Howard Mortman: Why Does Congress Pray Every Day?

The When Rabbis Bless Congress author and C-SPAN honcho on a weird political tradition and the glorious death of legacy media


The United States may be a secular nation but Congress has begun every session since before there was a Bill of Rights with a prayer. In When Rabbis Bless Congress, Howard Mortman explores that weird tradition while paying special attention to Jewish religious leaders whose first appearance came in early 1860, when the pro-slavery, Swedish-born Morris Jacob Raphall addressed Congress weeks before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president. Raphall's exotic garb and anodyne invocations of divine blessings were received warmly by both Southern members and The New York Times.

"This is a book for lovers of congressional history, for junkies of congressional history," says Mortman, who tells Nick Gillespie that the content of the prayers adds up to an interesting, off-kilter history of the nation. From slavery and the Civil War to the Depression and World War II to Vietnam and women's rights, the addresses made by religious leaders are "mirroring what we as a country are experiencing."

For the past decade-plus, Mortman has been communications director for C-SPAN, the cable network that provides live coverage of Congress and a variety of related programming. He got his start working for the former congressman, Housing and Urban Development secretary, and vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, and was a producer at MSNBC's Hardball before the network's decision to go hard left. He also worked as a columnist and on-air host of an early web show for National Journal's Hotline.

In a discussion about the rise of the internet and decentralized news sources, he tells Reason that the past 25 years have seen constant change in legacy media and that The New York Times, NPR, and most cable news are rightly understood to be more biased than in the past. If outlets were more upfront about that and if they strove to be fair to views they disagreed with, he says, the loss of trust and confidence in media would be less worrisome. "If you're sleeping with elephants, you can't cover the circus," says Mortman, paraphrasing the old Times editor Abe Rosenthal. The rise of new voices and new perspectives is great, he says, but if you're going to build a strong reputation, you've got to be believed and respected especially by your opponents. Absent that, the result is cacophony and polarization rather than a vibrant public square of debate.

NEXT: Eviction Moratorium Madness

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  1. "Why Does Congress Pray Every Day?"

    To remind themselves that they have a competitor? They're not the only beings who identify as god?

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  2. Of all the things I have to be concerned about, this is pretty much below the bottom of the list.

    1. No one forced you to read the article. Hell, no one forces you to come to this site.

      1. You don't know that. For all you know there could be someone holding a gun to his head forcing him to read articles on reason and then bitch and moan in the comments section. The same could apply to any one of us.

      2. You have no idea what his life is like.

      3. It's a Jerry B thang! You wouldn't understand!

  3. "early 1860, when the pro-slavery, Swedish-born Morris Jacob Raphall addressed Congress weeks before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president"

    So many jokes to be made, but none of them tasteful.

    1. So a whole year is now "weeks before?"

  4. "If you're sleeping with elephants, you can't cover the circus," says Mortman, paraphrasing the old Times editor Abe Rosenthal. The rise of new voices and new perspectives is great, he says, but if you're going to build a strong reputation, you've got to be believed and respected especially by your opponents."

    The press lied about Trump colluding with Russia, and they continued to lie about the source of those allegations--long after they were known. The press lied about Hunter Biden's emails, and they lied about the probable origin of the pandemic.

    The New York Times had to apologize for their op-ed editors publishing pieces by outside writers so many times, they had to nix the op-ed entirely. They don't care about their reputation for honesty anymore. They care about controlling the narrative and, ultimately, the Overton window. How dare you let your readers think outside views are even acceptable!

    The demise of cable news is part of the solution, but that's mostly about the demise of cable. When most people relied on one newspaper and three national broadcast networks for news--all of which were competing for consumers from both parties--maximizing profits meant maximizing your audience. The best selling beer in America is Bud light. It's bland for a reason, and before cable came to dominate the news, the broadcast networks were selling us news that appealed to everybody.

    1. Once cable started to dominate, people paid carriage fees for every news channel on their cable package whether they watched it or not. They could offend the sensibilities of their conservative or progressive viewers on different channels, and it didn't really matter because conservatives were paying carriage fees for CNN and MSNBC anyway, and progressive cable subscribers were paying for Fox News whether they watched it or not, too.

      Now that the streaming revolution is destroying cable, advertising is becoming more important than ever--especially the targeted advertising that streaming makes possible. You don't see the same ads other people see on their Google searches, and you don't see the same ads other people do watching the same streamed news broadcast either. The broadcasters don't care about the demographics of the whole audience as much when the advertisers will pay a premium to target advertising differently to each individual in that audience. We might expect to see cable networks moderate their broadcasts as they transition to streaming for that reason.

      In the meantime, CNN and MSNBC have both lost half of their audiences since January, and NBCUniversal is consolidating their CNBC, NBC, and MSNBC operations under one manager--presumably to cut costs. While it's true that streaming allows companies to target smaller audiences like they couldn't before, maximizing profits will come from maximizing the absolute size of your audience at the lowest possible cost in the future--and just advertising different things to different viewers of the same shows.

      I'd say I'm optimistic, but how much worse could the news broadcasts get? They lied about Hunter Biden's laptop; they lied about the probable origin of the pandemic; they lied about so many things. If the American people have a low opinion of the accuracy and honesty of the news media, that helps restore my faith in our fellow Americans. Is it any wonder that so many of them don't believe what the news media tells them about the results of the 2020 election?

      1. CNN and MSNBC have each lost half their audience because CNN drifted so far left it's the same audience.

  5. Religion has no place in politics! Believe and pray for whatever and whomever you want but keep it behind your church doors.

    1. Speaking of which, bunch of new shit released on Hunter Biden today... the press and Tech companies are going to be working OVERTIME on this one.

      1. The impartial algorithms are already trained to bury this stuff faster than a squirrel grabbing a plastic flute.

      2. Missed it. Can't find it.

    2. No, the bill of rights says the federal government cannot establish a state religion. It does not say that people cannot openly talk about religion or pray.

      But it's obvious where you got an education and from whom.

    3. Isn't BLM a religion? Or "CRT" or "Multiculturalism"..hell Keynsian Economics is by any definition

  6. ok walking on a path that will be upsetting but why are there so few Catholics (Irish and Italians) working at CSPAN and public radio/Tv and so many Jews? Is it time for CSPAN to have some Catholic diversity? I mean local PBS station certain groups are way overrepresented and others not allowed in it seems? You can say the same thing about the corporate media...time for a big change and allow Catholics in the door...can't keep just hiring your friends or relatives or Ivy League NYC buddies..

    1. If you're a libertarian, wouldn't your objection to "public radio/TV" be that it exists in the first place, not how many Jews work there?

      1. You are not talking with a libertarian. Libertarians do not care about your ethnic, racial, national, or religious background. You are talking with an anti Semitic bigot.

        There is no point in debating with an anti semite or a racist.

        1. He's speaking ironically. Employing the language of Civil Rights against itself.

          You are just too dense to understand.

  7. Well, judging from the budget proposals and the certainty that they won't lead to runaway inflation and widespread financial collapse, it's clear that they still believe in miracles.

    1. Miracles? Probably not.

      That they can kick the can far enough down the road to not be around for the collapse? More likely.

  8. Because they all know they are going to hell?

  9. To fool US citizens into thinking they believe in a higher power than themselves. They do not, and half t are atheist hypocrites.

    1. Is an atheist who publicly hedges his bet still an atheist?

  10. To fool US citizens into thinking they believe in a higher power than themselves. They do not, and half are atheist hypocrites.

  11. Probably because they commit an Obscene amount of Sins!

  12. "The United States may be a secular nation..."

    That you could not definitively assert otherwise answers your own question. You could have stopped then. Probably should have.

    I am reminded of a comic strip

    Calvin: "Hobbes, do you think our morality is defined by our actions or what is in our hearts?"

    Hobbes: "I think our actions show what is in our hearts"

    Calvin: "I resent that."

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