House Chaplain Daniel Coughlin (center) leads Rep. Howard Coble and a staffer away from the Capitol after it was evacuated because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While he doesnt remember exactly what he was saying to them, Coughlin says he was being present and listening.
Who likes to talk more than Congressmen? My job was pretty easy. Just listen, listen, listen.
Was it difficult to lead prayer for such a diverse group of Members from all different faiths? God prepared me so I was never disarmed or frightened by it.
Even before I was a seminarian, I lived in an interfaith setting. My mother, was raised Lutheran and became Catholic to marry my dad. But my grandparents, whom I was very close with, were Lutherans until the day they died. They attended all my religious services as a kid and priest, and I would go to their Masonic Order meetings.
I’m at home with differences. In fact, after a year as chaplain, I knew more Protestants and Jews than I did Catholics.
Are there any particular phrases a chaplain doesn’t say during prayers on the House floor? Public prayer is a work of language, so I did wrestle with the right words and tried to find the common language. Not too theological, not too narrowly Christian, but I didn’t beg off from the truth of things either.
I always looked to formulate a prayer to which all Members could rally. I tried to grasp something that was in the air — the mood of the times. Never political issues. Never what was going to be debated on the floor. Just something based in Scriptures that would resonate no matter a Member’s faith or lack of faith. I tried to get at a deep human dimension of what was happening.
Concluding phrases of prayers can cause problems. The end for me was usually “forever and ever.” Also the phrase “Lord God” speaks to numerous faiths. Jesus is called the Lord, but Lord can also mean just God, so it’s inclusive.
Did Members come to you individually for spiritual guidance? People did come, but I would also go. If I knew two or three Members would be at a gathering or reception — as long as it wasn’t a single party or fundraising — I would go.
During House votes, when I wasn’t too busy, I’d go up to the floor and stand beside the doors of the Speaker’s Lobby (rotating between both doors for both parties) to chat with Members.
Just being present in the midst of their busy and demanding work, I was able to connect — and that’s a big part of the job.
Can you give us an example of a time you helped a Member in a personal crisis? The first time someone asked me to talk, the Member was torn between two fates: Should he leave Congress and run for governor or stay?
I was honored that he came to me, but I realized that he just needed to talk and hear himself to know what he was thinking.
If Members talk to their spouses they may hear, “Oh, here we go again,” or “What about the kids?” The conversations turns to the what-ifs and all the problems, which already haunt Members deep down. If they go to their political parties, the parties think about their own interests.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.