Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democratic representative and an ordained United Methodist minister, opened the first session of the 117th Congress on Sunday, Jan. 3 with a prayer.
Opening congressional sessions with a prayer is a longstanding tradition in the United States, much like the longstanding and sacred tradition of ending prayer with “amen,” a Latin word meaning “so be it,” or “it is true.”
This time, rather than ending the opening prayer with “amen,” Rep. Cleaver concluded with “amen and a-woman.” And, abruptly, many in America threw up their hands in outrage—outrage that, I would argue, is absolutely justified.
The Kansas City Star reports that Cleaver was “surprised” by the backlash his prayer received, saying the pun at the end of prayer was meant to “pay tribute” to the “record number of women” in Congress. I’m sure some people believe Cleaver was simply making a pun and that his “lighthearted” joke is just that: lighthearted. I’m also sure that for some people prayer is sacred – prayer is personal – and giving holy words a remix is seen as a blasphemous, agenda-filled attack on religious liberty.
There is a great divide in American politics. Pew Research reports that “Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today.” The beginning and middle of Cleaver’s prayer addressed the division, ideological differences and anger that have escalated throughout the country, in lawmakers and citizens alike. He even attempted to be inclusive with his prayer by invoking the name of the Hindu god. (Which, again, cue controversy.) Unfortunately, Cleaver’s greater message had no meaning whatsoever because his ending – joke or not – submerged the entire message in hypocrisy.
Was Cleaver’s pitiful pun a ruthless attack on religion? Was it disrespectful and tactless? Does it prove the Republican thesis that the Democrat party is no place for Christians? Or, did Cleaver misspeak and make a really bad joke?
I can’t tell you which is true, but I can tell you this: Cleaver needs to read the room.
His remarks came in the wake of an election that seemed to rip our country apart. His remarks came on the day that Nancy Pelosi’s proposed controversial gender-neutral speech bill was set to be voted on. His remarks came amidst the great divide between a progressive United States and a religious United States. (My moral compass tells me there is overlap between the two sides, but it’s been made very obvious: Not everyone wishes to, or will, bridge the gap.)
America is the home to 331 million free thinkers. When political leaders and lawmakers demonstrate that they have no knowledge of – or perhaps no care for – the people who they are in office to serve, Americans have a right to be outraged.
Pew Research found in a 2018-2019 survey that 65% of Americans identify with a religion. Prayer is a part of life for many in America. Even if that percent were smaller it doesn’t change the fact that puns have no place in prayer. The addition of “a-woman” was at the very least careless and at the very worst another fundamental, irreconcilable ideological difference between people’s piety and political affiliations.
In the style of Cleaver, I’ll now end with a joke that only I find funny:
The most unforgivable part of the entire prayer for me, a former copy editor, was the utter disrespect for the rules of grammar. Doesn’t he know that a-men should be followed by a-women in order to be consistency plural?