First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting controversy involving the chaplains for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate -- two religious leaders, whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.
Ordinarily, the congressional chaplains are rarely noteworthy. They deliver a prayer at the start of legislative sessions, but otherwise, are generally neither seen nor heard outside Capitol Hill. (James Madison insisted these positions are unconstitutional and should not exist.)
Just before President Barack Obama's swearing in on Monday, a group of religious conservatives plans to hold a prayer breakfast featuring a number of anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. The Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast -- billed as offering "prayer, worship, and reconciliation of the nation" -- will feature the editor of the birther site WorldNetDaily and minister and media mogul Pat Robertson, according its website. The organizers of the prayer breakfast also claim the House and Senate chaplains will speak at their event -- appearances that may conflict with the non-partisan nature of the chaplain job.
House Chaplain Rev. Patrick Conroy and Senate Chaplain Barry Black ... are listed under the "Prayer for the Nation" portion of Monday's event, just ahead of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). But featured speaker Joseph Farah, the WorldNetDaily editor, has drawn the most attention, given his website's regular assertions that President Obama was actually born in Kenya and allegations that he is "the first Muslim president." The event also features "messianic rabbi-pastor and author" Jonathan Cahn, who believes that there are signs of the apocalypse encrypted in Obama's communications.
As the week progressed, the story got a little strange. Right-wing organizers of the event said the Senate's Rev. Black, who's run into trouble like this before, had accepted their invitation, but the chaplain's office insisted he'd never agreed to participate. The House's Rev. Conroy, who's also billed as a member of the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast Committee, conceded that he will appear alongside the fringe activists and far-right lawmakers, but added he doesn't intend to "stay too long."
To be sure, if Bachmann, Birthers, and radical televangelists want to get together to hold a far-right event on Inauguration Day, that's their business. But as my friend Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State explained, when taxpayer-financed chaplains, who are not supposed to take sides in political fights, participate in events like these, it's far more problematic.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The benediction at President Obama's second inaugural will be delivered by the Rev. Luis Leon, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church, dubbed "the church of presidents" because it's just a block and a half from the White House.
* Oh my: "The pastor of St. Aloysius Church in Springfield, Ill., has been granted a leave of absence after he called 911 in November from inside the church and told a police dispatcher that he needed help getting out of a pair of handcuffs." The priest, Tom Donovan, told the 911 operator he was "playing with" the handcuffs, and needed help "getting out." Donovan is perhaps best known for testifying to the Illinois legislature earlier this month in opposition to marriage equality (thanks to reader R.P. for the tip).
* Lawrence Wright has published a new book on Scientology which appears to be generating quite a bit of attention.
* A group of prominent evangelical leaders, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, have launched the "I Was a Stranger" campaign in the hopes of encouraging policymakers in Washington to pass immigration reform.