Church and State

Every Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. during the legislative session, Chaplain Dan Hall hosts a two-hour prayer meeting. It is held around a long wooden table in Room 118 of the State Capitol building, just around the corner from the governor’s office. Attendance varies, averaging about twenty people who know Hall from his work as a voluntary chaplain to state legislators and staff. “Welcome, welcome,” he said one recent Wednesday, gesturing to the overstuffed chairs that surrounded the table.


Among the attendees were four middle-aged women from a Cannon Falls prayer group, a handicapped man who said he had “left the gay lifestyle” twenty-six years ago, and Myrna Howes, the wife of Republican Representative Larry Howes. It was the group from Cannon Falls, however, that commanded Hall’s attention. They were intercessors—individuals who pray for specific goals or people, sometimes for years. “We’re praying for the churches and the union,” said a puckish member in a pink sweater.

“Good,” Hall said, nodding, his wide smile casting sincere and fatherly approval on the older woman. “Good!” In his mid-fifties, Hall is a powerfully built man, with wide shoulders and a broad chest. Yet his toothy enthusiasm for faith and the faithful softens that potentially intimidating physical presence into warm charisma. “That’s just great,” he exclaimed.

“We’ve also prayed for some barren women and had some success,” the woman in the pink sweater continued. “My forty-year-old daughter had a baby.”

“I remember praying in the early eighties for the Berlin Wall to fall,” said Charlotte Herzog, the group’s leader. “Thinking that maybe it would happen in our children’s lifetime. But it only took six years!”

Hall checked his Palm Pilot and then announced the order of business. “We’re going to have some legislators stop by and talk about their passions. Then we’ll pray for them.”

Chaplain Dan Hall is not a state official, nor does he serve in any official capacity. Nevertheless, his voluntary ministry at the state Capitol, which is funded by tax-exempt contributions, is enormously influential with legislators motivated by conservative Christian theologies and teachings on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. According to Lonnie Titus, the full-time official chaplain to Minnesota’s House of Representatives, who was elected by its members, “Dan serves as an issues person on the Christian side at the Legislature. He has been a rallying force for the conservative Christians, and he’s done a great job at it, too.” Titus added, carefully, “I can’t do that because I’m a chaplain to the entire House. But I’m glad Dan is here because it’s a growing need.” Indeed. According to Titus, fully one-third of Minnesota’s legislators “allow religion to play the important role in their life—Jesus in particular,” and their numbers grow with each election.

Steve Sviggum, the speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, entered Room 118 with long steps and an enthusiastic smile. Hall greeted him with a handshake. Though shorter than the lanky Sviggum, Hall has a gregarious presence that gives up nothing in stature next to power. “Mister Speaker, I was hoping that you could tell us about your passions.”

Sviggum crossed his arms and stood at the head of the table. “First of all, I want to thank you for your thoughts and prayers,” he enthused. “You are so important to legislators.” For the next several minutes he delivered an innocuous lecture on the role of the speaker. When he was nearly finished, a striking blond woman entered the room. “Hi, Jackie,” Sviggum said. “I bet you’re here to talk about Fetal Pain, the Taxpayer’s Protection Act, and Positive Alternatives.”

Jackie laughed. “Why don’t you do it, Mister Speaker?”

Sviggum winked at the group and explained, “Jackie and I see each other almost every day.”

Dan Hall paused to introduce her as Jackie Moen, legislative associate and occasional spokeswoman for Minnesotan Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion organization. “Anyway, the speaker’s time is very limited.” Hall said. “Are there any questions?”

The man who identified himself as formerly gay raised his hand. “I know we lost some seats this year,” he began. “So what can we pray to get more Republicans in the House and Senate?”

“I’m not one to be so bold as to say my party’s always right, and God is always on my side,” Sviggum answered. “But I fight to be on his side!” There were approving nods around the table and Sviggum continued with renewed enthusiasm. “I think we should pray for wisdom, principles, and ideas. Of course, we want like-minded people to stand with us.” Slowly, he warmed to the question, and finally ended with the hard numbers: “If you look at demographics, we should probably have seventy-four, seventy-five seats in the House.”

With that, Hall stood again. “Who wants to pray for the speaker?” Two women from the Cannon Falls group reached out and grasped Sviggum’s hands. Hall maneuvered behind him and rested a hand on Sviggum’s shoulder. All closed their eyes. “Lord, anoint Steve’s words with your wisdom,” the woman on his right prayed. “Anoint him with strength to make your will known and real.” In response, the room was filled with spontaneous whispers. “Yes, yes, yessss!” The prayer lasted five minutes, and included blessings for the speaker, his family, his issues, and the Republican agenda. After the final “amen,” Sviggum smiled broadly. “I—I feel stronger,” he said breathlessly. “And more comforted.”

Hall stepped forward to get Sviggum on his way. “I know the speaker has a busy schedule,” he said again.

Sviggum nodded. “I sure wish I could spend my whole day with you,” he said. As he departed, he gave the room a big thumbs-up.

***

The Town Talk Cafe and Coffee Bar is located around the corner from Main Street in the central Minnesota town of Willmar. It is a crowded, stifling place, where the coffee tastes like burnt water, the ceiling is yellowed from smoke, and dice tumble across Formica. The Town Talk is also where, for the last thirty-one years, Dean Johnson, the Democratic majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, has enjoyed his Saturday morning breakfast with friends that range from a bison farmer to the guy who plows his driveway (the latter refers to Johnson as “numb nuts” to visiting reporters). On a Saturday in March, the mood is jovial and a little raw. Everyone is the subject of a joke, and Johnson usually joins with a giggle totally at odds with his otherwise rich, stentorian voice and his fifty-seven years. Yet despite Johnson’s obvious affection for the venue and its patrons, he is not entirely present. In between ribbings about, say, some guy named Taco Olson, he surreptitiously checks his cell phone beneath the table. Nobody seems to mind, though, because it’s a wonder that Johnson has time for the Town Talk at all. In addition to being the majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, Dean Johnson is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a brigadier general in the United States National Guard, and the National Guard’s top-ranking chaplain.

Yet there is an ironic twist to Johnson’s accomplished career as a minister. In the Minnesota Legislature, his moderate Lutheranism, which he defines as “a religion of devotion and tolerance,” is the exception among religiously motivated Christian legislators. And so Senator Dean Johnson, once a self-described “Eisenhower Republican” and a long-serving Senate Republican leader, is now the most unlikely of Democratic leaders: a rural pro-life minister with an esteemed military career.

“The divisions really started in 1993 with the gay rights amendment to the state’s Human Rights Act,” Speaker Steve Sviggum told me. “I think what happened was that Johnson had told his Senate [Republican] caucus one thing, and then proceeded to the Senate floor and did another.” In 1993, Johnson was in his eleventh year as a state senator, but only a year into his tenure as the Senate Republican leader, a post he obtained as a moderate, consensus candidate. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Republican Party had just elected a number of social conservatives to the Legislature, including current Senator Steve Dille and Senator Linda Runbeck (since retired). The clash was not long in coming. Early in the session that year, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation amending Minnesota’s Human Rights Act to include gays and lesbians as a class protected from discrimination in housing and employment. As the Republican Senate leader, Johnson was widely expected to oppose it.

“At the time, I really didn’t know what I’d do,” Johnson recalls as he drives through Willmar after breakfast. “But I kept hearing from people who were saying things like,”—here, Johnson’s voice drops—“‘My daughter … y’know?’” So, just before the speech, he jotted some notes based on personal experience onto a napkin. “As a Norwegian Lutheran,” he began, directly addressing the gay and lesbian community, “I simply do not understand what you do in your quiet times, in your moments of privacy.” Then, very quickly he shifted to a reflection on his role as a National Guard chaplain, and the 180 religious denominations recognized by the U.S. military. “I will tell you that some of these denominations I do not understand. I do not begin to understand their theology,” he continued. “But the fact remains that I took an oath of office that, as a member of the Chaplain Corps, it is my job and responsibility to ensure everyone—Protestant, Catholic, Jew, atheist—the free exercise of religion.” Concluding, Johnson returned to his service as a senator. “Even though I don’t fully understand the … homosexual lifestyle, I think it is prudent … that we vote as a majority to give rights to the minority.”

The last frustrated minute of Johnson’s speech presaged the course of his split, seven years later, with the Republicans. As Republican leader, he found himself catering to a caucus whose agenda increasingly was devoted to social conservative issues, rather than the practical and pragmatic quality-of-life issues—such as transportation, housing, and education—that Johnson found more pressing. “We deal more with moral issues in the Senate than I did as a full-time parish pastor in Willmar,” he concluded. “I want you to think about that. I want the people of Minnesota to think about that.” Then, as now, he blamed some legislators for obsessing over social issues, distracting Minnesotans from more urgent needs.

Johnson managed to remain the Republican Senate leader for most of the 1990s, but his unwillingness to legislate conservative social issues placed him at odds with the growing influence of social conservatives in the Republican Party. “Eventually, Dean wasn’t even welcome to walk in the parade with the [Kandiyohi County] Republican party unit,” recalled Democratic Representative Al Juhnke of Willmar. “They wouldn’t even hang his banners.” As the 2000 election approached, Johnson and other political observers in Willmar thought it likely that he would be challenged in the Republican primary. “And I just wasn’t going to subject myself to that,” Johnson told me.

Even five years after his party switch, the bitterness toward Johnson has persisted among social conservatives. They view him as a traitor not only to his party, but also to the Lutheran church. In 2004, when Johnson single-handedly prevented legislation prohibiting gay marriage from reaching the floor of the Minnesota Senate, the sense of betrayal again became personal. “What’s so amazing is that Senator Dean Johnson, an ordained Lutheran minister, would actually be leading the charge against protecting the civil institution of marriage,” proclaimed Tom Prichard, president of the influential and conservative Minnesota Family Council. “What Lutheran and other Christian traditions say about the importance of marriage to society would lead one to think he’d be leading the charge to protect marriage from attacks.” Prichard’s comments are representative of the feelings that many legislators on the right have for Johnson. However, of twenty Republican legislators contacted for this article, only one—Speaker Steve Sviggum—would comment on Johnson for the record.

Chaplain Dan Hall’s Wednesday prayer meeting attracts a range of high-powered guests, including lobbyists, but the group is most animated when legislators stop in to visit and pray. Thus, when Republican Representative Larry Howes of Walker was introduced, everyone straightened in their seats. “What you’re doing makes a difference here at the Capitol,” Howes began. “It may not always seem that way, but I can assure you that your prayers are heard.”

“What’s your passion?” Hall asked.

“Politics,” Howes answered, before transitioning into a detailed policy discussion about what’s really on his mind—namely, a nursing home in his district that is in danger of losing its state funding. “It’s a big payroll, and the loss of that would devastate our local economy,” he said.

The formerly gay man raised his hand. “Should we pray that the governor will sign the bill for the nursing home?”

“Sure,” Howes replied. “Yeah.”

He then launched into another passion, concerning a letter someone had sent to Republican Representative Paul Gazelka, which disapproved of his support for a measure that would ban gay marriage. According to Howes, the author works for the Crow Wing County Human Services Department. “And I want you to know that I’ve already looked into de-funding that agency,” he announced with a pointed look at Hall.

According to an online resume, Dan Hall has no formal religious training nor even a formal ordination, despite serving as an assistant pastor, administrative pastor, associate pastor, and senior pastor to four congregations dating back to 1982. This is not unusual. Among some Pentecostals and members of other independent, evangelical denominations, there is an institutional suspicion of formal religious training, and many of their church leaders are not ordained, at least not in accredited seminaries or divinity schools. Instead, they are accepted as spiritual leaders on the basis of their faith, leadership, and charisma. Hall, a married father of eight, seems to have established himself in that tradition and done quite well. In addition to being founder and executive director of Midwest Chaplains and its Capitol Prayer Network, he is city chaplain of Burnsville, where he ministers to police and emergency services personnel.

Hall claims his voluntary ministry at the Capitol began after House Chaplain Lonnie Titus told him “he couldn’t handle it all on his own.” In contrast, Titus claims that Hall approached him about getting involved at the Capitol. Regardless of whose idea it was, nobody disputes that Hall’s Capitol ministry began in the fall of 2001, when he stationed himself outside the Senate chambers and introduced himself to members. Four years later, his routine hasn’t changed much. “I come down to the Capitol after the traffic,” Hall explains. “And I begin my route.” He starts on the top floor of the State Office Building. “I peek my head into offices, say hello to staff and legislators and just see where that goes. I see what I can do to help, and I always try to bring God into it.” When he is not busy with the individual needs of legislators and staff, Hall conducts “prayer tours” of the Capitol for groups interested in praying at the usual tour stops, such as the Senate chambers.

Hall also maintains an email list of “Capitol intercessors” whom he contacts with specific prayer requests when a “moral or spiritual issue” such as abortion, gay rights, or methamphetamine use arises. “I’ve been told that because I’m a chaplain I must be a Republican,” Hall admitted. “I’m more conservative, yes, but really what I’m doing is based on Biblical truth. I call it ‘political evangelism,’ but it’s not politics.”

Lonnie Titus disputes Hall’s depiction of his ministry. “I serve as a chaplain to all of the people [at the House of Representatives],” Titus explained. “But Dan, he’s the front guy if you’re pro-life, pro-marriage.” The distinction is important and legal. For Dan Hall’s ministry to be granted federal 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization it must meet several criteria, one of the most important being that it “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities”—even, presumably, if that means influencing God to influence legislation. Bluntly, the regulations prohibiting religious organizations from explicit political advocacy do not allow for much interpretation, and Hall—otherwise a literalist in Scriptural matters—knows it. “A lot of pastors don’t stand up for issues and that’s how we got into the mess that we’re in today,” Hall said. “They’re all worried about losing their ‘tax-exempt.’” Intentionally or not, Chaplain Dan Hall and his supporters at the Legislature may be redefining the boundaries of religious political advocacy in Minnesota.

***

Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar is a yellow brick building topped by a rounded copper roof and a single spire. For thirty-one years Dean Johnson has served as a pastor to its congregants. “It’s really been a sanctuary for me,” he explains as he opens the church’s back door, which has a fallout shelter sign posted on it. “From politics and the military.” Inside, a narrow, short corridor ends with doors that offer a glimpse into the church’s sanctuary. On the left, an American flag poster with “God Bless America” printed across the bottom is taped to a wooden door, which also bears an engraved plastic nameplate reading “Pastor Dean E. Johnson.”

The walls of Johnson’s office are covered with certificates, awards, news clippings, and photos of Johnson with a range of political luminaries. A highboy is piled with Bibles, prayer books, condolence cards, and a board game called The Amen Game! Opposite, two desks are crammed with paperwork, more Bibles, more prayer books, photos from confirmation classes, an open can of Mountain Dew, and an unopened bag of Fritos. “In the spirit of the separation of church and state, I maintain two phones,” Johnson says. “One for the business of the state, and one for the business of the Lord.” They sit on the edge of a desk, one black, one white.

Dean Johnson was born in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and grew up on the Johnson family farm, homesteaded in 1858. “You worked hard,” Johnson recalls, “from five a.m. until eight at night.” For grades one through six, he went to a one-room schoolhouse, and then graduated from Lanesboro’s public high school. Along with education and work, religion played a central role in Johnson family life. “I wouldn’t say we wore our faith on our sleeve,” Johnson explains. “We attended church every Sunday, and as children we’d have evening devotional time.” Johnson vividly remembers his mother hanging plaques with religious verses on the walls. “The religion was one of devotion and not of judgment,” he says. “It was one of grace, one of forgiveness.”

After earning a business degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in 1969, Johnson attended Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul and graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 1973. During an internship at a parish in Seattle, he was seriously thinking about military life, particularly due to the Vietnam War. Fortuitously, he met a former Army chaplain who introduced him to the Chaplain Candidate Program. The requirements were straightforward: good grades, a successful physical, a background check, and the endorsement of a denomination (in Johnson’s case, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). The duties of a chaplain, meanwhile, were complicated: “First and foremost, you ensure the free exercise of religion for all men and women in uniform,” he explains. “As a practical matter, you console members of the military and their families, officiate at memorials and funerals, officiate at weddings, teach courses.”
Today, Johnson is a brigadier general in charge of all 752 National Guard chaplains. He reports directly to Major General David Hicks, chief of chaplains to the United States Army. “I work on doctrine, deployments, strategies,” Johnson explains. “I also work on reunion issues for returning soldiers, and chemical dependency issues, too.” Above all, Johnson is responsible for ensuring that every National Guard soldier has access to a spiritual advisor of his or her creed. “It’s our role to be accessible to every religious group,” explains Hicks in a phone call from Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “Dean’s a Protestant, not a Muslim, but he would doggedly pursue the Muslim chaplain if the circumstances demanded it.”

Johnson spent more than one hundred days on military business in 2004; in addition, he spent five months in St. Paul fulfilling his duties as a state senator. Yet he still relishes his part-time role at Calvary Church, where he performs a range of duties, including baptisms, pre-nuptial counseling, weddings, and occasionally serving as preacher and liturgist. “Also, I speak to the Adult Education Forum,” he says.

The forum is held after services in a large basement meeting room. On one end is a darkened chapel; on the other is a room where elderly congregants receive blood pressure checks. In the middle, about fifty elderly congregants are seated with coffee, bread, and jam. Pastor Johnson steps to the pulpit. Today’s topic is the grieving process, something Johnson has come to know intimately, all too recently. Avonelle, his wife of twenty-one years, died just three weeks before the forum, after a five-year struggle with breast cancer. Johnson stands with his hands crossed on the lectern and talks to the congregants—his congregants of thirty-one years—without notes. He speaks with a steady, riveting cadence. The cooks in the kitchen emerge and stand against door posts; the blood pressure technician emerges and takes a seat at a corner table. Johnson talks of “bringing emotions into sync with thoughts,” and then he opens Janis Amatuzio’s book, Forever Yours, and reads an account of a woman’s near-death ascent to the “dazzling light” of heaven. As he does, tears slip down his otherwise implacable face.

“Now, the hard part.”

Avonelle Johnson spent her last days in a hospice across the street from Calvary Lutheran Church. Eight days before she died, her husband was seated beside her bed when she suddenly told him, “It’ll be OK.”

“‘What’ll be OK?’ I asked,” Johnson recalls. “And Avonelle said to me, ‘You know.’”

Johnson didn’t, and so Avonelle continued. “I saw the bright lights. I saw my mom and dad.”

Johnson, looking out at his congregants through tears, admits, “About that time, I start to look around. I’d only been drinking coffee!” He pauses, his posture rigid. “I start to look around and outside the white snow is soft and gentle. I looked outside and everything was OK.” He takes a deep breath and credits Amatuzio’s book with giving him the courage to talk about his conversation with Avonelle. Then his voice chokes, but he says with determination, “One day we will see the face of God and we will be reunited with our loved ones. That is the faith we live with.”

Bishop Jon Anderson oversees the Southwestern Regional Synod for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, including Calvary Lutheran Church. “I personally have found Dean’s journey—this journey of losing his wife—to be inspiring as I’ve walked it with him,” Anderson said to me. “Lutherans like to talk about callings. Well, I saw a man caring for his wife at a very difficult time and carrying on his other vocations.”

After the forum, Johnson returns to his office and gathers his belongings. “You’ll never hear a political opinion from me on Sunday morning,” he says. “That’s for Monday morning.” Likewise, it is rare that Johnson will invoke faith at the Capitol; there, as a legislator, his primary passion is transportation funding. When I ask him to describe what he believes is the proper role of religion in public life, he lays out his priorities without a moment’s hesitation: “OK, first, what is in the best interests of the people of Minnesota? Second, what is in the best interest of my district? And thirdly, and most difficult, what do you or I think about it, in regard to policy, policy change, and what are the moral and ethical considerations that surround it?” He smiles and reverts to politics. “If you can justify to your bosses—namely, your constituents—why you think the way you do, and vote the way you do, you’ll be all right.” He has no further thoughts on the subject.

I ask Johnson if he knows Chaplain Dan Hall, and his answer is a clipped, two-syllable slap: “Oh, yeah.” Though Johnson is not aware of Hall’s prayer meetings, he does know of a weekly Bible study gathering attended by roughly twenty conservative legislators, staff, and Hall in a third-floor State Office Building committee room. I mention to Johnson that I’d attended two of those meetings. In both cases, it included the reading of two New Testament chapters and a discussion that very much took it as given that the Scriptures were literally the word of God. “I went once,” Johnson says. “And the room was filled with judgment and an errant interpretation of the Scriptures.” When I suggest that the people in the room wouldn’t exactly agree with such sentiments, Johnson shrugs. “No one person, no one theologian, no one pastor has the corner on the market to suggest that they are all right and everybody else is a bunch of sinful suckers. I just don’t see theology and religion playing out that way, as evidenced by the 180 denominations I deal with in the military.” Johnson espouses tolerance as a philosophy, but he has a difficult time extending it in this instance. “I try to be accepting and respectful of those folks, but it’s when they cross the line and portray that they’re better than the rest of us, that their little corner of religious practice is better than the rest of us, that’s when I become—” Johnson catches himself. “Well, we’re going to live in a pluralistic society, and we do have freedoms and the Constitution.”

***

The last guest at Chaplain Dan Hall’s Wednesday prayer meeting was Duane Coleman, vice president for Development at the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center in South Minneapolis. Supported by organizations like Best Buy, ADC, and General Mills, the center is a $12.6 million South Minneapolis project designed to help inner-city youth acquire secondary-school educations. Duane Coleman has been a repeat guest at Dan Hall’s prayer gatherings, and when he arrived on this day, Hall encouraged him to describe the results of the prayers he’d received the week before.

Coleman said that, before last week, only the Senate version of the new bonding bill included cash for the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center. “So I came last week and we prayed over this,” Coleman explained. “And somehow, through divine favor, the money ended up in the House bill, too.”
A late arrival, a woman in the back of the room, raised her hand. “Is your group Christian?”

Coleman nodded vigorously. “Yes.”

“So what are we praying for today?”

“Success in conference committee!” Coleman replied.

Like many before him, Coleman stood before the group with his eyes closed as the Cannon Falls ladies and Myrna Howes prayed for him. “Lord, my husband is a legislator and I know he received a lot of letters on behalf of this saying it won’t do anything,” Howes intoned. “Well, I hope those letters to turn to dust.”
With that, the meeting was over. The group quickly dispersed into dimly lit Capitol hallways filled with legislators on their way to lunch. Charlotte Herzog, however, stopped to tell me how much she appreciates Dan Hall’s ministry at the Capitol. “You know,” she said. “Prayer is just so much more effective than all those committee hearings and meetings.”