Each day of the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump has started with a nationally televised benediction from Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black. Normally, I think prayers have no place in secular space. There’s no need for Ron Reagan Jr. to @ me about the larger implications of this daily intrusion of Christian theology into our government. It is, at best, unseemly for the decidedly political proceedings of a presidential impeachment trial to be kicked off with a religious sermon. The only prayer I want to hear is: “Lord, help these feckless senators deliver us from this evil man who cages brown children because, well, they’re brown children.”
The thing is, Chaplain Black’s baritone benedictions seemed to get as close to saying that as possible without making Stephen Miller paint on his hair and go complain on television. Black used his time on camera to try to inject some moral clarity into the impeachment proceedings, gradually building what appeared to be a critique of Republicans that became more pointed as the trial went on.
By the end, lots of people were noticing. On January 31, the day the Senate heard debate about whether the chamber should call, or ignore, fact witnesses like John Bolton, Black preached: “Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to You for their conduct. Lord, help them to remember that they can’t ignore You and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow.”
The shade was real. Camera angles showed Chief Justice John Roberts visibly reacting to that message as Black was speaking. Roberts’s face was a case study in the old adage “hit dog will holler.”
Black appeared to have lessons for the Republican caucus throughout the proceedings. But he started more subtly. Here’s the benediction from January 22, the first full day of impeachment arguments:
Lord, You are all-powerful and know our thoughts before we form them. As our lawmakers have become jurors, remind them of Your admonition in 1 Corinthians 10:31, that whatever they do should be done for Your glory. Help them remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle, that words have consequences, and that how something is said can be as important as what is said.
That prayer can be read as an echo of John Roberts’s rebuke to “both sides” the night before. Personally, I think the use of Corinthians was a troll-level alpha move, given Donald Trump’s earlier blunders with “Two Corinthians,” but the brilliance is that the sermon can be interpreted in many ways.
You could say that Black was merely reminding senators, and the advocates, to be mindful of their words and tone. It’s a call to civility well within the “moral authority” of the Senate chaplain. But it’s also undeniable that the key piece of evidence in the impeachment trial is Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. While Trump has been going around saying that the phone call was “perfect,” it’s possible to see Black as reminding senators that Trump’s intent was to solicit foreign interference in the election, even if he didn’t specifically say “I want a quid pro quo” on the phone.
Either way, the Republicans ignored him. These same senators tramp around the country talking a big game about religion and values. But having hitched their wagon to a thrice-married, foul-mouthed bigot, their hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy were evident long before Black started preaching to them.
Still, he tried. By January 28, as the impeachment trial entered its second week, Black appeared to grow more frustrated and less subtle: “O God, You are our rock of safety. Protect us in an unsafe world. Guard us from those who smile but plan evil in their hearts. Use our Senators to bring peace and unity to our world. May they permit Godliness to make them bold as lions. Give them a clearer vision of your desires for our Nation. Remind them that they borrow their heartbeats from You each day. Provide them with such humility, hope, and courage that they will do Your will.”
To put that in context, the day before, January 27, was the soul-crushing day during which Trump’s lawyers offered their defense arguments. That was the day Ken Starr rolled out his unmitigated hypocrisy and Alan Dershowitz offered his despotic theory of a president whose motives can never be questioned.
For Black to come back the next day and lead off with “Guard us from those who smile but plan evil in their hearts” was poignant and pointed. Asking the Senate to be “bold as lions” could be read as a reproach to the rank cowardice shown by the Republican caucus in their service to Donald Trump. This was a prayer from a man who had been paying attention and was suitably disgusted with what he was seeing.
Impeachment was not Black’s first rodeo. Back in 2013, he made headlines during the Ted Cruz–led government shutdown during the Obama administration.
“Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness,” he prayed. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.… Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown, transforming negatives into positives as you work for the good of those who love you.”
Dude does not play.
Black has been the Senate chaplain since 2003. He’s the first African American to hold the position, which has existed since 1789, and the first Seventh Day Adventist. Before assuming his Senate post, Black spent much of his career as a rear admiral in the Navy; in 2000, Bill Clinton tapped him to become chief of Navy chaplains. In addition to his doctorate in ministry, Black has a PhD in psychology. (Black did not respond to a request for comment.)
Even atheists and non-spiritual people could draw moral strength from Chaplain Black’s impeachment trial performance. My personal favorite Black benediction was on January 30. That was the last day senators could question the House managers or Trump’s defense lawyers. Black opened with this:
Permit our Senators to feel Your presence during this impeachment trial. Illuminate their minds with the light of Your wisdom, exposing truth and resolving uncertainties. May they understand that You created them with cognitive capabilities and moral discernment to be used for Your glory. Grant that they will comprehend what really matters, separating the relevant from the irrelevant.
You don’t have to believe in Black’s God, or any god, to believe that our true savior is the power of our “cognitive capabilities.”
That’s what the founders believed. They believed that human reason was the greatest force on Earth. The system of government they proposed was to be a triumph of enlightened reason over the whims of a ruler who claimed Divine Right from an unquestionable God.
How strange then that, during a trial over Donald Trump’s attack on the very Constitution they wrote, it was left to a religious figure to remind the government to use their brains. How sad that the Republican Party refused to listen to him.