On April 21, a drenching rain forced 20 lawmakers to scuttle an outdoor event and cram into a small room in the Cannon House Office Building. But the rain did little to dampen their anger over U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's recent ruling that the long-held National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.
The members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus competed to come up with the most scathing adjective to describe the judge's decision:
"Disgusting. . ." "Disrespectful. . ." "An abomination. . ."
The tongue-lashing continued:
"Misguided. . ." "Nefarious. . . " "Absurd."
Their anger did not respect party lines. Republicans and Democrats alike made verbal punches for more than an hour.
Just one day after this gathering, the Obama administration announced it would challenge the court ruling. When I later asked Rep. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who founded the caucus, if the "prayer meeting" influenced the Obama administration's quick opposition, Forbes did something he didn't do at the press conference: He smiled.
After staying largely under the radar since its 2005 creation, the Congressional Prayer Caucus is cranking up its profile in the face of heightened threats against what its members call the nation's legacy of faith. Call it Prayer Caucus 2.0.
Forbes thinks the time is right for a united front among Christian lawmakers. "Americans, whether they have committed to their faiths or not, do not want secularization crammed down their throats," Forbes told me. "And that is what we are standing against."
Congress has dozens of club-like caucuses. They range from those based on race or ethnicity (the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus) to forums that fight diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. Issues like adoption have caucuses as do even hobbies like bike riding and bourbon drinking. The Congressional Songwriters Caucus is known to host a guitar-picking session from time to time on Capitol Hill.
Many caucuses serve largely as excuses for people with similar interests to have parties. But the 64 prayer caucus members (five are Democrats) say they want to do more than pray.
I met with Forbes recently in his Washington office, which is dominated by a wall-sized, framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Smaller framed portraits of its 56 signers surround the replica.
Forbes says anti-faith groups have raised vast sums of money to pick fights with religious organizations. "For decades now people of faith have said, 'We are just working our own ministries, and we are going to wait and play defense when they come after us.' Our strategy is different. We think we need to push back."
To do so Forbes set up the nonprofit Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation to raise both awareness and money. The foundation's website, which asks churches and individuals to sign up to pray for the nation on a "digital prayer wall," also offers $5,000 annual memberships to a club called the "300"-a reference to Gideon's army in Judges.
The money funds Forbes' signature strategy: franchising out the Congressional Prayer Caucus concept to state legislatures.
Mississippi became the first state to partner with the caucus. Mississippi's GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant spearheaded the effort after Forbes visited his office in February. At that meeting Forbes enticed Bryant by telling him Mississippi could help spread the movement around the country. "I immediately accepted the challenge because Mississippi is one of the most religious states in the nation," Bryant told me.
On April 22, a bipartisan group of more than three dozen Mississippi lawmakers crowded onto steps inside the state Capitol for a press conference on prayer. To make it official the state legislature even put it to a vote, unanimously passing in both the House and Senate a resolution that formed the state caucus. Next year a Senate Republican will lead the weekly prayer group while a House Democrat will take over in 2012.
Legislatures in Virginia and Florida are at work on similar partnerships.
It is through these state groups that Forbes hopes to change the debate over religion in public life. Many of the nation's legislatures already have prayer groups, but Forbes wants to bring them together into a nationwide network that tracks threats against religion. The D.C. caucus would serve as the clearinghouse where policy makers formulate and coordinate strategies.
"Here is the new world, if you send 100 lobbyists against us, we send two and a half million emails raising this issue," said Forbes. "Do you really want to fight that battle?"
The caucus had humble beginnings. Sensing an "enormous pincer movement" against faith groups, Forbes in 2005 decided to start praying in U.S. Capitol Room 219 located just across from the House chamber. He selected the time right after each week's first vote, usually on Monday nights or Tuesday mornings.
At first Forbes prayed alone. Then two or three joined in. Eventually dozens came for the 15-minute session. During the historic healthcare debate earlier this year, Room 219 had standing room only. "It's basically just like a Wednesday night Baptist prayer meeting," said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., who quickly added the group is interdenominational.
Lawmakers do not pray for or against specific legislation.
"We leave politics at the door," said Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from North Carolina who co-chairs the caucus. "Just as Solomon asked for wisdom in the Old Testament, we want to ask for wisdom each week for the decisions being made in the U.S. Congress."
When the House gathered for a rare Sunday session on March 21 to debate the healthcare bill, the caucus conducted an even more rare church service inside the Capitol's old House chamber, now called National Statuary Hall. In this room, ringed by giant statues representing historical leaders, about 300 members of Congress, their families, and staffs took part in the service.
Six different lawmakers in the caucus spoke, including Davis, who used Matthew chapter 6 to talk about the importance of prayer. Then a Catholic priest gave a brief sermon. The service echoed similar ones held regularly in the Capitol from 1800 to 1868.
The caucus has been very successful in stopping numerous subtle attacks on the nation's religious heritage:
In 2007 the caucus demanded the National Park Service stop hiding the inscription Laus Deo, meaning "Praise be to God," on a replica depicting the top of the Washington Monument. The Park Service redesigned the display to show the inscription.
That same year the caucus interceded on behalf of a 17-year-old Eagle Scout. Capitol officials denied his request to honor his veteran grandfather by flying a U.S. flag over the Capitol and including the words "for his dedication and love of God, Country and family" in an accompanying certificate. Instead he received a flag certificate certifying that the flag had flown over the Capitol but with the reference to God removed. After the caucus sent a letter, the architect of the Capitol reversed his decision to edit the word "God" from flag inscriptions.
Also in 2007, after a caucus counterpunch, the Veterans Affairs Department backed off a new policy banning all voluntary flag-folding recitations that referenced God or religion at military funerals.
Then, in 2009, after a yearlong battle, the caucus succeeded in getting the national motto "In God We Trust" engraved in the $621 million Capitol Visitors Center. Initially the center's designers had incorrectly labeled "E Pluribus Unum" as the nation's motto. This whitewashing infuriated Forbes and others during a preview tour of the center. The caucus members wrangled passage of a bill directing the architect to correct the motto and to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance prominently in the center that serves as the entryway for tourists visiting the Capitol.
"People say, 'I never thought this would happen in the United States.' But boom, it's there," Forbes told me. "The great news so far is that every battle we have gone after, we have won."
One of the first faith battles for the Forbes family came 66 years ago during World War II, when Forbes' 19-year-old and newly married father, Malcolm J. Forbes Sr., fought in Normandy. Somewhere in the fields of France, Forbes' dad prayed that if he got home safely he would have his family in church every Sunday. He kept that promise.
"I hated it," admitted Forbes. Now the praying soldier's son is working to keep the power of prayer alive in the public life of the nation his father defended.
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