October 9th, 2013
12:12 PM ET

Senate chaplain: Shutdown is 'madness'

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor

(CNN) - The federal shutdown has found its angry prophet.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black is usually a calm, pastoral presence on Capitol Hill, doling out spiritual wisdom and moral counsel to his high-powered flock.

But the Seventh-Day Adventist and former Navy rear admiral is mad as hell about the shutdown - and he's letting the Senate, and the Lord, know about it.

"Lord, when the federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of (soldiers) dying on far-away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough," Black said in his prayer opening the Senate on Wednesday.

"Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness," Black continued, citing the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who was no mean critic of government incompetence himself. "Forgive us. Reform us. And make us whole."

Black was referring to the withholding of death benefits for the families of U.S. soldiers because of the partial federal shutdown. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Wednesday to reinstate them.

MORE ON CNN: 5 crazy side effects from the shutdown

That might not be soon enough for Black, whose opening prayers have grown increasingly harsh towards Congress.

"Save us from the madness," the chaplain said last week.  “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

Last Friday, he addressed the heavens on behalf of the Senate, asking God to  "remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism. Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”

Washington's inability to keep the government open affects not only Black's Bible but also his paycheck. He's not being paid during the shutdown.

The Senate elected its first chaplain in 1789, and a minister has opened the chamber with a prayer for the last 207 years, according to the chaplain's office. Most enter the annals of history unnoticed. The chaplain is supposed to be nonpartisan, nonsectarian and nonpolitical.

But as the shutdown enters its second week political reporters have begun to tune in to Black's opening prayers. The New York Times put the 65-year-old on the its front page on Monday under the headline "Give Us This Day, Our Daily Senate Scolding."

MORE ON CNN:  Shutdown day 9: What you need to know

Black, who was raised in a rough section of Baltimore, served in the Navy for 27 years and was appointed the Senate chaplain in 2003 by former Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.

For the most part, he has avoided political debates, but he spoke out during the George Zimmerman trial, telling CNN in 2012 that Trayvon Martin, the teenager Zimmerman killed "could have been me."

Even when he doesn't take a public stand, Black said his private meetings with the 7,000 people who work in the Senate gives him an opportunity to discuss the moral implications of lawmaking.

"I don't think there is ever a major vote where I don't talk to a number of senators regarding the ethical dimensions of the issues they are debating," Black told CNN in 2010.

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Belief • Church and state • Ethics • Leaders

soundoff (411 Responses)
  1. AngryJew

    The country can't pay its bills but Israel will still get its welfare.

    October 14, 2013 at 3:59 am |
  2. Name*Greta Smith

    Well said Dr Barry Black. Thank you...

    October 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  3. Jim P.

    "He's not being paid during the shutdown."
    I think we see the *real* source of his outrage. Losing some really easy money there.

    Let the Senators who want him pay for him, this is an establishment of religion and the taxpayers should not be footing the bill.

    Now if they want to hire an official Psychiatrist, I might join in as someone needs their head examined up there.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
    • barney

      Im with you and if you talk to any soldier , the best phycologist in the universe is GOD, and he dosen't cost anything

      October 13, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
  4. Todd

    What is a chaplin doing in senet? I thought there was supposed to be seporation between church and state?

    October 10, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Only applicable in cases where proper grammar occurs in public education.

      October 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
      • Max

        Pure snark from you? Why am I not surprised? Care to answer him in a civil way, or are you just being this way because this guy is Catholic?

        October 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
        • bootyfunk

          shut up dodo

          what a judgemental christian failure and swine

          October 10, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


        how do you get Catholic out of 7th day Adventist?

        Actually the 7th Day Adventists are the most virulently anti-Catholic Protestants out there.

        October 10, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
      • Bill Deacon

        GOPer, my understanding is that the House chaplain is Catholic so that's probably where Max drew his conclusion that I was defending a priest. I actuality, I'm making a sarcastic remark about the other guy's spelling because that tells me he doesn't have the capacity to have a dialogue about the separation clause.

        October 10, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
        • Max

          Yes, I did, and for that, I'm sorry...however, since you knew what the guy was talking about, your remarks about his spelling didn't add one iota to the conversation at all. It was being snarky just for the sake of getting a cheap laugh, and you of all people should know better, being the butt of many jokes yourself, BD.

          October 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
      • Doris

        Good grief. I'm with Bill on this one.

        October 10, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Per his detached memorandum, James Madison had very strong personal objections to there being chaplains for the House and Senate, and over prayer in Congress.

      Politically however his reaction was essentially 'pick your battles' and 'concentrate on more important issues'.

      He says in his 'detached memoranda':

      Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex: or to class it cum "maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura."

      de minimus non curat lex: The law does not concern itself with trifles

      The second is part of a quote from Horace:
      non ego paucis, offendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura: I shall not be offended with a few faults, ones that arise either from inadvertence or from the frailty of our nature

      October 10, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
      • Bill Deacon

        I like this. Hadn't heard it before from Madison. It resonates with what we are hearing from pope Francis these days about de-escalating the social conflicts and elevating the dialogue on more important issues.

        October 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        The detached memorada is very interesting. It articulates James Madison's thinking on the political realities of the doctrine of separation and where he decided to draw the line.

        You can find it here:

        October 10, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.