Senate Chaplain Barry Black is photographed in his Capitol office. (Getty/Tom Williams/Roll Call)

Senate Chaplain Barry Black is photographed in his Capitol office. (Getty/Tom Williams/Roll Call)

This past spring, on the National Day of Prayer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation—a group that advocates for the separation of church and state—filed suit against Congress. Their claim? That House of Representatives Chaplain Patrick Conroy rejected an application from their co-president Dan Barker, an atheist, to deliver a secular guest invocation before the House. An atheist or agnostic has never spoken before Congress as a guest chaplain. Jews have delivered less than three percent of House innovations in the last fifteen years, and Muslims and Hindus even fewer according to the complaint.

This case raises important questions not just about guest chaplains in Congress but about congressional chaplains themselves and the historical precedent of opening all sessions of Congress with a prayer or invocation. How, in a country committed to the formal separation of church and state, did this come to be the practice? And who, in our religiously diverse nation should be allowed to speak? If people from some religious backgrounds are given a place at this congressional podium, a wide range must be represented—including atheists—if we are committed to being a truly pluralistic nation.

Before the question of who can open Congress with a prayer or invocation, some history. The U.S. Congress has almost always had formal chaplains, though there is little historical or social scientific research about them or their prayers and invocations. The American tradition of legislative prayer dates to 1774, when Jacob Duché, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was recruited to offer prayers before the First Continental Congress. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Senate selected Samuel Proovost, an Episcopal bishop from New York, as chaplain in April 1789. The House elected William Linn, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, as its first chaplain a month later. Proovost and Linn each received an annual salary of $500. After Congress moved to Washington, D.C., local clergy took turns leading prayer until permanent chaplains were appointed.

Congressional chaplaincies have long been controversial. During the 1850s, Congress received a number of petitions calling for the elimination of the positions. Writers expressed concerns about church-state separation and the way in which chaplains were appointed. Chaplains remained, however, and a formal selection process was initiated. Controversy and high-profile litigation continued, and in 1983 the lawsuit Marsh v. Chambers reached the Supreme Court. Its goal was to end the practice of legislative prayer, but it failed when the court decided to defer to historical custom. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren Burger argued:

There can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws … is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.

There have been more prayer cases but the decision in Marsh v. Chambers has never been struck down.

Today, chaplains to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives pray or offer an invocation at the beginning of each day of congressional business. Before 1939, chaplains delivered prayers at the start of each legislative day, which sometimes ran across several calendar days. In addition to offering formal prayers, some chaplains provide pastoral care for members of Congress and others associated with the House and Senate, including staff, police, and family members. These chaplains hold full-time, strictly nonpartisan, and nonsectarian jobs. Each has a staff and is paid as a level IV executive federal employee: $158,700 in 2015.

Congressional chaplains are formal officers of the chamber in which they serve, and the process generally has not been subject to partisan considerations. A bipartisan committee nominates candidates for the chaplaincies, after which the Senate and House vote on separate resolutions to accept or reject each one. House chaplains are elected to two-year terms at the beginning of each new Congress, while Senate chaplains do not have to be reelected once they have been appointed.

To date, congressional chaplains have been exclusively Christian. Sixty-two men have been chaplains to the Senate and fifty-two men to the House. No women have served as chaplains in either chamber. All but the current Senate chaplain, Barry Black, have been white. All but four—three Catholic and one who identified simply as Christian—were Protestant. A large majority of chaplains have been mainline Protestant: Methodist (29 percent), Presbyterian (25 percent), or Episcopalian (20 percent).

Guest chaplains are welcomed periodically to offer invocations, more often in the House than the Senate. (Being a guest chaplain is what Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation had applied to do.) Guest chaplains in the Senate have been a bit more diverse. The first woman to pray before the Senate did so in 1965, the first Muslim in 1992, and—despite a small protest—the first Hindu in 2007. Like the Senate, the House’s guest chaplains have also represented a wider variety of religious traditions than the official chaplains.

With political scientist Laura Olson and sociologist Margaret Clendenen, I analyzed a sample of daily prayers offered at the beginning of congressional sessions. All of the prayers we examined were offered by the formal—not guest—chaplains to the Senate and House between 1990 and 2010. Five chaplains served Congress during this time. Beyond the fact that all five invoked the name of God, there were few commonalities in style or content. Most petitioned and thanked God while mixing pastoral and prophetic messages in ways not clearly connected to current events, election cycles, or levels of congressional polarization. While Senate chaplains shifted from largely Christian to more religiously neutral prayer language between 1990 and 2010, House chaplains did not. Each chaplain developed a distinctive prayer style that likely reflects both their personal preferences and a relative lack of clear rules and guidelines in place for the conduct of congressional chaplains.

A Presbyterian originally from North Dakota, Richard C. Halverson was chaplain of the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1994. He quoted a Bible verse in almost every prayer (97 percent of those we analyzed), and often mentioned senators and staff by name as he tended his flock. Some of these patterns likely carried over from his tenure as the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, a large congregation he led in Bethesda, Maryland, for 23 years before becoming the Senate chaplain. Colleagues described Halverson as a strong pastoral presence who knew everyone from Senate leaders to the cleaning staff.

In keeping with this perception, Halverson seems to have conceived of himself as the chaplain to the whole Senate community; he regularly thanked God for them and mentioned them in prayers of petition, which used traditional Christian language. On July 10, 1990, for example, Halverson thanked “Gracious Father in Heaven” for “all who serve in this place and their families.” He thanked God for keeping them safe during the last congressional recess and giving them “time with constituents and exposure to the people for rest, recreation, and renewal.” He then asked God to enable the senators and their staffs to “accomplish everything necessary and desirable” in the next four weeks of legislative work and to “[d]eliver them from trivial and futile activity and guide them in the way of truth and justice.”

A strong theistic streak ran through Halverson’s prayers. He regularly reminded senators of what he perceived to be God’s presence in their lives and the ongoing life of the nation. On April 5, 1990, he directly invited senators to rely on God in their day-to-day lives, praying: “We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown—but we have forgotten God … Help us to realize that to profess faith in God and live as though He were nonexistent is worse, if anything, than belief in no god.” Similarly pushing against perceived disbelief, Halverson prayed, “Sovereign Lord, in our secular culture it is assumed that God, if there be a God, is irrelevant to the practical affairs of life … We thank Thee that our Founding Fathers did not believe this.” Halverson’s prayers leave little doubt that he saw God as active in the lives of senators and the life and history of the country and saw his role, in part, as reminding the senators of this. Halverson regularly referred to God as the “Lord of History” or “Ruler of the Nations,” and asked God repeatedly to “rule” in the United States.

By contrast, his successor, the current Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, has a more inclusive and understated approach to God-talk. Born in Baltimore, Black is the Senate’s first black chaplain and its first Seventh-day Adventist. He served in the U.S. Navy for 27 years, including as the chief navy chaplain, before becoming the Senate chaplain, where he has served since 2003.

Black’s personal prayer style assumes that God can and will support senators, but he is more muted than his predecessors on strong providential themes. On June 18, 2010, for example, Black prayed to the “Eternal Spirit, creator and sustainer of humanity” with the words, “Today, use our senators to fulfill Your purposes. Quicken their hearts, purify their minds, and strengthen their commitments. … Let faith, hope, and love abound in their lives, as they seek to heal the hurt in our Nation and world.” References to broken aspects of the world are common in Black’s prayers, as is the idea that with wisdom, knowledge, and love, senators may sustain themselves and make decisions that would begin to heal that brokenness.

Black also regularly asks God to guide lawmakers in the deeply bipartisan—and perhaps broken—context of Congress in recent years. On June 23, 2010, for example, Black prayed: “Lord, we ask that You would guide our lawmakers as they influence the future course of this Nation.” A month earlier he prayed for members of Congress to “work out the issues that divide them.” While Black clearly wants senators to work together for the good of the nation, he avoids explicitly Christian themes that might situate either the senators or the nation in any particular place in relation to God. Even when Black specifically mentioned the nation’s founders on July 13, 2010, he invoked neither their religious beliefs nor providential themes: “Lord, thank You for our Nation’s founders, for their ideals and principles. We are grateful also for the long line of patriots who have kept freedom’s flame burning brightly.” Black’s prayers reveal a shift from the more explicitly Christian approach of earlier chaplains toward more religiously neutral language—a trend that is in keeping with a nation that has become increasingly religiously unaffiliated and diverse.

But even as Black’s prayers are more inclusive of non-religious Americans than the chaplains before him, the chaplaincy itself—not to mention Congress—has yet to become a place for many non-theists or non-Christians. While we did not analyze the prayers of guest chaplains between 1990 and 2010, the vast majority were Christian, largely Protestant. In this context, conflict over a potential atheist guest chaplain is not surprising. Congress remains largely Christian, with more than 90 percent of members identifying as Christian, and mostly Protestant. And large numbers of Americans have negative or skeptical about atheists. Survey data from the Pew Research Center from 2014 shows Americans ranking atheists negatively in comparison to other religious groups. While people tend to feel warmly about Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants, they are more cold toward atheists along with Muslims. “Fully 41% of the public rates Muslims in the coldest part of the thermometer (33 or below), and 40% rate atheists in the coldest part,” according to the Pew report.

Ideally, there should be more religious diversity in Congress as well as among congressional chaplains. But for now, if the Senate and House continue to open their sessions with an invocation or prayer, these prayers must be offered by people who truly represent the religious diversity of our nation. Not only do we need more atheists as guest chaplains but we need members of other religious traditions in better proportion to their numbers in the population. We also need women and people of color, especially in today’s political climate, in representative numbers. It is not only Congress but also the American people who need to hear what all of these people have to say in these short, sacred moments that are symbolic of so much more.

Wendy Cadge is a professor in the sociology department at Brandeis University.