Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Catholic House Chaplain: What's the Problem?

James Skillen


March 27, 2000

Religion and Politics. It shouts out everywhere these days. In Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants can't reach agreement on how to jointly govern themselves. Visiting the Middle East, Pope John Paul II, bent on a ministry of reconciliation, cannot bring Israel's Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Muslim cleric Taysir Tamini to shake hands, much less to agree on how all three faiths should share Jerusalem. And that's just for starters.

Citizens in the advanced United States, with its separation of church and state, want to believe that such problems do not trouble us. Yet, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) named a Roman Catholic priest to the post of Chaplain of the House of Representatives last week, it caused a stir in the already tension-filled air of Congress and of this year's presidential campaign. The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin is, after all, the first Catholic and the only non-Protestant to be appointed to that post in U.S. history. Isn't it about time? And shouldn't a Rabbi and a Muslim cleric be next?

That appointment opens a window on significant changes in the United States and the world, where religion is not withering away. How, then, shall governments do justice to religious vitality and diversity? The United States was, for most of its history, a Protestant-majority country, in which Protestants ever so gradually agreed to secularize or neutralize the public square so as not to offend people of other faiths. But if the answer is to secularize public life, why continue to spend public funds on chaplains for the armed forces? Why continue to hire and pay for House and Senate chaplains?

The fact is that many if not most Americans are not convinced that secularizing the public square is the way to do justice to diverse faiths. The question, then, is this: Should government, even symbolically, enclose everyone or every representative in the country under one sacred roof? Or, instead, should it require all religious expression to remain outside the "secular" public square? Or, as a third option, should it make room for all faiths—both religious and secular—without giving a privileged position to any of them? The last option is the only just one, but Americans have not yet fully arrived at that destination.

The United States has it right with respect to not establishing any religion and giving people of all religions equal treatment as citizens. This is the principle carried through in the armed services. Men and women in uniform are not asked to put their religions aside when they enter the military ranks, nor is a chaplain of one faith appointed over all of them. Instead, chaplains are employed from diverse faiths to meet the needs of those who hold those faiths. This is as it should be: genuine pluralism in a society that respects religion in public but does not try to force one religion or no religion on everyone. This should be America's testimony to the world.

The United States is not a Jewish state or a Catholic state; not a Protestant state or Muslim state. And it certainly should not be a secular state. The chaplaincy program of the armed services points the way for the U.S. Congress. The House and the Senate should appoint chaplains of different faiths to serve members and their staffs according to their diverse faiths.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”