There was a young man — 23 at most — quietly saying his morning prayers on Capitol Hill on the third day of 2013, and it seemed for a moment like an injection of the warmest ray of light in the midst of a blistering cold spell.
He walked into St. Peter’s Church on the House side of Capitol Hill shortly after I did for a bipartisan, ecumenical prayer service that marked the beginning of the 113th Congress. The last days of the 112th had been a bit . . . hellish. And so to see John Boehner sitting up front and then Nancy Pelosi being whisked in by the Secret Service — one could be tempted to be cynical. Was this all a show? If it was for real, it was a portrait of civility. Leading the prayers were not just the priests who welcomed all to the Catholic parish a few stones’ throws away from the Capitol building but also Protestants, the Jewish Eric Cantor, the Muslim Keith Ellison.
Before and after the service, speculation abounded about whether or not Boehner would even end the day as Speaker. He did. But that doesn’t mean peace came to the Hill, or even to the majority caucus in the House. During the drama of the previous days, a “fiscal cliff” was averted, or a can was kicked down the road — or something else you don’t normally get lauded for. I’m not sure if most Americans know or care exactly what happened — they’re too depressed about it all. Depressed about the job they don’t have, or, perhaps, about a sense of rot around them. We’re not dreaming the way we used to. The generation that went to outer space has grandkids who may not be leaving their parents’ basements anytime soon. They’re not getting married. And even if they do get married, they are crippled by ridiculous expectations as to who men and women are and should be in the 21st century, and many of them are deprived of religion, which has been known to help us to figure out how to live joyfully.
When he took the gavel as Speaker two years ago, John Boehner talked about Ash Wednesday. “In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our foreheads. The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile — our time on this Earth, fleeting. As the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”
“The American people have humbled us,” the Ohio native went on to say. “They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”
At the opening of the 113th, Boehner’s posture was reminiscent of many a Christian toward the end of Lent, as we realize we haven’t been as diligent about repentance as we ought to have been. The urgency of limited time seems to be blaring in the cold darkness of the cross, and yet so few appear to heed the call to take up our own. This second time around, Boehner’s was a call for good stewardship. He sounded an alarm of urgency and even raised a fundamental question about purpose: “When the day is over, and the verdict is read, may it be said that we well and faithfully did our duty to ensure freedom will endure and prevail. So help us God.”
If celebrity is more of a priority for some of those present than courage is, the Speaker was frank: “if you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you.”
But he also said this: “There is no substitute for the wisdom of the people. We are their servants.” As much of a sport as it has become to complain about Washington, the situation there is not all of our officials’ own making. It’s a reflection of other things. It’s a mirror into a national soul. They are, after all, representatives.
Grace is amazing, as the hymn tells us. And despite our bad decisions or indifferences or despairing of politics, there are men and women of principle. Among them is the Green family, which runs the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain. They run their business in a way that they believe will be conducive to the family and faith lives of their employees. They are refusing to comply with the infamous Health and Human Services mandate because they are evangelicals who are opposed to abortion, and they are consequently now in defiance of the law. Whether America knows it or not, they are fighting for freedom itself with their defiance and their witness to trying to live lives of integrity. To be “free” includes not complying with a culture that has become complacent about its immiseration.
I didn’t interrupt that kid who was praying to ask him, but I hope his prayer was that men and women in elected office are inspired by the likes of the Greens, instead of viewing them as backward anomalies whose view of religious liberty belongs in the past.
All too often we give lip service to who we say we are and what we say we believe. I think that anyone who bothered to walk over to a church on a cold and busy day was doing more than that. “So help us God,” as the Speaker began the 113th Congress from the House floor.