Capitol Hill Lawmakers Turn to Faith Leaders

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 06: A 16-foot cross planted in front of the U.S. Capitol is displayed as part of a week long prayer vigil by the Building Faith group October 6, 2008 in Washington, DC. The group is holding the vigil for the remainder of the week. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

    When senators were tripping over one another to run for president in 2008, a number of them turned to a Senate adviser to discuss campaign challenges and opportunities. It didn't matter that their opponents were talking to the same person.

    Senate chaplain Barry Black heard about all the ups and downs: The senators were exhausted or elated, optimistic or downcast, worried about poll numbers, unsure whether to run.

    Black would reframe their challenges in theological or philosophical terms and reassure them that "things are going to play out in the way God would want," he said.

    Year in and year out, campaign or no campaign, clergymen, rabbis and faith leaders in Washington serve as part adviser, friend, counselor or ear to legislators and other political figures. At times, some even play a behind-the-scenes role in influencing public policy and help legislators sort out conflicts between their faith and policy views.

    "It was important to listen and help them to come to an understanding through faith as it would be applied for those issues, but never to legislate or to command that they own a point of view," said Lloyd Ogilvie, who served as Senate chaplain from 1995 to 2003.

    For the most part, these conversations play out in private. And that's one reason why politicians feel comfortable confiding in religious leaders.

    Faith leaders who were interviewed declined to identify the lawmakers whom they counsel, and several senators declined requests to discuss their faith for this story. More than a half-dozen senators flirted with or ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama among them.

    Rev. William Byrne, of St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, near the House members' office buildings, said lawmakers who talk to him at church do so for the same reason as other church members: "They know it's a privileged and confidential place where they can be themselves."

    Byrne and Rev. Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, pastor at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill, as well as Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel said members of Congress generally don't approach them for advice on policy. More often, Byrne said, personal things come up.

    "I have been in situations where they felt challenged, and they asked for my prayers and a sounding board," Byrne said. Byrne and Antonicelli said they have the chance to talk with some lawmakers when they go to daily or Sunday Mass.

    Black, the Senate chaplain, said sometimes senators have discussed with him the appropriate thought-process before voting on legislation, such as considering certain religious, ethical and political factors. Other times they're just looking for casual and personal conversation.

    Black said senators trust him because he understands how the legislative process plays out.

    "They see me as a confidant, as an individual in the system who is aware of the nuances," he said, "and not just what is seen on C-SPAN2."

    Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, formerly a minister at Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church who counseled President Bill Clinton after he admitted his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, said he thinks policy makers have discussed confidential matters with him because they knew they could trust him.

    "If you're in a high office, there's always a question who can you trust to be really honest with you," he said. "If a pastor is a pastor of integrity, it's possible for the public servant to trust that interaction without feeling that the pastor is out for something personal."

    Obama, who got burned during his campaign by the inflammatory comments of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has been taking his time finding a new minister. Since becoming president, he has attended chaplain Carry Cash's sermons at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

    While many politicians' religious discussions are conducted in private, sometimes matters of faith and politics spill into the headlines.

    Many prominent Catholic politicians, for example, have been criticized by church leaders for supporting legal abortion, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. During the 2004 presidential campaign, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny communion to Democratic candidate John Kerry because of the senator's support for abortion rights.

    Catholics make up about 30 percent of Congress, according to information gathered by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum in 2008. Protestants account for more than half the members of Congress, and about 8 percent are Jewish.

    Not everyone who lists a religion is devout, by any means.

    In Washington, "there are people who simply use their faith or their appearance of faith" for political gain, said Wogaman.

    Making a show of faith can open a politician up to charges of hypocrisy when personal conduct doesn't measure up.

    Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, for example, stepped down from the Senate Republican leadership last summer after admitting he had an affair for much of the previous year with a married woman on his campaign staff. Ensign was among several Christian lawmakers who lived in a house on C Street SE owned by a Christian prayer group.

    Faith leaders say members of Congress sometimes approach them simply because they need some reflection time.

    Rev. Cletus Kiley, former president of the Faith & Politics Institute, said lawmakers have compared their life to a TV set -- with somebody else controlling the remote and surfing channels.

    "Every 15 minutes, it seems like they're in a different meeting. ... How do you hold it all together? For many of them, it's faith," said Kiley, who used to lead weekly reflection groups for lawmakers.

    "When they're under political pressure, they particularly show up because they're looking for a place that reminds them they had a life before they came here, they'll have a life after they leave here."

    Still, some faith leaders said lawmakers sometimes lapse back into politics during pastoral discussions. Political tensions did enter some of Ogilvie's Bible studies and other conversations with senators.

    "Oh, yes, I would try and administer both sides of the conflict," Ogilvie said, and "encourage them to come to the best solution for the nation and to work together."

    Rev. Samuel Lloyd, dean at the Washington National Cathedral, says he sees political and government officials a handful of times a month. "They've got their passions," he said. "Some even have their talking points."