Congress And Pastors

A View From The Summit

I was recently invited to attend a Congressional Pastors' Summit sponsored by Rep. Jay Dickey, a four-term House member from Arkansas. On the fax machine, along with the invitation, was a letter from Pastor Wiley S. Drake of Buena Vista, Calif., the head of a group (I am not making this up, Dave Barry) called "Americans United for the Unity of Church and State."

The Drake letter seemed to be a personal plea to his friends to show up at the summit. Now, why would I be on that list? I am not sure, but I do know that I am on another of Pastor Drake's lists: the list of people he is praying to die. He has sent me several messages announcing that he is offering up "imprecatory" prayers against me, literally hoping that God strikes me down. It seems likely that Pastor Drake got his lists mixed up.

But who am I to turn down an invitation to a summit? It only cost $65 and I assumed I would find the event "informative." The first session was a reception with members of Congress. I went up to Pastor Drake and said hello. He appeared to be turning to stone as he recognized me. Numerous other attendees realized that a skunk had arrived at their picnic.

After a pleasant chicken meal, we were addressed by the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister best known as the House chaplaincy candidate favored by members of the Republican leadership last year after they rejected a Catholic priest who was the bipartisan committee's choice. Wright's sermon was quite powerful, and at that point, the summit didn't seem particularly controversial. Then, things took a turn for the worse.

Rep. Dickey began discussing why Wright had been forced to withdraw in favor of a third "compromise" nominee. See, the selection committee contained only five "godly men" and a sixth who was having trouble being consistently "godly" even though he tried; that number of "godly" folks was a few votes short of a majority. Thus, said the congressman, a "conspiracy of Satan" had deprived Congress of Wright's services. The other summiteers seemed to find no problem with the idea that the "godly" among us were so easily identified.

I got up early for the next day's breakfast with Rep. Joe Pitts, the Lancaster, Pa.-area congressman and "Values Action Team" leader who works with the Religious Right to get "moral" issues to the House floor. Pitts combined Bible study with sage political advice, suggesting that the Amish and Men­nonites are registering to vote in droves because of a bill he is pushing to exempt them from federal labor laws. Current law forbids children from working in places with potentially dangerous machinery like that employed in their furniture factories.

Also joining us for breakfast was David Barton, the Texas "Christian nation" activist who marshals statistics to show most of our country's problems began precisely the same year the Supreme Court found government-initiated prayer unconstitutional. (He'll soon have to figure out why the number of school shootings and unwed mothers has been declining lately, since the High Court has even taken government-sponsored prayer out of football stadiums!)

No time to stop: Next it was over to another building for a visit with the "compromise" choice for House chaplain, the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, a parish priest from Chicago. Dickey introduced him with no apparent enthusiasm, but joked that when Coughlin arrived he was not aware that the post was paid. People laughed. I wondered if they would be laughing if they knew the chaplain gets over $132,000 a year from the taxpayers.

Other congressmen soon showed up and were given the floor. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) mainly joshed about how he'd like to run for the Senate but incumbent Sen. Strom Thurmond does not find 97 a reasonable retirement age.

One pastor did manage to get in a question about gas prices, but Graham heard the question as if it were about "gasbag" politicians and tried to joke about how much people in Congress do go on. (A few days earlier I had been on ESPN with Graham to discuss football prayer and yes, they do go on.) Next up: Former libertarian, now social conservative, Rep. Dana Rorabacher (R-Calif.). He noted that since he didn't believe there were ever snakes in Ireland, what Saint Patrick really drove out were "pagans" (because of the connection between serpents and the devil) and that maybe we needed to do that right here in the United States. Perhaps he was just joshing.

My final stop was the Supreme Court, where we had been granted an audience with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Before he arrived, Dickey began answering some questions, including the observation that Congress might "consider" impeaching some other members of the court, but then (remember, I was there) downplayed his own suggestion. Rehnquist gave a very engaging and noncontroversial speech.

I really couldn't take it any more, and I declined to take the tour of the Capitol or hear a congressional panel discuss impending bills. Frankly, the combined possibility of more discussion of satanic activity and joshing was just too much.