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.
As chaplain, I’d help these Members with what I call the “ultimate search,” what God wants. Without that theological language, I help Members find their direction and purpose, which comes from within.
Can you recall a time where your job called you to boost spirits in Congress? After 9/11, the police evacuated the Capitol and told us to head toward the Library of Congress. I was walking with a Member and a woman who works in the [House] Clerk’s office. A year later, Roll Call ran a picture of us and someone asked what I was saying to those people as we walked away. I don’t remember what I was saying at all, but I was doing what I usually do as chaplain: being present and listening.
On a given Saturday in January, I heard that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had been shot. I’d met her and her husband no more than three days after she came to Congress because they hoped to marry. Mark is Catholic and she’s Jewish, and they wanted to talk to me about that.
After I received the news, I called the Catholic bishop’s office in Tucson and learned the bishop was in the Holy Land. I thought about flying down to counsel them. I slept on it to see whether it was the right thing.
I woke up with sciatica, which I had never had before. That was God answering my prayer: Forget the flight. Only then did I think about visiting her staff. And that was where I needed to be. They were suffering. I led prayer and listened to them through the difficult time.
As a member of the church, what are your thoughts on the separation of church and state? I’m a great believer. It’s America’s greatest export to the rest of the world. Religions create problems for governments; governments create problems for religions. America sorts it out. We have the best experiment for religious freedom in the world.
Have you ever squabbled with people who don’t believe your job should even exist because of the separation? What do you tells these sorts? My predecessor gave me a stack of court briefs pertaining to this issue — it’s more than a foot high.
People who complain about it have a misguided notion about what the separation of church and state actually is, but every once in awhile it needs to be tested, so we go over it again in court.
Congress finds great strength in having a chaplain and having prayer. And people don’t have to attend prayer. It’s not imposed on anyone.
It took more than 100 years for the House to appoint a Catholic priest to the position. How long do you think it will be before a rabbi, imam or Buddhist monk leads Congress in spiritual matters? This is a line I learned from the chair: “The Chair cannot comment on any hypothetical.” What-ifs? — I’m no prophet. I cannot tell.