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Prayer Groups Proliferate on Capitol Hill

  • Published Oct 30, 2003
Prayer Groups Proliferate on Capitol Hill

Congresswoman Denise Majette has a lot of reasons to pray.

"As a freshman member of Congress in the minority party, I need to be constantly connected to the Holy Spirit to stay strong," Majette, a Democrat from Georgia, said.

Before they debate issues that affect millions of Americans' lives, many legislators meet for informal prayer sessions and Bible studies. Organized prayer breakfasts also are held weekly for Senate and House members, which Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., called "the finest hour of the week."
Although the Constitution forbids them to tamper with religious expression and practice in their roles as elected officials, in private, congressional members feel free to bend God's ear about some of the nation's most pressing issues.

"I've met with a senator friend of mine to pray about the world and pray about other countries and each other," said Wamp. "There's a lot of prayer. It's a huge source of strength for members of Congress."

Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., attends Bible study classes at the Capitol and hosts impromptu prayer sessions with friends. "It's sort of a time of listening and a brief closing prayer in my office," Tiahrt said. "I found prayer doesn't hurt anyone and it's often a source of strength."

Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington, said despite the constraints of the First Amendment, church and state have been linked since the time of the Founding Fathers. In the country's earliest years, he noted, worship services were commonplace on public grounds and Congress often dabbled in religious matters. The appointment and salaries of Senate and House chaplains were among the first agenda items of the first Congress.

Today, as Congress continues to open sessions with prayer and observes a National Day of Prayer established in 1952, some groups say that religion and politics are inexorably linked.

Praying in congressional offices "shows that they're not divorcing their religious views from their public office," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group advocating church-state separation.

But Dreisbach said prayer in Congress is allowed, provided it's voluntary.

"We don't ask people to shed their religious beliefs once they step into the halls of government," he said.

Dreisbach said religious beliefs are as ingrained as political affiliation -- an undeniable part of a person's beliefs. He said discussing religion or engaging in prayer are no different from rooting for a baseball team or discussing the weather, as long as they are done in private -- a position Wamp shares.

"The Scripture says you're not to do it publicly or proudly but to find a place, maybe in a closet, so (prayer) is a private, personal thing," Wamp said. "People should not beat their chest about it."

Gaylor agreed that private prayer at work is permissible, but the members of Congress must be careful not to impose their views on their staff or visitors. Or, she said, they could pray elsewhere.

"There are a plethora of tax-exempt churches right around the corner from the Capitol," Gaylor said. "Why don't they pray there?"

Because there are so many prayer breakfasts, prayer meetings and private praying going on in the Capitol and nearby House and Senate office buildings, congressmen need to realize there may be a feeling of pressure to participate among congressional staff and others on Capitol Hill, said
Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

"Because Washington is a place for networking, people who do take part in these activities should make it clear to their subordinates that it's not an expectation in any way," she said.

Gaylor said that there is a "coercive" element to formal and informal prayer groups.

"It's like telling staff people, `If you want to get in good with your boss, you have to be praying,'" she said.

Congressmen and staff members should make it clear that neither promotions nor penalties are linked with prayer participation -- and make sure their actions reflect their words, Rogers said.

Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said informal prayer groups are preferable to religious expression funded by state dollars -- for instance, the House and Senate chaplains.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is part of both formal and informal prayer groups in Congress. He attends weekly Senate prayer breakfasts, and also prays in private.

"I regularly take time to pray by myself and with others to offer thanks and seek guidance," Grassley said. "As a Christian, I believe that God wants us to talk to him about anything in our life."

Wamp said he notices more people than ever praying on the Hill, especially in the wake of Sept. 11.

"We hit our knees as a country on Sept. 11, and I hope we stayed there," he said. "I believe we have. I think prayer influences a number of congresspeople's daily lives."

Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Center for Christian Statesmanship founded by conservative pastor D. James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said prayer transcends politics.

"Capitol Hill can be a really stressful arena to work in and ... it's important that believers know they aren't out there fighting the battle alone," she said. "The prayer that happens on Capitol Hill is a really important part of (congressmen's) days."

Tiahrt said many members of Congress, who keep hectic schedules, find structure and repose in prayer.

"(Congress) is such a different lifestyle," he said. "I pray for my family quite a bit. Family is eternal, and this job only lasts two years."

© 2003 Religion News Service.