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Climbing Capitol Hill from two different directions

by
19 January 2018

Despite impressions to the contrary, the business of government goes on in Washington DC. Congress contains 40 Episcopalians. Here they talk to David Paulsen about their faith and vision

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ONE is the great-great-grandson of a US Episcopalian bishop. One grew up across the street from Virginia Theolo­gical Seminary. One made his first visit to the nation’s capital as a young chorister singing at Washington National Cathedral.

They all have at least one thing in common, in addition to their Epis­copalian faith: they are now among the 535 citizens serving as senat­ors and representatives in Congress.

The United States has a long history of poli­tical leaders from the Anglican tradition, starting with President George Washington and many members of the first Congress in 1789. The Episcopal Church’s prominence on Capitol Hill has been eclipsed by other denom­ina­tions as the country has diversified over more than two centuries, although dozens of members of Congress still identify as Episco­pal­ians or Anglicans.

“Being raised in the Episcopal Church, which is such an outwardly looking, active-faith community . . . we tend to be called to try and make a difference,” Andy Barr, a Repub­lican who represents Kentucky in the House of Representatives, told the Episcopal News Ser­vice (ENS) in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “And there’s no other reason to run for public office than to want to make a differ­ence.”

ENS interviewed several Episco­pal­ians who serve in Congress, to report on the range of ways in which faith influences lawmakers’ public service. For some, that faith is expressed openly at weekly prayer breakfasts, and occa­sionally in policy speeches. Such public expressions of faith, though, are often tempered by the lawmakers’ awareness of the United States’ constitutional protec­tions regarding religious freedom.

“How do you apply your faith in your political life without imposing your faith on other people? That’s a challenge. That’s a dilemma,” Sena­tor Angus King, an Independent representing Maine, said. “My faith is important to me. I use it as a guide in my decision-making, but I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to tell other people what their beliefs should be. And that’s a constant tension.”

 

THE Episcopal Church also has a presence in Washington through its Office of Govern­ment Relations, which monitors legislation, co-ordinates with partner agencies and denominations, devel­ops relationships with lawmakers, and encourages Episcopal­ians’ activism through its Episcopal Pub­lic Policy Network.

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCHRebecca BlachlyThat work focuses on areas that the Church has identified as “being an integral part of Christian calling and witness”, Rebecca Blachly, the Director of Government Rela­tions, explained. “Given the impact of the fed­eral government on issues such as home­less­ness, poverty, health care, as well as in the international con­text, and for our Anglican Com­mun­­ion partners, we undertake import­ant public witness for the most vulnerable.”

Senator King is a long-time Independent who meets Democrats in Congress to pursue common legislative objectives. When talking faith on Capitol Hill, he believes in humility. “There always has to be a little shred of doubt in your faith,” he said: it was no accident that the Nicene Creed began with the words “we believe” rather than “we know.”

He spent his childhood in Alex­andria, Vir­ginia, and lived for sev­eral years in the shadow of Virginia Theological Seminary. His mother was a lay leader in the diocese of Virginia. His father served on the vestry [the equivalent of a PCC] of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rich­mond. As an adult, his law and business career took him to Maine, where he was first elected governor in 1994. He held that office for eight years, and was elected senator in 2012.

He now regularly attends St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick, in Maine, and once des­cribed himself to Maine Magazine as “the guy who sits in the back”.

“I don’t know how I got into that habit,” he told ENS. He cautioned against reading into that habit any spiritual significance.

 

IF YOU were to categorise the churchgoing persona of Bradley Byrne, a Republican who repre­sents Alabama in the House of Representatives, it might be The Guy Who Wears a Coat [i.e. jacket] and Tie.

He typically attends Sunday wor­ship at St James’s Episcopal Church when he is at home in Fairhope, Alabama. When he is in Wash­ing­­ton, DC, on a Sunday morning, you’re likely to find him at St John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, across from the White House. But, last January, on the Sunday after President Trump’s inauguration, he chose a smaller church, because he thought it wouldn’t be as crowded.

“I went to this church in a coat and tie, and I got there and I looked around — I was the only person there with a coat and tie,” Con­gress­­man Byrne said in an interview at the Capitol. “This one gentleman came over across the room and sat right next to me, and he said, ‘Every­body’s trying to figure out who you are.’

“And when I told him, they couldn’t have been nicer. . . I’ve sort of found that the good thing about being in the Episcopal Church, I can kind of light in any Episcopal Church, some are conservative, some are liberal, some are High Church, some are Low Church, and you kind of get that same warm, welcoming feeling.”

 

THE Episcopalians in Congress defy any uniform categorisa­tion. They are just as likely to be Republican as Democrat, and they come from all corners of the country. Texas’s 5th District is represented by an Epis­co­palian, Jeb Hensarling, a Republican in the House of Representatives. Oregon’s 5th Dis­trict is represented by an Episcopalian Demo­crat, Kurt Schrader.

Most of these senators and repre­sentatives are white men, though there are also several women, includ­ing a member of the Con­gressional Black Caucus, Frederica Wilson, a Democrat representing Florida’s 24th District. Some Epis­copalians, such as Congressmen King, Barr, and Byrne, have been in Congress only a few years. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and an Episcopalian, has repre­sented her Rochester-area district since 1981.

DAVID PAULSENSenator Angus King

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Govern­ment Relations counts 40 Episcopal members of the current Congress. Roman Catholics repre­sent the largest group of law­makers, with 168, followed by Baptists at 72, according to Pew Research Center analysis.

Lawmakers may take their oath with a hand on the Bible, but they are sworn to uphold the Constitu­tion. Each senator and representa­tive brings a personal perspective on how — or whether — religious beliefs should influence public policy.

Congressman Byrne has said that he feels guided by “the sort of Anglican approach to understanding truth and what’s right and what’s wrong” — the “three-legged stool” of scripture, church traditions, and individual reason or discernment.

“I’ve found that’s served me well though my life, before coming to Congress and in Con­gress,” he said. “Scripture, tradition, and reason are a big part of the way I
approach things, because that’s how I was brought up.”

 

SUZAN DELBENE, a Democrat who repre­sents Washington in the House of Representatives, also credited her faith, and the Epis­copal Church, with shaping her commitment to community service, “whether it was when I was a vestry member, a Parent-Teacher Associa­tion mom, a Stephen Minister [a lay person trained to provide pastoral care], or serving in Congress.

“I’ve always fought for those who need a helping hand, because our communities are stronger when no one is left behind. Those driving principles continue to serve me in my current role in Congress, and I’ll keep looking for ways to work across the aisle to ensure everyone can succeed.”

Congressman Barr credits his faith with introducing him to Wash­ington, DC, about 30 years ago. He was in the sixth grade [for pupils aged 11 or 12] when he performed at the National Cathedral with the choir from his church.

That experience played only an indirect part in his feeling called to public service, but he feels directly influenced by his “thinking Church”, which, he says, encourages an open mind.

“It’s a Church that teaches the love and compassion and grace of Christ, but it’s also a Church that is willing to take on the difficult task of discerning scripture and thinking through it,” he said. “That allows for people of a lot of different perspec­tives to be welcome in the Episcopal Church.”

 

THAT wide spectrum includes some law­makers who play down the active involvement of faith in political life.

“It’s not something that I affirma­tively think about,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Demo­crat represent­ing Rhode Island, said in an inter­view with ENS in his office. He sees faith as part of his DNA rather than something to wear on his sleeve. “It’s not like ‘What should my faith prin­ciples say about this?’ It’s much more embedded than that.”

DAVID PAULSENSenator Sheldon Whitehouse

Senator Whitehouse, whose ancestor the Rt Revd Henry John Whitehouse was a Bishop of Illinois in the 19th century, attended ser­vices in the Episcopal Church when he was growing up. He went to St Paul’s School, an Episcopal­ian col­lege prep school in Concord, New Hamp­shire. He is still an Episcopal­ian, but now prefers worshipping at the Central Con­gre­gational Church in Providence, Rhode Island, when back in his district.

He also is wary of politicians’ injecting faith into the work of government. That was part of his message in 2014, when he spoke at a lobby day event held by an atheist group, the Secular Coalition of America.

“People of faith can recognise and respect the views of people who do not have faith,” he told ENS. “They are as welcome and important a part of the American experiment as people who hold divergent faiths. . . They, too, are all God’s children.”

Senator Whitehouse sees “a natural correct­ive” to religious over­reach in Congress, because legisla­tion that crosses that line will face a tougher time garnering enough sup­port for passage. There are fewer checks on federal judges once they are seated, he says. As a member of the Senate Judicial Committee, he thinks that it is fair to ask court nominees about their faith, to ensure that it won’t eclipse the law in deciding cases.

The issue came up in the autumn in the questioning of Trevor McFadden, a judge nominated by President Trump to a federal district-court post. Judge McFadden is a member of an Anglican congregation in Falls Church, Virginia, which was formed after members of the Falls Church left the congrega­tion during a theological dispute. Senator Whitehouse riled some conservative critics by asking Judge McFadden whether he, despite his Church’s beliefs, would uphold the Supreme Court’s decision allow­ing same-sex marriage. The judge responded that he would.

“He answered well, and I voted for him,” Senator Whitehouse told ENS.

 

CONGRESSMAN BYRNE has sought to defend religious freedoms, too, but from the opposite side of the gay-marriage issue. He was a co-sponsor of a Bill in 2015, the First Amendment Defense Act, that would bar “dis­crim­inatory action” against people such as business owners who fol­lowed reli­gious convictions that gay marriage was wrong. The Bill never made it out of the com­mittee stage.

“For us to tell somebody ‘You can’t act out your faith in the way you conduct your busi­ness,’ I think that’s antithetical to the First Amendment,” he said.

DAVID PAULSENCongressman Andy Barr

Such a stance may be in line with many of Congressman Byrne’s constituents, although it puts him at odds with the Episcopal Church, which just last month spoke out on the side of a gay couple who were denied a wedding cake by a Colorado cake-shop. That legal case is now before the Supreme Court.

 

THE Episcopal Church regularly takes values-based public stances on public issues, partly through its Office of Gov­ern­ment Relations’ advocacy in Washington.

“All of our advocacy is based on General Convention resolutions, and thus reflects the will of the Church,” Ms Blachly said. She emphasises that her office takes a non-partisan approach.

“We know that Episcopalians in the pews also have a diversity of political opinions, and we realise it is possible to have different views on the best way to achieve a more just and compassionate world,” she said. “Bipartisan­ship, as well as respectful listening and dialogue, is central to all of our engagement as we build relationships with members of Con­gress, the administration, and fed­eral departments and agencies.”

Sometimes, Episcopalians in Con­gress are closely aligned with their Church on certain issues, as White­house is on climate change. That, and ocean quality, are import­ant in his coastal state, and the Episcopal Church has promoted environmental stewardship for decades. The House of Bishops also made environmental justice one of the themes of its September meeting in Alaska.

“God has made nature pretty resilient if she’s only given a chance, and the oceans are perhaps the most spectacularly resilient of all,” he said. “But they’ve got to be given that chance.”

 

ON SOME issues, however, the Church may find itself in the middle of a part­isan divide. The Trump administra­tion’s pursuit of greater restrictions on refugee resettlement sparked opposition this year from the Episcopal Church, whose Episcopal Migra­tion Minis­tries is one of nine organisa­tions that facilitate that resettlement on behalf of the State Department (News, 3 February).

A policy alert issued in October by the Office of Government Rela­tions warned of “deva­stating con­sequences for refugees” who were barred from entering the United States.

Republicans have generally been more supportive of the President’s refugee policies. Both Congressmen Byrne and Barr spoke in favour of the refugee-resettlement programme and cited national security as a legitimate reason for tightening the process, at least temporarily.

Such a policy position didn’t necessarily con­tradict the Church, Mr Barr said. “We may come at the issue of refugees or immigrants differently, and we may have some disagree­ments, but I think all of us in Congress who are Episcopalians, we believe that this country is a nation of immigrants. . . We believe in the duty and the obligation of our country to offer refuge and asylum to the politically and reli­giously oppressed.”

Faith also can provide common ground, a bridge across the partisan divide. Senator King regularly attends the Senate’s weekly interfaith prayer breakfast: “the only bipartisan event around here.” Only senators are invited, and 20 or more typically attend any given Wednes­day morning in a room at the Capitol.

“It’s my favorite hour of the week,” he said. The event is a chance to get to know his fellow senators, Republicans and Democrats, as real people rather than political oppon­ents, and he frequently learns something new about them.

Congressman Byrne, too, sees faith as “a force for unity”, and often attends House prayer-group meet­ings that draw members of both parties.

His religion became an issue in the 2016 election, when a Repub­lican rival who is a Baptist tried to argue that Mr Byrne, as an Episco­palian, wasn’t conservative enough for his Alabama district. That line of attack didn’t gain much traction, Mr Byrne said.

“I’m not going to back down from the fact I came to Christ through the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church continues to feed me day to day, week to week, month to month,” he told ENS. “And the other people of faith in my district, particularly those that know me, respect me for that.”

 

David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the ENS website.

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