Learning and Praying to Do Right

Sen. Chris Coons

On a warm June day in the Capitol, the Chaplain of the United States Senate, Rear Admiral Barry Black, offered a prayer. “Open the eyes and hearts of our lawmakers so that they will know and do Your will,” he prayed. “Help them to think of each other as fellow Americans seeking Your best for our Nation rather than enemy parties seeking to defeat each other. Replace distrust in each other with a deep commitment to creative compromise.”

I had the honor of opening the Senate session that particular morning, a tradition I have led more than two dozen times in my year and half as a member of this body.

It is a short time in the chamber’s history, but long enough to notice a shift in the chaplain’s daily prayers. His words have grown more urgent, more pointed, and more explicit in their pleas for unity. He sees, it seems, what many of us see – that as this fall’s election grows closer, the seeds of partisanship and division are being sown ever deeper. Scripture tells us that what we sow, we also reap, and it is clear that the soil of our scorched-earth partisanship cannot yield solutions to the truly grave challenges we face as a nation. So we ask ourselves where we can find common ground and foster unity. In my experience, one of the paths to better understanding can be our broad and diverse faith traditions.

Genuine Human Encounters

This path is one several members of the Senate take each week, as we gather for a nondenominational prayer breakfast. With no staff, no lobbyists, and no pretense, these meetings are rare opportunities for us to get to know each other as people: as parents, as children, as spouses, and as individuals shaped by life’s great triumphs and tragedies. When we see each other this way – as more than two-dimensional cutouts mapped to preconceived expectations – we can begin to focus on what brings us together, rather than what drives us apart.

In Senate prayer breakfasts, I have witnessed acts of extraordinary kindness and genuine compassion for each other as fellow human beings, rather than as walking distributors of party-line talking points. These weekly sessions are powerful reminders that from the most liberal to the most conservative, we share a love of family and country that far exceeds any policy or political disagreement.

It is not surprising to me that faith can help build this kind of common ground. At transformative moments in my faith and life journey, I have witnessed prayer services that transcend any barriers of local language or culture. As a student studying abroad in Kenya, a place as foreign as could be imagined from my home state of Delaware, I attended a church service with African, Indian, and English members, with songs and service for all.

But what does that mean for our political discourse?

Modern politics has pulled just a few threads from the cloth of faith tradition and made them points of division.

Modern politics has pulled just a few threads from the cloth of faith tradition and made them points of division. In recent years, more often than not, faith has contributed to the divisiveness of our politics.

That has not always been the case. The history of churches and political change in America is long and distinguished, and makes good on our obligation to “learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17). From the American Revolution to the end of slavery, from women’s suffrage to the movements for civil and labor rights, positive, progressive paradigm shifts have been centrally informed or directly led by faith groups.

Our faith traditions – even the same faith tradition – can inform our politics in diametrically opposing ways. Yet the opportunities to find common cause are not as rare as some might think, and I have seen moments where interdenominational faith-based and secular leadership have come together to unite members of the Senate who might not otherwise see eye to eye.

Rallying Points

One issue that inspires this kind of unity is global health, on which I work regularly as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. American policy toward Africa, in particular, is an area that has long enjoyed broad, bipartisan agreement, and there has been real commitment from members of both parties to ensure that we extend our hand to those most in need around the world. Battling HIV, malaria, and infant mortality is an act rooted in faith and morality – one where congregations, health advocates, and global leaders stand arm in arm pressing us to action.

We are capable of extending this circle of protection around the least among us here at home, too. It is my hope that as we continue to debate what is the right balance of spending cuts and revenue increases to restore balance to our nation’s books, we will stand together to protect the programs that serve the most vulnerable in our society: the disabled, low-income seniors, and children in the early stages of life. The requirement to care for the “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) should guide our choices in the months ahead, as our nation’s budget is, in practice, a reflection of our values.

Still, it is hard – and should be hard – to throw verbal punches at a person who stood arm in arm with you in prayer only hours or days earlier.

As we wade through the turmoil of this election season and the difficult decisions that await us after its conclusion, faith can be one path to shared understanding. When Admiral Black opens each session of the Senate with a prayer, he is contributing to a tradition that reminds us that we all share a calling to serve our country, our God, and each other. We can all look for opportunities to build bridges and seek out common humanity instead of rancor.

There is no salve to instantly heal our divisions. Some of our disagreements are real and deep, and they cannot be bridged with a weekly prayer breakfast. Still, it is hard – and should be hard – to throw verbal punches at a person who stood arm in arm with you in prayer only hours or days earlier. We remember that we ought to be less like the “enemy parties seeking to defeat each other” that Admiral Black warned of in his opening prayer on that warm June day, and more like the people of faith and conviction we know we can be.

We may disagree on policy and ideology, but share a view of humanity that is rooted in a calling and a commitment to those we serve – and that is a good place to start.

Christopher Coons ‘92 M.A.R., ‘92 J.D. is a United States Senator of Delaware. Elected in 2010, he serves on the Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Energy & Natural Resources, and Budget committees.