Suppose Democrats were running the House of Representatives, and before they passed a health-care bill, the House chaplain delivered a prayer asking members to safeguard the free market and the bountiful prosperity it provides. And suppose House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the chaplain not to insert political comments into his remarks, but the chaplain kept doing it, and Pelosi fired him. Would you be outraged?
I would not, and neither, I suspect, would any liberals. Yet the firing of House Chaplain Patrick Conroy for inserting subtle political messaging into his prayers has set off a small wave of liberal indignation. “This is about freedom of speech,” insists Pelosi.
There’s no question that Conroy was fired because the Republican majority didn’t appreciate the content of his sermons. Ryan told Conroy, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” Conroy insisted that his prayer on the House tax bill “doesn’t sound political to me.”
But of course it was political. Conroy framed the issue in terms of the unequal opportunities facing different Americans: “[M]ay all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.” And then he immediately segued to a plea for fairness: “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
It is true that Republicans were claiming that their tax plan helps everybody. But they’re not crazy to think that bringing up inequality of opportunity, and then asking to make sure the tax cuts help everybody, is political. That’s what the debate was about. Democrats would also claim that their health-care plans maintain the free market, but would likewise view a prayer focusing on the importance of maintaining the free market as political, even if they agreed with that goal. Emphasizing a value that one party is emphasizing, and the other is defensively trying to neutralize, is part of how political debate forms.
Meanwhile, the House chaplain is not like a tenured faculty post at a university, which has some implicit protection for the right to give controversial political remarks. If you have a House chaplain — which I don’t even favor in the first place — you have no obligation to let them use the perch to push their own political values.
It’s important to separate substance from process. When you lose sight of that distinction, you wind up like Trump’s Republican allies, supporting anything their party does to advance their agenda. Ryan’s beliefs about taxes may be horrid, but he has no obligation to let the House chaplain deliver subtle rebukes to his ideology.