- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — When senators were tripping over one another to run for president in 2008, a number of them turned to a Senate adviser to discuss campaign challenges and opportunities. It didn’t matter that their opponents were talking to the same person.

Senate chaplain Barry Black heard about all the ups and downs: The senators were exhausted or elated, optimistic or downcast, worried about poll numbers, unsure whether to run.

Black would reframe their challenges in theological or philosophical terms and reassure them that “things are going to play out in the way God would want,” he said.


Year in and year out, campaign or no campaign, clergymen, rabbis and faith leaders in Washington serve as part adviser, friend, counselor or ear to legislators and other political figures. At times, some even play a behind-the-scenes role in influencing public policy and help legislators sort out conflicts between their faith and policy views.

“It was important to listen and help them to come to an understanding through faith as it would be applied for those issues, but never to legislate or to command that they own a point of view,” said Lloyd Ogilvie, who served as Senate chaplain from 1995 to 2003.

For the most part, these conversations play out in private. And that’s one reason why politicians feel comfortable confiding in religious leaders.

Faith leaders who were interviewed declined to identify the lawmakers whom they counsel, and several senators declined requests to discuss their faith for this story. More than a half-dozen senators flirted with or ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama among them.

Rev. William Byrne, of St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, near the House members’ office buildings, said lawmakers who talk to him at church do so for the same reason as other church members: “They know it’s a privileged and confidential place where they can be themselves.”

Rev. Byrne and Rev. Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, pastor at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, as well as Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel said members of Congress generally don’t approach them for advice on policy. More often, Rev. Byrne said, personal things come up.

“I have been in situations where they felt challenged, and they asked for my prayers and a sounding board,” Rev. Byrne said. Rev. Byrne and Rev. Antonicelli said they have the chance to talk with some lawmakers when they go to daily or Sunday Mass.

Mr. Black, the Senate chaplain, said sometimes senators have discussed with him the appropriate thought-process before voting on legislation, such as considering certain religious, ethical and political factors. Other times they’re just looking for casual and personal conversation.

Mr. Black said senators trust him because he understands how the legislative process plays out.

“They see me as a confidant, as an individual in the system who is aware of the nuances,” he said, “and not just what is seen on C-SPAN2.”

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, formerly a minister at Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church who counseled President Bill Clinton after he admitted his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, said he thinks policy makers have discussed confidential matters with him because they knew they could trust him.

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