This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is a response to the flap over the religiosity of the new visitor center that opened last month on Capitol Hill.

Some religious right activists and far-right lawmakers, led in large part by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R), are outraged that the visitor center is largely secular. For example, near the center’s entrance, there’s an engraving: “We have built no temple but the Capitol. We consult no common oracle but the Constitution.” The quote comes from Rufus Choate, who served in the House and Senate in the 1830s, and DeMint described the quote as “offensive.” He’s also insisting that Congress spend $150,000 in taxpayer money to etch a reference to “In God We Trust” as the national motto into stone.

My friend Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State decided to check out the visitor center to see what all the fuss is about. He concluded that the conservative attacks “could not be more misguided and, frankly, foolish.”

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.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Barack Obama has requested that the words “so help me God” be added to the end of the oath of office, keeping with the presidential custom.

* Some fringe religious right activists have “anointed” the door Obama will use in the Capitol on his way to the Inauguration platform.

* The first anti-evolution bill of 2009 has already been introduced, with activists in Oklahoma backing a measure to have public school science teachers “help” students understand “scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” The topics specifically identified as controversial are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

* And finally, the New York Times reports, “The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a theologian who transformed himself from a liberal Lutheran leader of the civil rights and antiwar struggles in the 1960s to a Roman Catholic beacon of the neoconservative movement of today, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 72 and lived in Manhattan.”