Debate changer

"Debate changer" Continued...

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

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.
Email Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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