Rep. Todd Akin made national headlines - and drew the ire of his party leaders - when he made comments on "legitimate rape" last month that could ultimately cost him his bid for a Missouri Senate seat. But it didn't mark the first time the six-term House Republican has set himself apart from even the most conservative Members of his party.
Last fall, Akin started an unorthodox but little-noticed tradition at his House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces hearings, beginning each by offering a personal prayer to Jesus. In a brief interview in April, Akin defended the practice, saying prayer is a civil way to begin the panel's work - much, he added, like each day's House floor session begins.
"We start Congress with a prayer, and I think it's a good idea to ask the Lord's blessing," said Akin, a Presbyterian with a master's degree in divinity whose political career has been punctuated by strong and sometimes contentious defenses of prayer and religion in public settings. "It gives us a sense of being respectful to each other."
But the daily prayer on the House floor, offered by the House chaplain, is non-denominational. Akin, on the other hand, makes clear who he is praying to.
"Dear Heavenly Father, I just ask your blessing on our work here in defense of our nation," Akin said at an April 26 markup of his subcommittee's portion of the annual defense authorization bill. "We pray for vision and wisdom in the decisions that we make, wise use of the funds that the taxpayers provide, and your blessing on all of us assembled here and those in service overseas. I pray in Jesus' name. Amen."
When asked this spring about Akin's policy, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who is Jewish, said the House subcommittee chairman is imposing his religion on people who may not share his beliefs. "It is inappropriate to have to listen to a sermon, or sermonette, whatever comes out, in order to do the public's business," Lautenberg said. "It's wrong."
Akin, a member of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus and a board member of the Mission Gate Prison Ministry, noted that he always says "I" instead of "we" when referring to Jesus, allowing other subcommittee members and hearing attendees to pray to whomever they like.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Akin's explanation "too cute by half."
"This is obviously a Christian prayer, he's praying it," said Lynn, who has previously testified before the House Armed Services Committee. "The fact that he says 'I pray' really does not negate the fact that this is a public prayer in a public space in a public event sponsored by and promoted by a public official who either knows or should know that even members of his own subcommittee do not share the same religious background."
Opening hearings with prayer appears to be a highly unusual way of doing business on Capitol Hill. A search of Congressional Quarterly's database of Congressional transcripts from the past decade turns up hundreds of religious references in lawmakers' remarks, and some Bible quotations, but reveal no other instances of hearings beginning with a prayer.
Long-time Congressional observers could not recall any examples similar to Akin's. But while prayer in public institutions - especially to a particular deity - can be an explosive issue, none of Akin's subcommittee colleagues complained. One called the practice the chairman's prerogative.
"I respect how the chair wants to conduct his subcommittee," subcommittee member James Langevin (D-R.I.) said this spring.
But some other lawmakers and advocates for separation of church and state called the practice a bad idea.
"Any prayer that starts an official public meeting that pertains to any one particular religion is probably not in good judgment," Armed Services Committee member Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), said in April, suggesting that a moment of silence would be more appropriate.
As a subcommittee chairman, Akin, whose subcommittee oversees many of the military's most expensive weapons programs, has some measure of power over other members of the panel, Lynn argued. That, in turn, could silence their public opposition to his prayer.