WASHINGTON – The disapproval comes from angry constituents, baffled party elders and colleagues on the other side of the Capitol. But nowhere have senators found criticism more personal or immediate than right inside their own chamber every morning when the chaplain delivers the opening prayer.
“Save us from the madness,” the chaplain, a Seventh-day Adventist, former Navy rear admiral and collector of brightly colored bow ties named Barry C. Black, said one day late last week as he warmed up into what became an epic ministerial scolding.
“We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
So it has gone every day for the last week when 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 — the morning invocation — and turned it into a daily conscience check for the 100 men and women of the U.S. Senate.
Inside the tempestuous Senate chamber, where debate has degenerated into daily name-calling — the Tea Party as a band of nihilists and extortionists, and Democrats as socialists who want to force their will on the American people — Black’s words manage to cut through as powerful and persuasive.
During his prayer Friday, the day after officers from the U.S. Capitol police shot and killed a woman who had used her car as a battering ram, 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.”
Harry Reid, the pugnacious majority leader who has called his Republican adversaries anarchists, rumps and hostage-takers, took note. As Black spoke, Reid, whose head was bowed low in prayer, broke his concentration and looked straight up at the chaplain.
Lost aura of Robert Byrd
“Following the suggestion in the prayer of Admiral Black,” the majority leader said after the invocation, seeming genuinely contrite, “I think we’ve all here in the Senate kind of lost the aura of Robert Byrd,” one of the historic giants of the Senate who prized gentility and compromise.
In many ways, Black, 65, is like any other federal employee who is fed up with lawmakers’ inability to resolve the political crisis that has kept the government closed for almost a week. He is not being paid. His Bible study classes, which he holds for senators and their staff members four times a week, have been canceled until further notice.
His is a nonpartisan position, one of just a few in the Senate, and he prefers to leave his political leanings vague. He was chosen in 2003 by then-Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., from a group of finalists selected by a bipartisan committee. Before that he ministered in the Navy for nearly 30 years.
“I use a biblical perspective to decide my beliefs about various issues,” Black said in his office suite on the third floor of the Capitol.
“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.”
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.
His words lately may be pointed, but his tone is always steady and calm.
“May they remember that all that is necessary for unintended catastrophic consequences is for good people to do nothing,” he said the day of the shutdown deadline.