“I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
Harry Truman was well known for telling it like it was regardless of the reputation or rank of an individual. And Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black is easily in the former president’s league – although his language is less confrontational.
Before each session of the Senate, Chaplain Black stands before his flock and provides the opening invocation, prayer, in an effort to set a respectful tone that’s supposed to remind Senators exactly why they are there and who put them there. Since the government shutdown, however, Chaplain Black’s prayer has become considerably more scolding than “shall we gather at the river” revival.
“Save us from the madness,” he begins in solemn tones. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
“So it has gone,” The New York Times reported (Oct. 6), “every day for the last week when Mr. Black, who has been the Senate’s official man of the cloth for 10 years has taken one of the more rote rituals on Capitol Hill… and turned it into a daily conscience check for the 100 men and women of the United States Senate.
“Inside the tempestuous Senate chamber, where debate has degenerated into daily name-calling… Mr. Black’s words manage to cut through as powerful and persuasive.
“During his prayer on Friday, the day after officers from the United States Capitol Police shot and killed a woman who had used her car as a battering ram, Mr. Black noted that the officers were not being paid because of the government shutdown. Then he turned his attention back to the senators. ‘Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism,’ he said. ‘Forgive them the blunders they have committed.’ ”
In interviews, Chaplain Black, a Seventh Day Adventist, is quick to point out that he takes a non-partisan position in his job. Recently, however, the inability of lawmakers to resolve the current crisis has stirred and steered his rhetoric in a way to get Senators off their backsides and do the jobs as they were elected to do.
“I use a biblical perspective to decide my beliefs about various issues,” the former Navy chaplain said. “Let’s just say I’m liberal on some and conservative on others. But it’s obvious the Bible condemns some things in a very forceful and overt way, and I would go along with that condemnation.”
“In his role as chaplain,” The Times writes, “a position that has existed since 1789, he acts as a sounding board, spiritual adviser and ethical counselor to members of the Senate. When he prays each day, he said, he recites the names of all 100 senators and their spouses, reading them from a laminated index card.
“It is not uncommon for him to have 125 people at his Bible study gatherings or 20 to 30 senators at his weekly prayer breakfast. He officiates weddings for Senate staff members. He performs hospital visitations. And he has been at the side of senators when they have died, most recently Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii in December.
“He tries to use his proximity to the senators — and the fact that for at least one minute every morning, his is the only voice they hear — to break through on issues that he feels are especially urgent. Lately, he said, they seem to be paying attention.
” ‘I remember once talking about self-inflicted wounds — that captured the imagination of some of our lawmakers,’ he said. ‘Remember, my prayer is the first thing they hear every day. I have the opportunity, really, to frame the day in a special way.’ ”
So touched by Chaplain Black’s words that Senator Harry Reid, “whose head was bowed low in prayer, broke his concentration and looked straight up at the chaplain.”
“Following the suggestion in the prayer of Admiral Black,” Reid said after the Morning Prayer. “I think we’ve all here in the Senate kind of lost the aura of Robert Byrd,” a Southern Senator who was well known for gentility and compromise.
Maybe the good chaplain should minister to both the House and President.