TOPICS > Politics

Holy War in the House

March 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The November elections are approaching. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are open to challenge and majority control of the House is a close call. Yet two questions of more immediate concern are who will be selected as the new House chaplain, and can a selection be made without causing a religious schism in the House?

REP. HENRY HYDE: Well, I think it’s an example of politics at its lowest level, interjecting religion where it doesn’t belong.

REP. ANNA ESHOO, (D) California: For anyone to suggest that this is partisan? No. This is not making room, in my view, for Catholicism within Christianity.

REV. JAMES FORD, House Chaplain: I don’t think the argument necessarily is about religion per se, but about procedures and things like that.

KWAME HOLMAN: During 21 years as chaplain of the House of Representatives, Reverend James Ford, a Lutheran minister, has made it a practice not to involve himself in legislative or partisan political affairs. He has involved himself in other ways.

REV. JAMES FORD: The chaplain has the unique role of being able to walk around the building, and walk up to people and say, “how are you doing?” Or get to know them. And I, over the years, have gotten to know some people well, and I… They expect the chaplain to ask how you’re doing. And then if it’s a concern or a counseling situation, I invite them to my office and we can talk more confidentially.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reverend Ford also should be well known to regular watchers of C-Span. He, or a guest chaplain, has opened each daily session of the House with a prayer.

REV. JAMES FORD: We are privileged and thankful, o God, that we can begin a new day with these words of prayer — with gratefulness for the wonder and beauty and glory of your creation, with appreciation for friends who care for us and support us in our every need.

REV. JAMES FORD: They’re short, they’re not long. They’re not always relevant to the issues of the day, but they’re relevant to the issues of the soul.

KWAME HOLMAN: More than a year ago, Reverend Ford announced his intention to retire from the $140,000-a-year position he has held since 1979.

REV. JAMES FORD: Tip O’Neill was the Speaker when I came. There was a committee when I was named. You have to be elected eventually, but Speaker O’Neill told me at one point, he said, “I…” His words were, “I was getting pressured to name someone or to suggest someone.” And I used to kid that he really liked me because he thought I was an Irish priest from South Boston. “I’m a Swede from Minnesota.” And he said, “you look like an Irishman, you act like an Irishman, so I always have that pleasure.”

KWAME HOLMAN: But selecting a chaplain to replace Reverend Ford has not been as pleasant an experience. Some critics say the selection process simply was mishandled, while others contend it smacked of outright religious bigotry. Whatever the charges, they’re being aimed at House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT, Speaker of the House: You know, the chaplain search had never been opened up. We’ve only had five chaplains in the last century, and every one of those had been appointed by the Speaker of the House. The last chaplain was appointed by Tip O’Neill, and he sent a letter to Mr. Rhoades and said this is going to be the chaplain. I thought, you know, this House deserves a little bit better than that.

KWAME HOLMAN: So Hastert created an 18- member committee to begin the search for a new chaplain– a bipartisan group, nine Republicans, nine Democrats. California Democrat Anna Eshoo was one of three Catholics to serve.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: It was a great deal of work. I mean, we literally spent, I think, hundreds of hours engaged in this. And we attracted, I think, 60- some candidates nationally.

KWAME HOLMAN: By October the committee had` narrowed its list of candidates and members cast ballots for their top three choices. Father Timothy O’Brien, a Catholic priest from Marquette University in Milwaukee, received the most votes.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: Father O’Brien received 14 out of the 18 votes, which represents 78%. He had the most… He drew the most support from both sides, Republicans and Democrats.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Reverend Robert Dvorak, regional director of the Evangelical Covenant Church, placed second and the Reverend Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, was third. The names of the three finalists were sent to Speaker Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt for final selection. But the committee sent the names without any ranking.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: That’s what they decided to do, that’s how they decided to come down with the three unranked people to pass on to us. So, you know, they were… That explanation was never given to us. That was their internal system of coming and choosing three people.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: They have said the names were not ranked. In my view that is, at best, a lame excuse, because again, everything we do here is by vote. The chairman of our committee, Mr. Bliley, whom I salute because I think he did an outstanding job, along with Earl Pomeroy, the co-chair, Democratic co-chair. Both have publicly stated over and over again that when they met with the leaders, they told them what the work of the committee was. So to say today in March of the year 2000, that they never knew what the vote was, is ludicrous. The Speaker’s staff person counted the votes.

KWAME HOLMAN: After interviewing the three finalists, Gephardt eventually settled on Father O’Brien. But Hastert and Armey voted for Reverend Wright.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: My experience, in just that short period of time, looked like he was the person that was most willing to reach out, to work with families, to be involved with members.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Hastert said he was not influenced by the fact that, since the first House chaplain was selected 211 years ago, no Catholic has held the post, nor has any woman, or rabbi

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, you know, one of the things that I think probably that we want to stay away from is intimidation. You know, because we’ve never done this, we have to do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Only after the selection of Reverend Wright did some Democrats publicly complain about the process.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: Now, does the Speaker have the right to, or the power to do whatever he wants to do? Of course, he does. He should have just done that from the beginning. Why use a bipartisan committee as window dressing?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Whether it was sour grapes and somebody’s person didn’t get picked or whatever, I think we had one of the most vicious times that I have ever seen in this Congress, because all of the sudden there’s this whole thing of division. You know if you didn’t choose this person, you’re a bigot.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Minority Leader Gephardt said concerns were expressed to him early in the process.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: And I tried to talk to the leadership on their side many times, and did many times, and told them that there were real concerns among the Democratic members on the search committee as to how this was being done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those concerns included questions committee member Steve Largent, an Oklahoma Republican and a Protestant, asked of Father O’Brien. But Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, a Catholic himself, suggested Largent’s questions should be considered in the context in which they were asked.

REP. HENRY HYDE: I know questions were asked about would Father O’ Brien wear the Roman collar? And how can he be a successful chaplain if he doesn’t have a family and have endured the problems of being a parent? Those are not off-the-wall questions, but they indicate a lack of, let’s say, sophistication concerning the Catholic Church. But I don’t think they indicated any bigotry or any anti-Catholicism — just a curiosity from people who don’t know a lot of Catholics.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hyde believes some democrats have taken on the chaplain issue in hopes of scoring points with Catholic voters. The issue does come on the heels of the rhetoric that followed George W. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University, an institution whose leaders have expressed strong anti-Catholic sentiments.

REP. HENRY HYDE: I think that people who study the situation or spend any time understanding what actually happened. I think there might be a backlash against people who try to exploit this because it is a non-issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it’s not just Democrats taking issue with the chaplain selection. Some 40 Catholic House Republicans took their concerns to the Speaker. One of them, Iowa’s Greg Ganske, took his concerns to the House floor.

REP. GREG GANSKE: I know Denny Hastert and Dick Armey personally, and they are not anti-Catholic. But there is no question that this is a mess. Coupled with the Bob Jones University fiasco, Catholics in my district and around the country are shaking their heads in dismay.

KWAME HOLMAN: What should the Speaker do?

REP. HENRY HYDE: That’s the $64,000 question I don’t know the answer. Almost anything he does has a down side to it. If he were to dismiss the pastor that he selected, he is capitulating to the other side in a political decision. On the other hand, if this chaplain can’t be respected and listened to by the minority, then he is only half a chaplain. He is chaplain to half the House. That’s no good.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, Speaker Hastert himself indicated that the House has been so torn by this issue it’s unlikely the selection of Presbyterian Minister Charles Wright will stand.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I’m not sure that Rev. Wright can come in and take over for a House divided, nor would he want to. So we’re trying to work through this. I think it is a very bad situation that has been created here by the demagoguery that’s taken place on this. But we’ll eventually… We do have a chaplain. It’ the old chaplain. He still serves our needs and we’ll find a solution to the problem, eventually.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reverend Ford said when he announced his retirement, he gladly would help out until a new chaplain was found. That was 13 months ago. Ford says no one has approached him about how much longer he may be asked to stay on.