer. Because you’re hoping that something will get through and that cooler heads will prevail.”
Both sides toughen stances
House Speaker John Boehner on Sunday defiantly rejected calls to reopen the government and raise the federal debt limit, warning that the nation is headed for a first-ever default unless President Barack Obama starts negotiating with Republicans.
“That’s the path we’re on,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said on ABC’s “This Week.” Of Obama, he added: “He knows what my phone number is. All he has to do is call.”
“I told the president, there’s no way we’re going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit,” Boehner said. “And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.”
As Boehner hardened his stance, the White House did the same, dispatching Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to appear on four of the six major Sunday talk shows. Repeatedly, Lew said Obama is willing to enter negotiations to address the nation’s long-term budget problems but not until Republicans drop their campaign against Obama’s health care initiative, end the government shutdown and lift the $16.7 trillion debt limit.
“We just spent the last several months with Congress creating this ridiculous choice where either you repeal the Affordable Care Act or you shut down the government or default on the United States. That is not the way we should do business,” Lew said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Republicans “need to open the government. They need to fund our ability to pay our bills,” Lew said. “And then we’re open to negotiation.”
— The Washington Post