Washington: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican, Wisconsin, dismissed Rev Patrick Conroy this month as chaplain of the chamber, a decision that has ignited a faith and politics debate.

Conroy, who is paid $172,500 a year, is supposed to arrange the opening prayer when the House is in session and offer a pastoral role to all members. Conroy, the first Jesuit and second Catholic chaplain of the House, has filled a role that goes back to the Revolutionary War and that has been mired in controversy from the beginning.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress sanctioned the role of military chaplains, and it chose Anglican minister Jacob Duch to be its first chaplain in 1774. The Founders debated how to pick someone among the different denominations represented, but they ultimately decided that the main question was whether the person supported the American Revolution.

Duch’s prayers were politicised, said Spencer W. McBride, author of ‘Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America’. But as long as the clergyman was criticising Great Britain, McBride said, it was considered okay. But then Duch resigned his role and switched sides to favouring Britain. He wrote a famous letter to George Washington urging him to give up the fight and was exiled back to Britain.

“We see this tradition where Americans don’t mind if clergymen speak on politics, so long as they agree,” McBride said. The Continental Congress then appointed two chaplains — a Presbyterian and an Anglican — with the goal of not showing favouritism.

Why did they decide to open congressional sessions with prayer? In 1787, Benjamin Franklin proposed prayer as a way of encouraging discourse during the Constitutional Convention, citing how it helped during the American Revolution.

Initially, McBride said, the role was focused on ensuring a daily prayer before session. Later, the role of counsellor was added so members of Congress could meet with the chaplain over personal matters. But the chaplain was never intended to be involved in day-to-day legislative efforts.

“It’s about signalling that Congress had the backing of God, or they were trying to act with the interests of God in mind,” McBride said.

In a 1983 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer offered by a paid chaplain. The case, Marsh vs Chambers, involved a Nebraska lawmaker who had challenged the state legislature’s chaplaincy practice. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court cited history and tradition in determining that the chaplain did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In 2014, the Supreme Court determined in Town of Greece vs Galloway that town boards can begin sessions with prayer.

A debate erupted nearly 20 years ago over whether the House should elect a Catholic priest or a Presbyterian minister as chaplain. In 2000, then Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, Republican, Illinois, appointed Rev Daniel Coughlin of Chicago, the first Catholic priest to become chaplain. (Rev Charles Constantine Pise became the first (and, to date, only) Catholic chaplain of the Senate in 1832.)

In 2011, Conroy, who was teaching at a Jesuit school in Portland, Oregon, was nominated to the chaplaincy by then House Speaker John Boehner, Republican, Ohio, and was elected by the House in 2011.

Chaplains serve in all kinds of places, including in the military, universities, hospitals, prisons and corporations. The position of chaplain differs from the usual role of a religious leader in that the chaplain does not necessarily lead a group of worshippers who follow the same tradition.

The chaplain’s denomination is not necessarily intended to reflect the majority of the members of Congress, said Ronit Stahl, author of ‘Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America’. For instance, Rev Barry Black, who was elected to the Senate chaplaincy in 2003, was the first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position. (There are two Seventh-day Adventists in Congress, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.)

“The question isn’t about, does the Senate have a lot of Seventh-day Adventists? That’s not the issue,” Stahl said. “The role itself demands someone who wants to, seeks to work with anyone and everyone.”

Representative Mark Walker, Republican, North Carolina, one of the leaders of the committee searching for Conroy’s replacement, told reporters on Thursday that he’s looking for “somebody more of a non-denominational background, that has a multicultural congregation.”

Early American settlers likely practised specific Protestant religious traditions. But the word non-denominational is a relatively new term that is popular among some evangelicals and others who prefer not to align with a particular denominations.

Some Americans have expressed concern over whether a chaplain is being political, Stahl said. “That’s a very narrow understanding of politics and religion ... religion and politics intermix all the time,” she said.

A bigger question, Stahl said, is whether the nature of the chaplain role is to be pastoral or prophetic — one that ministers to the needs of individuals or speaks to broader issues. “If you’re going to give prayers that are more than just vague thank yous, you’re probably going to hear statements that feel potentially uncomfortable,” she said.

In recent history, a Catholic chaplain would have been seen as a safe bet among both Republicans and Democrats because Catholics didn’t necessarily fit neatly into one political philosophy, said Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. In the past decade especially, there have been significant internal debates among Catholics over health care, taxes and immigration and refugee issues.

Popes have sometimes openly disagreed with presidents, but the contrast between Pope Francis and his adherents and President Trump and his supporters only highlighted the political divisions among American Catholics, Winters said. “You have on one pole Pope Francis and everything he stands for, and the opposite pole Donald Trump,” he said. “We’ve never had that kind of polarity.”

The tension among Catholics right now, said Raymond Arroyo of the Catholic network EWTN, is not about politics, but rather about Catholic doctrine and Pope Francis’s pastoral approach over Catholic teachings on marriage, divorce, communion and other issues.

“People go to their political corners and try to politicise it,” Arroyo said of the debate within the church, “but it’s foundational issues that make people nervous.”

As for the current House chaplain, many Catholic observers have been baffled by Ryan’s dismissal of Conroy, including John Carr, who was a policy adviser to the US Catholic bishops. Carr described Conroy as “scrupulously non-partisan.”

“Chaplains should not make us comfortable. They should challenge us,” Carr said. “The polarisation in political life is being reflected in religious life.”