Sen. Jim DeMint had four words to say to the designers of the new $621 million Capitol Visitors Center: "In God We Trust."
During a tour of the new entryway to the U.S. Capitol, which opened Dec. 2, 2008, the 57-year-old lawmaker from South Carolina noticed architects had ignored the phrase, which Congress established as the national motto in 1956.
Instead, a prominently displayed stone marker misidentified "E pluribus unum" as the motto. DeMint also noticed the museum's replica of the House chamber omitted "In God We Trust" despite its prominent appearance above the speaker's rostrum in the actual House.
"There seems to be a trend of whitewashing God out of our history," a disgusted DeMint said on the Senate floor last fall. DeMint put a hold on the bill allowing the center to open, and the designers added the phrase in the House display. The marker incorrectly depicting "Out of many, one" as the nation's motto was more difficult: Even by July 4 it had been only clumsily rubbed out.
To the Republican from South Carolina elected to the Senate in 2004 after three terms in the House, those errors symbolized that the heart of the federal government's ongoing power grab is a belief among policy makers that God is not in control. DeMint fears the nation is sliding toward socialism, which he calls the enemy of freedom.
"In order for socialists to expand the power of government they have to decrease the power of religion, which empowers individuals," DeMint recently told me during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "Dependency on government reduces dependency on God."
You can't talk to DeMint long without frequently hearing the words freedom and faith. He has poured those convictions into a new book, Saving Freedom (B&H Publishing Group, 2009), which chronicles how Americans can end what DeMint calls "our abusive marriage with the federal government." The senator made a statewide book tour riding on a red-white-and-blue-splashed bus with a 1776 anthem.
DeMint has interrupted a busy Senate schedule for the extracurricular activities because he believes that the nation is in serious trouble, he said, and a bloated federal government is to blame. He writes that most members of Congress lean toward socialist policies, can't look past the next election, don't understand how freedom works, and use problems as an excuse to grow government.
In his book DeMint withholds few punches: He calls Barack Obama a "master of victimology"; describes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the "big fish drug dealers in this economic crack house of cards"; and acknowledges that he finds himself fighting Republicans as often as Democrats.
For his comments The Hill, a Washington daily, called DeMint "one of Congress' biggest bomb-throwers."
But it wasn't always like this for the mild-mannered, self-effacing businessman from Greenville, S.C., who served six relatively quiet years in the House and is known locally as more than a little shy in person.
DeMint's belief that government should do less for people ironically led him to run for political office for the first time in 1998 at the age of 47.
Few friends imagined the private DeMint in the role of pubic lawmaker. But he believed that too many of the problems plaguing local organizations and charities were the result of "well-intentioned but bad government policies that created more problems than they solved." A Christian since age 25, DeMint also said he felt God's call to run for Congress: "God uses our weaknesses sometimes more than our strengths."
In 2004, long-time South Carolina Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings announced his retirement just as DeMint reached his self-imposed limit of three House terms. With Hollings relinquishing his 39-year hold on a Senate seat, DeMint tossed his name into the election hat and beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 10 percentage points. Then the frustrations began that transformed him into more of a rebel.
Now into his fifth year in the Senate, DeMint has grown impatient with the status quo, the inertia, and the insulation from regular Americans he says characterizes the body. "I see the Senate as a real obstacle in America's effort to turn around this expansion of government," DeMint said.
DeMint's ideological rigor has hardened in what has been called the "world's most exclusive club," where he ranks 98th among senators in net worth. "I am not going to be able to persuade my colleagues to do the right things, so I am just going to have to create pain."
That pain began in 2006 when his fight against pork-barrel spending killed more than 10,000 earmark projects totaling about $17 billion-frustrating colleagues but prompting The Wall Street Journal to dub him the "taxpayers' greatest ally." Predicts University of South Carolina political scientist Charles Finocchiaro: "There certainly are not going to be public construction projects named after him in South Carolina."
DeMint gained national attention in 2007 when he went against fellow Republicans, including President George W. Bush, by threatening to filibuster the immigration bill. His repeated objections to amendment votes throughout the debate defeated efforts to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. His intransigence "angered leaders from both parties," The Washington Post reported at the time. Closer to home it defined DeMint as "a gadfly," according to Furman University political scientist James Guth.
But DeMint offers no apologies or regrets for defeating what he calls a bad bill. The immigration debate gave DeMint a firsthand education on the power of public pressure, as voters flooded the offices of lawmakers with calls, emails, and letters. "It gave me hope that no matter what people inside Congress think they can get away with, if the American people know the truth and they get angry, then they get engaged."
Republicans, in DeMint's view, have gone in a different direction, trading in conservative values and principles for an addiction to spending and borrowing that he says even two successive election defeats haven't cured. "We betrayed the American people," DeMint said. "We didn't do what we said we were going to do, and Americans made us pay a price."
The senator, ranked by National Journal as the body's most conservative member in 2007 and 2008, continues to offer conservative alternatives even as his outsider status in the minority party means that his proposals likely won't see the Senate floor. He recently introduced health-care legislation that reduces government control of the health-care market and would be paid for by forcing companies to repay their federal bailout funds.
He was successful in July to add funding to a Senate spending bill ($150,000) calling for additional patriotic religious references at national landmarks, such as the Pledge of Allegiance phrase "one nation under God."
Speaking truth to power may not play well in Washington, but South Carolina Republicans love DeMint, according to Furman's Guth: "He's willing to fight for things because he is in no danger of losing his seat."
But the fight in Washington remains more challenging in the Obama era, according to DeMint. Immigration amnesty and earmark abuses are being overshadowed by government bailouts and takeovers. And Republicans haven't always offered clear alternatives. "I'm going to follow our leadership if they move in the right direction, and if not, I am going to go in the right direction and hope that others will follow," he said.
DeMint sees a return to the nation's Christian roots as the key to solving America's problems: "The decline of America's power and prestige has been directly related to the secularization of our country."
The Capitol Visitor's Center controversy is emblematic of the whittling away of religion in the nation's laws, economy, and culture. God-not government-is the giver of our rights, prosperity and freedom: "Things that work in a free society are based on principles that are derived from religious convictions," said DeMint. "Free enterprise doesn't work unless there is a whole lot of honesty and integrity."
DeMint says it's important for lawmakers to know that God is in control: "People who don't believe that try to got more and more control here, and do more and more things from here. They may believe there is a God but don't see Him playing an active role in our community."
DeMint wants everyone who shows up at the U.S. Capitol to remember that.