Senate chaplain Barry Black got the Saturday Night Live treatment this weekend, as cast member Kenan Thompson donned a bow tie and gave an over-the-top rendition of Black’s recent admonishing prayers at the start of the chamber’s sessions. “Let us pray,” he said, grabbing the hand of fellow comedian Seth Meyers. “Lord, give us strength. But especially to those in Congress. And let them stop being a bunch of blubbering knuckleheads that go onto the television and spout all kinds of nonsense until you want to smack them across the face with a bag full of quarters.”
Funny as the idea of a Senate chaplain giving voice to our collective frustration may be, Black‘s potential influence is no laughing matter. In the past couple of weeks, Black, a retired Navy rear admiral who is the Senate’s first African American and Seventh Day Adventist to hold the job, has not hesitated to mince words during his prayers.
On Oct. 1, the first day of the shutdown, he called on higher powers to “strengthen our weakness, replacing cynicism with faith and cowardice with courage.” By Oct. 3, his tone turned sharper: “Save us from the madness. We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. … Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.” And then on Oct. 4: “Remove from [Senators] that stubborn pride, which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism.”
Amen. Black, of course, won’t be the one to solve the bitter partisan divide and end the irresponsible tactics being used as the shutdown rolls on and the debt ceiling deadline looms. Still, he appears to have some impact on lawmakers’ views. At the very least, he commands their respect. A couple of dozen senators attend weekly prayer sessions with him. And over the ten years he’s held the position, it seems senators have come to him for advice, even on policy. “I can tell them what I think, and of course they can use it however they desire,” he told the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly back in 2007.
Even if Black’s scolding has hardly broken the impasse, it certainly can’t hurt to have a non-partisan trusted voice in the mix. When I spoke with negotiation experts about how the two sides might find a way out of the shutdown, several bemoaned the lack of an independent mediator to help push talks along. Black may serve no such official role, but his daily prayers, ad hoc counsel and what has been called “extraordinary access” to senators could be more influential than it might seem.
So far, of course, Black’s calls to end the “unfortunate dialectic of us versus them” hasn’t been heeded. (Nor were they in the last debt ceiling debate, even if a compromise was ultimately reached.) But he’s a reminder that while we expect our formal leaders to move us past a crisis, sometimes it’s the outside, independent and informal leaders who are the only ones that remain the voice of reason. At some point, prayer may be the only option we have left.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.