There was an uproar last week among Democrats, and even some Republicans, after it was reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan abruptly fired the Catholic House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy.
Many have charged that Ryan axed Conroy in retaliation for the chaplain’s November prayer that there not be “winners and losers” created by the GOP tax bill, but rather “benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
In response, Ryan reportedly told GOP colleagues that he let the Jesuit chaplain go because he wasn’t serving members’ “pastoral needs,” and not because of politics.
It’s true that it would be quite petty if Ryan was so personally offended by Conroy expressing concern about the speaker’s signature piece of legislation that he decided to fire the chaplain. But this kind of purging and retribution is the stock-in-trade of religious right leaders and their faithful in the House GOP, to whom Ryan has bowed on issues ranging from abortion to LGBTQ rights.
Democratic Rep. Gerald Connelly, a Catholic from Virginia, hinted at this “dark theory,” telling The Washington Post, “There’s a crowd that doesn’t like urban, Catholic Jesuits who have a broad-minded approach to things, and they want to replace him.”
And though Ryan is leaving Congress at the end of this term, there’s been pressure on him from conservatives to resign now rather than wait. So far resisting, he’s still pandering and still bowing. He likely also desires to maintain good relationships with those who he no doubt will need if he becomes a lobbyist in the future, like so many other retired politicians.
Devout white evangelicals dominate the influential House Freedom Caucus ― from Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Louie Gohmert of Texas to Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Another, Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, stirred controversy when he suggested the next chaplain should have a family, a requirement that would automatically exclude Catholic priests from the position.
Freedom Caucus members’ beliefs in curtailing government funding of many programs that help the less affluent ― with which Ryan agrees, and which is reflected in the new tax law ― has support among evangelical leaders and even among the broader evangelical electorate.
A Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found 53 percent of white evangelicals believe an individual’s poverty stemmed from lack of effort. Apparently a line in Second Thessalonians that says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” is enough to rebut statement after statement by Jesus in the gospels to help the poor and the sick.
So much for Christian charity ― at least among a subset of evangelical believers and their leaders.
It’s easy, then, to understand how evangelical politicians, as well as those politicians who pander to evangelical voters, are threatened by Conroy’s remarks. The Jesuit’s prayer reflects a Christian spirit of giving a helping hand to the poorest and the weakest among us that goes back centuries. But evangelicals have cast that spirit aside.
The modern evangelical political movement, which has been focused more on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality than programs for the poor, has been a key part of the Republican Party going back President Ronald Reagan, who actively courted evangelicals.
Today they are a force ensconced in many state legislatures, governorships and within Congress. And President Donald Trump ― whose words and actions reveal his intent on eviscerating social welfare programs perhaps more than any other president ― received more of the evangelical vote than even the devout evangelical George W. Bush.
White evangelical leaders boast about having more access to this White House than any in the past, and are gearing up for yet another meeting with Trump next month. As I noted last month, it appears they’re going to use the Stormy Daniels affair as a bargaining chip, claiming the president needs to give them even more if he wants them to stick by him.
The religious right ― which includes conservative Catholic leaders, Mormon leaders and conservatives among other faiths in addition to white evangelicals ― was viewed only a few years ago as a waning political force in American life. Yet right now evangelicals are wielding enormous power within the Republican Party, with a continued, firm grip on both the White House and Congress.
The ugly firing of Rev. Patrick Conroy is yet another vivid example of that.