Senate Gets A Dose Of Scolding With Its Morning Prayer

NPR icon by Ailsa Chang
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Drew Angerer

It's easy to tune out when the Senate goes through its morning rituals. The president pro tem calls the chamber to order; there's the Pledge of Allegiance. One morning could sound like any other.

Except for the past two weeks. Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, has been using his morning prayers to say exactly what he thinks is wrong with Washington lawmakers: "Remove from them that stubborn pride, which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism."

A retired rear admiral who often sports a bow tie, Black became the Senate's first African-American chaplain when he took the job 10 years ago.

Since the government shut down Oct. 1, his daily prayers have been sprinkled with reprimands — about the deadlock, the anger and the harm the impasse has inflicted on the rest of the country.

"Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable," he said. "Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown."

Black himself has been part of that collateral damage: Since the shutdown, he hasn't been paid. The Bible study classes he leads — which are attended by senators four times a week — have been cancelled.

But Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine says she's glad he's still showing up for the morning prayer.

"I love that our chaplain encourages us to put aside petty differences and to remember the greater good and be guided by what is right," Collins says. "And in this case, I think there's a lot to be said for prayer."

Some of his prayers get pretty specific. Last week, he railed against the shutdown for delaying the payment of death benefits to military families. A law has since been passed to address that.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah says the chaplain should be taking a stand on issues.

"I think he has the right to be upset, too," Hatch says. "He's a member of the Senate right now, and he should be upset. You can give these milquetoast prayers all you want, but he gives substantive prayers, and I kind of appreciate it, personally."

Black told NPR three years ago he sees himself not only as a spiritual guide, but also as another policy adviser to lawmakers.

"A senator is often dealing with issues where he or she isn't certain as to what he or she should do," he said. "I mean, senators will even come to me and ask me, you know, 'What do you think I should do on this thing?' "

On the shutdown issue, senators probably don't even need to ask.

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