For years, visitors to the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., had to take their chances with the weather.
The demands of security and the press of tourists meant that visitors eager to see the Capitol might have to stand in lines outside through Washington’s stifling summers and nippy winters. Under pelting rain, driving snow or stinging sleet they stood, waiting for a chance to get inside and see the chambers where the laws of the people are made.
Not any more. On Dec. 2, a new state-of-the-art Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) opened for business. Located underground at the east side of the Capitol, the 580,000-square-foot, three-level facility cost $621 million and took seven years to construct. Visitors can now begin their tour of the famous domed edifice in comfortable quarters that help them understand the history and importance of the building they are about to see.
During the dedication, congressional leaders hailed the CVC as something that should make Americans proud.
“As both members and visitors enjoy the educational benefits of the Capitol Visitor Center,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “we will be inspired to explore new paths and to write new chapters in our nation’s great history. With that reverence for our history and dedication to progress, may this Temple of Democracy continue to be a place where people of diverse background and opinion can find common ground for the common good.”
But there is one segment of the population that is anything but proud of the Capitol Visitor Center: The Religious Right has spent the last few months complaining about the new structure, issuing salvo after salvo against it. The CVC, according to these groups, is a “godless pit” and a shrine to secular liberalism. They’d like to rework it – and add a heaping helping of “Christian nation” propaganda.
Late last year and into 2009, the internet was abuzz with manufactured outrage from several Religious Right groups. In a familiar gambit, these organizations worked in concert, each bombarding their supporters and the right-wing media with the same message: The Center censors America’s glorious “Christian” history.
Followers of these organizations were prodded to call Congress and demand changes.
Opponents of the Religious Right at Americans United say there may be a more prosaic explanation for the sudden eruption of its righteous fury: With a new Democratic administration taking over in Washington, Religious Right groups are eager to find new issues to stoke the flames of the “culture wars.” The Capitol Visitor Center turned out to be their first target.
The Religious Right’s congressional allies went so far as to threaten to delay the Center’s opening unless a number of changes were made.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) complained, for example, that the center listed “E Pluribus Unum” as the national motto instead of “In God We Trust.” DeMint went on to issue a laundry list of other complaints.
DeMint and House ally U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) seemed especially affronted by a statement that appears near the entrance to the Center’s exhibit hall. It quotes Rufus Choate, who represented Massachusetts in the House and Senate in the 1830s and ’40s.
Choate said, “We have built no temple but the Capitol. We consult no common oracle but the Constitution.”
DeMint feigned great outrage at the statement, portraying it as some type of insult to Christianity. In fact, when considered in context, Choate’s comment makes perfect sense and is an apt tribute to the Capitol. Many buildings in Washington, D.C., reflect a Greco-Roman style of architecture, stressing the Founders’ admiration for the classical world, and Choate’s statement merely evokes that spirit – but with an important twist.
In the ancient world, governments often spent public funds on lavish temples to the gods, some of which housed oracles that portended to tell the future. Most likely, Choate meant to express respect for the appearances of these ancient edifices while rejecting their purpose.
The U.S. government, he opines, would be based not on a state religious authority whose interpreters claim to be able to see the future but on a Constitution – a document that invests power in all of the people.
The Choate phrase – which appears on a 5 x 4 sign that goes on to explain the significance of the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) – wasn’t the only thing that stirred up DeMint.
The South Carolina senator also asserted that the Center’s displays “are left-leaning and in some cases distort our true history. Exhibits portray the federal government as the fulfillment of human ambition and the answer to all of society’s problems.
“This is a clear departure,” he said, “from acknowledging that Americans’ rights ‘are endowed by their Creator’ and stem from ‘a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.’”
This statement, AU says, smacks of petty whining and is nonsensical to boot. It is to be expected that a building dedicated to the functioning of the federal government would, in fact, discuss the major laws and initiatives that the government has undertaken over the decades. And that’s just what the Center does.
What are DeMint and his Religious Right cronies really up to? Critics at Americans United say DeMint is bent on using the CVC, which is expected to receive tens of thousands of visitors annually from all over the globe, to promote a bogus “Christian nation” history.
A focus on religion would be expected at an historic church or a museum dedicated to the development of religion or religious freedom. The U.S. Capitol, however, is neither; it is a chamber for making laws and debating policy. Naturally the emphasis at the CVC is on secular government.
“The ruckus over the Capitol Visitor Center is yet another manufactured controversy courtesy of the Religious Right,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “These groups want to enlist Congress and use the Center to promote their fallacious and discredited ‘Christian nation’ view.”
Staffers from Americans United, including Church & State magazine, visited the Center in early January. They noted that despite all of the carping by the Religious Right, the Center does contain several references to religion.
The words “In God We Trust” are prominently displayed above a video screen that explains how the House functions, and an exhibit about the early days of the Capitol notes that the building was used for “religious services and other civic events.” It includes a facsimile of a story from a Virginia newspaper reporting on a sermon delivered in the Capitol in July of 1801.
An exhibit that discusses the internal operations of the Capitol talks about congressional chaplains. It includes an illustration of Bishop John Thomas Claggett, Senate chaplain in 1800, and a photo of the Rev. Henry N. Couden, a House chaplain, leading that chamber in prayer on Dec. 6, 1909.
One of the more interesting religious exhibits is a large King James Bible that was given to congressional stenographers by Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana in 1934. Long explained that he often quoted scripture during his floor remarks, and he wanted to make sure the scribes would get the references right. For many years, it was a tradition among stenographers to sign the Bible.
In addition, an exhibit on Congress’ involvement with public education quotes the Northwest Ordinance, a document much beloved by the Religious Right because it states that “religion, morality and knowledge” are necessary to good government.
But the main focus of the exhibits is, rightly, on governance. Exhibits explain the formation of Congress and the role that body played in shaping the country’s response to the War of 1812, slavery and the Civil War, Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Watergate and other issues.
Most satisfyingly, exhibits take pains to explain the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment is featured prominently on one wall, and an exhibit discusses its evolution. Included is a copy of James Madison’s original version, along with the hand-written changes that were made to it.
Elsewhere, the entire text of the Constitution and the Bill of Right is displayed. (Copies of these important documents can also be purchased in the CVC’s two gift shops.)
James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said the new Center is fine as it is, asserting it “will make the Capitol, the icon of our republic, more accessible to all of us than ever before.”
He added, “It provides a splendidly presented civics lesson.”
Americans United asserts that the Religious Right’s attacks on the Capitol Visitor Center are only the latest episode in a long-running campaign to convince people that America was founded to be an officially “Christian nation.”
AU noted that Forbes was the lead sponsor of a congressional resolution in 2008 that purported to affirm “the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation’s founding and subsequent history” and to designate the first week in May as “American Religious History Week.”
Although it sounds benign, the resolution (H. Res. 888) was replete with inaccurate “Christian nation” claims and implied that Deism-oriented founders such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were conservative Christians who would have agreed with the Religious Right. The resolution attracted 93 cosponsors during the 110th Congress but did not come to a floor vote.
The attack on the Visitor Center was spearheaded by the infamous Religious Right pseudo-historian David Barton, a Texas theocrat and former state Republican Party official who argues that Washington, D.C., has a secret “Christian” history that has been suppressed by secularists. (That claim has recently been taken up by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as well.)
Barton, author of a self-published book blasting church-state separation called Original Intent, was among the first to assail the Center. Barton’s WallBuilders group released a video via YouTube, calling the Center a “$621 million shrine to political correctness.” Viewers were urged to call House Speaker Pelosi and demand that tax dollars not be used “to further secularize America.”
Groups such as Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC) and the Rev. Don Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) quickly joined the crusade.
“Liberals use Capitol Visitors Center to censor our Christian heritage,” blared a December e-mail alert from the AFA. It was accompanied by a 23-page report blasting the Center for “bias against America’s godly heritage.”
The report, produced by a Lincoln, Va.-based outfit called Renewing American Leadership, draws heavily on a Barton salvo titled “Ten Illustrative Errors in the CVC, representing errors both of Omission and Fact.”
On Dec. 3, FRC President Perkins joined CNN’s Lou Dobbs on the air, where both men blasted the Center. Perkins opined that the taxpayers had paid “over $621 million to be insulted,” while Dobbs blustered, “I’ve got to say, it’s an outrage! It’s an outrage!”
AU’s Lynn urges Congress not to give in to Religious Right demands.
“If the Religious Right has its way, the Capitol Visitor Center will lose an important opportunity to educate Americans about our nation’s history and the true origins of our government,” Lynn said. “Congress should ignore the Religious Right and make certain the Center accurately reflects history and is welcoming to all Americans.”