Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Even some Republican members of Congress, such as Rep. Peter King of New York, are upset about the firing of the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit, as House chaplain. “To be the first House chaplain to be removed in the history of Congress, in the middle of a term, raises serious questions,” King told reporters. “I think we deserve more of an explanation of why. Was there political pressure?”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan took it upon himself to fire Conroy. Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong denied Thursday that Conroy was pushed out for anything he said or did. What might he possibly have done, in any case? Well, there was that time in November during the tax debate when Conroy seemed to be criticizing the Republican plan from the House floor in a prayer that he offered.
“May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle,” Conroy prayed before the vote was taken. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
A week or so after delivering these sensible words, Conroy told a reporter from The New York Times he got a message from the speaker’s office. “A staffer came down and said, ‘We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political,’” he said. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer.”
Conroy told the Times that when next he saw Ryan, he was told bluntly: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
I don’t know the full story, and I doubt anyone does, but if indeed Conroy was fired for “political” reasons, that seems crazy to me.
Christianity is the religion of Jesus, who was himself “political” in that he took sides with the poor, the ill and those who lived on the margins. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asked his followers to love their neighbors. Someone asked him to define what he meant by “neighbors.” “When you give a banquet,” he said, without hesitation or equivocation, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:13)
He said again and again that he came into the world to preach “the good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Repeatedly he asked the wealthy to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30, Mark 10:17-31). He cared for the needy himself by feeding them (Mark 8: 1-13). The Sermon on the Mount opens: “Blessed are the poor…” (Matthew 5:3)
This is all straightforward. But in recent years a new, perverted version of Christianity has surfaced: the so-called Prosperity Gospel. Those who preach this distortion of the message of Jesus assert that the rich are rich because God approves of them. It encourages people to have faith so they can become rich. It celebrates wealth as a sign of God’s grace.
One hears TV preachers like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar preaching these dangerous ideas. Joe Carter, editor of The Gospel Coalition, explains this well here: “What You Should Know about the Prosperity Gospel.” The roots of this heretical version of Christianity reach deeper than Carter suggests, however, going back to Puritanism itself in the 16th century.
I’m a Christian, and I find the smugness of Republicans both upsetting and anti-religious. Giving tax cuts to the rich may well line the pockets of Paul Ryan’s Republican Party and those who support it. President Donald Trump is indeed almost a messiah figure for those who imagine that personal prosperity has anything to do with virtue or the blessings of God.
Jesus was clear about what a Christian must do: Side with the poor, and know that your riches are not to be found on this earth. The work of the government, in my view, is to find ways to stand solidly with the poor, the sick, and all manners of outcasts. And has nothing to do with celebrating the culture of wealth, especially when it hurts those on the margins.
There is talk of getting a protestant chaplain to take over from Conroy, who doesn’t — being a Catholic — know much about “family” issues. This seems like a smokescreen to me. Perhaps Paul Ryan wants a prosperity-style preacher who will not be “political” and challenge the celebration of wealth (and dismissal of those in need)? There are plenty of preachers out there who will cheer him, and Trump, on. This worries me greatly. It should worry you, too.