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What “truth to power” means for a comedian — and a House chaplain

Why Michelle Wolf and Father Pat Conroy are so important.

2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Two vastly different figures have come under fire in the past week for challenging the political establishment. The first was Father Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and House chaplain who was abruptly fired by Paul Ryan after allegedly criticizing GOP tax cuts during a prayer session.

The second was comedian Michelle Wolf, who was widely critiqued for negative comments about press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The controversy over Wolf’s speech centered around her reference to Huckabee Sanders’s “perfect smokey eye” — apparently perfected with the help of ashes of “burning facts.” The speech prompted a written apology from the White House Correspondents’ Association.

The media criticism around both figures centered not just on the content of their alleged misconduct: Conroy’s seemingly left-wing views and Wolf’s supposed anti-feminist attacks on another woman’s appearance. They also pointed to the problematic, ambiguous natures of both the House chaplain and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as institutions.

Echoing the sentiments of many on Twitter, Vox’s Matt Yglesias tweeted that there “probably shouldn’t be a House chaplain.” After all, what is a religious figure doing in such close proximity to senior lawmakers?

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, journalist Margaret Sullivan critiqued the “insider” nature of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, saying: “[T]his festive night, always unseemly, is now downright counterproductive to good journalism’s goals. It only serves to reinforce the views of those who already hate the media elite.”

Despite their different jobs and roles, Conroy and Wolf occupy similar positions. Their job is to exist in the liminal space between complicity and opposition, at once being part of the establishment and challenging it.

Both positions come with their own sets of challenging ethical questions. What role should a religious figure have in a country with a separation of church and state? And at an event like the Correspondents’ Dinner — designed to elide the differences between government and press — what is an entertainer’s role? And are her targets and her audience the same people?

But ultimately, both Conroy’s and Wolf’s roles are vital precisely because of their ambiguity. Their concerns and goals are opposed to the institutions with which they are affiliated at a structural rather than an ideological level. This gives them a blueprint for serving as a different — even radical — kind of opposition than, say, a political party. Having them physically as well as psychologically close to those in power is a feature of the role they play, not a bug.

A House chaplain has different concerns from politicians — and that’s a good thing

Let’s start with Patrick Conroy. As far as we know, Ryan’s opposition to the chaplain was based on the idea that Conroy was too ideological in his prayers. In one November session, he prayed that there “are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” (According to Conroy’s interview with the New York Times, Ryan told him, “Padre, you’ve got to stay out of politics.”)

Jonathan Chait at New York magazine made a fair point when he noted that perhaps Conroy should have been fired for espousing what seemed to be a political view. After all, he pointed out, the chaplain is supposed to be nonpartisan. Democrats, he said, would probably be up in arms if Conroy had led a prayer in favor of, for example, the Christian glory of the free market.

But nonpartisan doesn’t mean apolitical. And having a faith leader — of whatever faith (as chaplain, Conroy brought in a rotating cast of prayer leaders, including an imam) — means having someone who has a structured value system.

Furthermore, that values system, by definition, stands in opposition, for better and for worse, to the one demanded by the political process. To generalize just a bit here, most faith traditions — particularly those that are highly represented in America — involve a reasonably high proportion of demands made on the individual, and on individual ethical behavior. They include: Don’t lie, don’t murder, and other commandments and directives along those lines, demands that conceive of morality in stark black-and-white terms.

While of course there are significant political and communal elements to many of these theological systems (from different interpretations of the “kingdom of God” in Christianity to versions of political Islam), ethical demands are largely made on the individual and are, by and large, straightforward and binary. There is good and evil, right and wrong, and it is up to individuals to choose correctly.

By contrast, the political system by its very nature requires more than a little grayscale morality. No reasonable person assumes that even the most moral government tells the truth all the time, for reasons diplomatic as well as self-serving. Every single “good” government in history — to say nothing of the less good ones — has made decisions that, in improving the lives of some, worsen (or end) the lives of others.

This is a painful structural necessity of the political process. Politics is, even in its ideal state, about choosing the least bad option for the fewest people. The problem is, it becomes all too easy to elide the human cost of that in favor of the bigger picture.

That’s where Conroy comes in. Having a figure from a tradition whose moral absolutes are, well, absolute, provides lawmakers with a necessary, daily reminder of the human faces of those affected by even the most well-meaning policies. Insofar as a faith leader serves as structured opposition, he does so not in a partisan sense but as an ideological one: Conroy’s values should be reckoned with by those in power, even if they are ultimately ignored.

(And, for what it’s worth, I’d say the same thing if Conroy had made similar comments about, for example, the “sanctity of life,” to use an example of a common Christian attitude more favorable to a GOP party platform.) Indeed, most of the time, they should be ignored — nobody wants, or, at least, should want, a government run by theocrats. But they should be contended with all the same.

Now, crucially, I don’t think this leader should necessarily be Christian. (I’d advocate for a rotating cast of faith leadership figures, including secular humanists and — sure, why not? — members of the Satanic Temple.) But I think having voices speak, if not truth, then at least conviction, to those in power is a necessary corrective to the structural utilitarianism of the political process.

(Just think, for example, of that famous scene in The West Wing, when President Jed Bartlett, a Catholic, confesses to his priest after allowing a federal execution to be carried out — something that he thought was necessary, but which defied his own church teaching.)

It’s vital that such a chaplain-like figure would have structured rules in place to avoid partisanship, something lacking in, say, Trump’s troublingly untransparent evangelical advisory board, which has collapsed into sycophancy. But the presence of such a figure is a necessary challenge to an institution.

Comedians and chaplains alike use their “intimate” social position to pose necessary challenges

So too Michelle Wolf, and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner more generally. Like Conroy, Wolf and other comedians who have performed at the dinner exist in a liminal space. They’re physically and socially close to their audience and targets. They’re literally breaking bread with the people they’re about to challenge.

It’s more than fair to critique the traditional coziness of journalism and the White House, if not this White House, as Sullivan did in her Washington Post piece. But the structure of the dinner and, more importantly, the unifying presence of the comedian at the roast both risks complicity and allows directness.

The comedian is a kind of intermediary between the press and the White House. She can skewer everyone in the room, as Wolf did, telling the press, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

And the presence of a comedian in that very room, as a real, tangible human person rather than an abstract “criticism,” is vital to the strength of that critique. To criticize someone face to face is a very different, far more intimate act than criticizing someone, say, on MSNBC or Fox News.

Wolf’s goal, like Conroy’s, isn’t political. And, unlike Conroy’s, hers is to entertain as well as to provoke. But, like Conroy, the structurally adversarial nature of her position serves as a powerful corrective to the system itself — she’s there to cross the line, to challenge the whole political and journalistic system, to point out its flaws on left and right alike.

And to sit there and take the heat, publicly, is to contend with those criticisms. For Sarah Huckabee Sanders to be forced to sit and look Wolf in the eye as she hears criticism about “burning the facts” (for that infamous “smokey eye” or not), is for her to face, publicly, personally, and intimately, the direct consequences of actions that political formalities can all too easily explain away.

In ancient Rome, several sources cite generals returning from battle for their triumphal parades with an enslaved man tasked with the job of whispering in his ear, “Remember that you are mortal.” Shakespeare’s plays are full of designated Fools whose job it is to stay close to kings — King Lear, for example — and say the things they least like to hear.

And sometimes, historically, it’s been priests who play this social role: Just look at “meddlesome priest” Thomas Becket, whose conflict with Henry II over the role of the church led to his murder.

Proximity is necessary for challenge as well as complicity.

Of course, those who need to hear “fools” most are the ones least likely to do so: Donald Trump has skipped both this and last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, making him the first president in 36 years to do so. House Republicans almost unanimously refused to investigate the circumstances of Conroy’s firing.

Our problem isn’t ambiguous figures like Wolf or Conroy. It’s a lack of leaders to hear them.