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.