Prayers of politics

Three chaplains lead the General Assembly in prayer, asking God to guide lawmakers’ decisions
Sunday, May 15, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:30 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

One morning in late April at 9:30, bells echo throughout the halls of the Missouri Capitol to alert legislators that the day’s session is about to begin. Men and women in suits dart out of offices, walking briskly to the Senate and House chambers on the third floor. They weave in and out of a group of fourth-graders, who tread along, gawking at their surroundings.

Most of the suited figures stop at the chamber doors to discuss their course of action for the day’s business with colleagues. Only a few venture into the quiet, where the Rev. Carl Gauck steps up to the podium to deliver the morning’s prayer. As the nine senators already at their desks stand, Gauck reads Psalms 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.”

Bowing his head in prayer, Gauck continues: “My God, the days are long, the week has not ended, and there is much before us to be done. In this time of final calls for decisions and actions that affect your people, we need your guidance so we may follow the path you have laid out for us. Let your Holy Spirit lead us, and may we stay level in our thinking and daily living. In your holy name, we pray.”

His loud “Amen” is echoed by a few others on a day that promises to be a busy for one for Missouri’s 34 senators. The big item of the day on the agenda is the state budget.

Since the 1880s, chaplains have offered prayers to begin the legislative sessions of the Missouri General Assembly. Chaplains have asked God to bless the lawmakers and to impart his wisdom on their decisions. The state now employs three men to carry on that tradition.

Gauck, 63, the pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church near Jefferson City, has been the Senate chaplain for seven years. The House has two chaplains. The Rev. James Jackson, 52, is the pastor of House of Prayer Family Church in Jefferson City, and three years ago he became the first black chaplain in the history of the House. He opens the Monday and Wednesday sessions. The Rev. Donald Lammers, 71, the pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Jefferson City, has been praying on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two years.

The chaplains perform other ministerial duties, such as visiting sick legislators, preaching at special events and holding prayer breakfasts. For their work, they earn a nominal salary. Gauck is paid $4,893 a year. Jackson and Lammers receive just more than $2,000 a year.

“It is a wonderfully natural way for church and state to intersect,” Lammers says.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 1983, when the court ruled 6-3 in a Nebraska case that opening legislative prayer by state-paid chaplains is constitutional. The court cited the historical practice of opening legislative sessions in prayer, which the U.S. Congress authorized in 1789. The ruling noted that even the Continental Congress paid a chaplain.

“In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote.

Still, Lammers says, he was advised by House leaders when he became a House chaplain to be conscious of the wide range of religious beliefs in the chamber, which includes Muslim, Jewish and other non-Christian lawmakers. He responded by deciding to make his prayers more ecumenical by seldom referring to Jesus Christ, specifically.

“It is my approach to respect everyone before me,” Lammers says.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, would like to see the opening prayer in her chamber reflect the changes that are taking place in society, including the broadening of religious beliefs.

“It doesn’t matter if the majority of the state and country is from a Christian background,” Bray says. “The Constitution seeks to protect the minority in numbers. It concerns me if we are offending even one. If the prayer were more ecumenical, then it would be free from any criticism.”

Lammers and Gauck each spend about an hour writing their prayers, which are entered into the daily House and Senate journals. Gauck says he always keeps paper handy so when an idea comes into his head for a prayer, he’s ready.

“I get ideas when I watch the news or when I listen to the floor debate on the radio,” Gauck says. “I try to make the prayers contextual to speak to what the senators are going through.”

He also takes time to talk with senators to know what he needs to pray for. Occasionally, a senator will request a personal prayer read on the Senate floor, although rules require prayers be on behalf of senators, their staff and their families only. Gauck says the rule helps keep the senators’ minds on the tasks at hand.

“I think the prayer helps set the tone for the day and gives spiritual support to the senators,” Gauck says. “It has been a very tough year. Faith is important on both sides of the aisle. Prayer has been essential.”

Gauck, who says his ministry for the last 35 years has been committed to the poor, justice for all, and, in the words of the prophet Micah, “to walk humbly with God,” tries to keep bias from slipping into his prayers. He says he tries to keep the 34 senators’ opinions in the chamber in mind, although he hopes lawmakers will remember the poor and unfortunate as they go about their work.

Jackson often prays that the representatives will honor one another.

“I’ll listen to the debates to get an idea of flow, to know what is going on,” Jackson says. “If it is getting especially heated, I will probably pray that even though they are passionate about their stances that they will be civil with one another.”

He says his prayers are for the representatives on both sides of the aisle.

“My prayers have nothing to do with party affiliation,” Jackson says. “I’m concerned for both parties.”

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