Politicians, prayer, and the will of God

Before Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) voted against the economic bailout bill that failed in the House last Monday, he and another lawmaker went to the balcony outside the Speaker’s Lobby and prayed for guidance.

The day before, in Davis’s hometown church, the pastor, the congregation and Davis’s wife prayed that God would give him wisdom in making his decision.

Meanwhile, Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) went to St. Peter’s Church in Washington that same Sunday and prayed for the bailout to pass.

“I guess he wasn’t listening,” Hare, a Catholic, joked on Friday before the package passed. “We’ll try again today.”

Davis took a more somber tone.

“There’s been a continual prayer that those of us who serve would seek wisdom in our efforts to decide where we are and what we need to do on this,” said Davis, a Baptist who prays at least five times a day.

Religion, prayer and spirituality have played an enduring role in the lives of the men and women who have governed America. While many deny ever praying for their own election, some admit they believe it is the will of God that they are in their powerful position. Some profess their faith to the hills and wear pins that proclaim as much, while others think it’s far too personal a subject to discuss openly.

Religion and prayer undoubtedly affect most members of Congress, whether prominently or subtly, when making far-reaching decisions.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) recognizes that his Lutheran faith influences his political decisions, but he says he needs to justify his political decisions from both a faith-based and a secular perspective. Davis said he is a Lutheran but attends a Baptist Church.

“Faith informs how I view a wide variety of public questions, and I think that that’s a good thing,” he said. “Nothing in the Constitution says that elected officials should not have faith or should not be persuaded by their faith. But they should always be humble enough to know that they may not be right and … humble enough to recognize that in a secular world, not everyone shares our faith.

“Some people don’t have a faith at all, and those people are entitled to representation, too, and they’re entitled to believe that their elected officials are not motivated solely by their theological beliefs.”

Like both Davis and Hare, the majority of Congress ascribes to the Christian faith, with nearly 30 percent belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Jews make up almost 8 percent of lawmakers. Last year, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) became the first member in the history of Congress to declare himself an atheist. Only 10 members of Congress decline to list their personal religion.

Members pray in their own ways. While Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress, prays five times a day at set times, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), a Catholic, says he prays constantly.

“My definition of prayer is a little different than most people’s,” said Capuano. “It’s every time I think about [God]. My God didn’t say, ‘You can only use these words to talk to me’ — I can use my own. Right now, I’m praying that I don’t say the wrong thing.”

As the means of prayer differ from lawmaker to lawmaker, so too does the subject matter. Many publicly devout members, like Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Al Green (D-Texas) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) say they don’t pray for their own personal political gain — for their reelection, for example — and that to do so would contradict their faith.

“I believe that if I prayed for myself on election night, that would be pretty arrogant and that would really be a testimony to my lack of faith,” said Rush, a Baptist. “I believe if it is to be, then God will make it happen.”

But Hare, who usually prays for peace, sees no harm in praying for an election and says he has done so at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in East Moline, Ill.

“Sure, I go to St. Anne’s and say, ‘Lord, we need to win this one, this is incredibly important,’ ” Hare says.
Americans are split on their feelings about politicians expressing their faith. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 50 percent of respondents say they are not troubled when politicians talk about their faith. But 46 percent say that it makes them uncomfortable.

Like the American public, members of Congress are divided about bringing their personal religion into the spotlight of their public careers.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), apparently comfortable proclaiming God’s role in her political life, said last year at a Christian speaking engagement that God beckoned her to enter politics.

“He called me to run for Minnesota state Senate. I had no desire to be in politics, absolutely none,” said Bachmann, who is a Lutheran. “God then called me to run for the United States Congress.”

But when asked recently about her religious beliefs and how they relate to her career, Bachmann would only say that she does pray and is a person of faith.

Many others, like Bachmann, feel that religion and prayer are much too personal to discuss, and some even say that to do so would be to go against their religious beliefs.

“I have some hesitation about answering that because the Scripture says that when you pray, go to the closet and pray in seclusion to your Father, who is in heaven,” said Cleaver, a United Methodist minister. “So asking that question is somewhat getting me to stand on a street corner.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has not stated her religion, and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who is Catholic, would only say they were persons of faith and that it played an important role in their lives. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has also not stated his religion, said he does not think Congress was the appropriate venue to discuss matters of personal religion.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) states no specific religion but has forged his own from several different faiths. He said that without spiritual practice, which he calls “reflection,” a politician will fail both in his career and, more importantly, in his personal life.

“You spend so much time just keeping up every day,” he said. “If you don’t reflect, you’re going to only react, and sooner or later that’s going to get you in trouble. And I don’t just mean in voting trouble. I mean your vision, your viewpoint, your reason for being, your philosophy of life. Your belief system is going to get disjointed and distorted. You have to have time to reflect.”

There are few in Congress who would go so far as to say that God appointed them to office. But many members believe that whatever happens in the world is God’s will, so by default, their being elected is God’s will.

“I believe it is [God’s will that I was elected],” Rush said. “I know it is in my case because it had to be God’s grace that brought me here in the first place.”