I just got back from an exciting field trip: I walked a few blocks from Americans United's office to check out the Capitol Visitors Center, a new state-of-art facility that opened last month for people visiting the U.S. Capitol Building.
No, I wasn't goofing off; the visit was worked related. I am writing a story about Religious Right attacks on the Center for Church & State and figured I should take a look at it for myself.
I'm glad I did. The Center is an impressive, attractive facility that should make us proud as Americans. The Religious Right's attacks on it could not be more misguided and, frankly, foolish.
In a nutshell, Religious Right groups like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and a few misguided congressional allies claim that the Center fails to portray America's religious history accurately and that its historical displays have been overly secularized. Their claims are rubbish.
Here's the deal: The Visitors Center is designed to help people visiting the U.S. Capitol understand the role the House of Representatives and Senate play in our lives today and the role they have played historically. The exhibits focus mainly on legislative action because the Capitol is a government facility. (Duh!) The exhibits aren't meant to portray the history of religion in America.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) complained because exhibits in the Center "portray the federal government as the fulfillment of human ambition and the answer to all of society's problems. This is a clear departure from acknowledging that Americans' rights 'are endowed by their Creator' and stem from 'a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."
In fact, the Center contains a wealth of interesting and informative exhibits about how Congress reacted to some of the great struggles and challenges that have confronted our nation: the formation of the government, the War of 1812, the expansion of the nation, the Civil War and Reconstruction, women's suffrage, the New Deal and World War II, the drive for civil rights, the Cold War and the race to put a man on the moon.
I suppose there could have been an exhibit highlighting the times Congress did nothing – but it might have been rather boring.
Claims that the Center ignores religion are also bogus. The exhibits discuss religion in context when it's relevant. An exhibit on the internal operations of Congress discusses chaplains and includes photos of Bishop John Thomas Claggett, Senate chaplain in 1800, and the Rev. Henry N. Couden, a House chaplain who is shown leading the chamber in prayer on Dec. 6, 1909.
One of my favorite religion-tinged exhibits was a huge King James Bible that Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana gave to the congressional stenographers in 1934. Long explained that he often quoted the scriptures during his floor remarks, and he wanted to make certain the scribes got it right! For a long time, it was a tradition among the stenographers to show fealty to Huey by signing the inside of the Bible.
The Religious Right wanted to turn the Capitol Visitors Center into a shrine for the phony "Christian nation" views of their favorite pseudo-historian David Barton. They failed – and they're grumpy about that.
There's more to say about this topic, but I'll save it for the February issue of Church & State, so check back next month. Suffice to say, this morning I learned that, when it comes to the Capitol Visitors Center, the Religious Right is once again resorting to lies, propaganda and wild distortions to whip up its shock troops.
Why am I not surprised?