What if the way out of the political crisis turns out to have nothing at all to do with character? Would that be embarrassing? Would God be surprised?
Dr. Barry C. Black is the Chaplain of the U. S. Senate and he has gotten a lot of attention recently by giving the assembled senators a tongue-lashing during the morning prayer. Here is an account from the New York Times, but everyone covered it. We could ask why the Senate should have a morning prayer, I suppose, but that’s not the line of thought I have in mind here.
Here are five things that could conceivably happen.
1. The government fails completely to meet its obligations and through that event, people learn that they don’t need the federal government nearly as much as they had been told they did. A wholesale swing to government by the states and by local communities follows.
2. The integrity of the caucuses is shown to be faulty and new tough measures of party discipline are initiated. The change I am pointing to here would have Reid, McConnell, Boehner, and Pelosi exercise substantially more power over the votes of their members.
3. The possibility of a grand bargain exists, but it is compromised away by small adjustments made every month or so by cautious and uncertain politicians.
4. The Senators and Representatives take very seriously and very literally their promised to the voters and big contributors in their districts, and refuse to compromise or be guided by their party leaders in Washington.
5. Many members of the Senate are cut to the heart by the Chaplain’s words and decide they want to be saved from the madness and to acknowledge their transgressions and give up trying to sound reasonable, knowing that that will save them from the charges of “hypocrisy” and “smugness,” which Chaplain Black has leveled at them. But now that they have done those things—they have acknowledged their transgressions, they have been saved from the madness, they have given up the appearance of reasoned discourse—they discover that they have no idea what to do next.
Choosing Among the Five
If you take seriously the lectures Chaplain Black has administered in the guise of prayers, you will conclude that #5 is the best that can happen. And maybe it is, but I have two concerns about settling on that too early. The first is that I think there are better solutions, so I’m not all that happy about the Chaplain focusing on what seem inferior solutions. The second is that as God’s judgment is brought into the political mix on Capitol Hill, it is almost certainly going to focus on the character of individual members. I think that in this regard, God is not showing much political sense.
1. Are there better solutions?
Yes. But before we get there, let’s look at the kinds of solutions. Number one is a radical restructuring of the federal system of the sort that would make Rand Paul dance in the shower. It substitutes local (states, communities) action for national action. Nearly all the constituency groups supporting the Democratic Party lose big time in such a “solution.” Number three involves a very dangerous brinkmanship, but many believe that the desperation necessary for a grand bargain will not happen in small adjustments and will, in all likelihood, be prevented by small adjustments. Desperation is a plausible alternative.
Numbers two and four are alternative distributions of power. In number two, the voters in the states and districts lose power over their Senators and Representatives. They may be much better served by them, but if the caucuses work like teams, the plays aren’t going to be called by the spectators any more. The caucus leadership loses power over their members in number four and each legislator puts “the views of the home folks” first. That means that both “the needs of the country” and “the cooperation necessary to make Congress actually function” both get moved down and both of those seem important to me.
But God really likes number five best. I’m trying hard not to sound snide, but the fact is that I am not really comfortable that God likes the kind of solution pitched in number five. God likes good personal character and good personal behavior. I like a reconsideration of what the federal system requires and new ways of balancing the power of the caucuses with the authority of the constituents. I value a grand bargain very highly and I am quite sure that business as usual is not going to get us there. Good character doesn’t get us to any of those.
2. Is a focus on inner sins and outward attitudes going to help us move forward?
I really don’t think so. As favorable as I am toward the recognition of our sins and the value of attitude adjustment, I really think we need structural and political change very urgently and this brings us to my second concern. Any institutional chaplain—Dr. Black is not unusual in this respect—is going to ask people to focus on inner, spiritual flaws and on outer, interpersonal flaws. It might be that God wants structural change, but if so, that point is not going to be made from the podium by a religious professional. It will not.
Here’s one of Dr. Black’s prayers.
“Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown, transforming negatives into positives as you work for the good of those who love you.”
I see that God opposed hypocrisy and removes the burdens of those who are inadvertently affected by the huffing and puffing of national politics. But surely you see that Dr. Black’s prayer that the Lord deliver us from governing by crisis is a blow to my hopes for the grand bargain. His prayer that all Senators become “responsible stewards of God’s bounty” does not recognize just what “responsible stewardship” implies is one of the major differences between the two parties. Ask the Environmental Defense Council and the American Coal Council if you don’t agree automatically. Does God favor one of those groups and hate the other? Does the Chaplain accept “stewardship” equally from those two groups?
I’m honestly not sure that Dr. Black has a clearer view than Dr. Hess does (that’s me) of what political outcomes God wants in this situation. I’m not entirely sure God has a favorite outcome that requires action by the U. S. Congress. I guess we should just all be grateful that I am not the Senate Chaplain. But for shine the light of God’s judgment on policy questions, do we really need a Senate Chaplain?
 Each party has a gathering of its members in each house of Congress, although the Republicans call their caucus a “conference” for some reason. That means that there is a Senate Democratic caucus, presided over by Majority Leader Harry Reid; a Senate Republican caucus, presided over by Mitch McConnell; a House Republican caucus, leadership of which alternates between Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Canton, depending on what the issue is; and a House Democratic caucus, presided over by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.