in the Capitol Visitor Center
by David Barton
In the 1990s, the construction of a U. S. Capitol Visitor Center (a structure separate from but attached to the U. S. Capitol) was proposed to better control the flow of tourists throughout the Capitol building. The official ground-breaking ceremony occurred in June 2000, but following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was a renewed emphasis on building the Center as a means to provide better security at the Capitol and protect Members of Congress. (Prior to 9/11, the Capitol was open day or night to any citizen who wanted to enter.)
In August 2002, construction began on the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), and in 2004,
we were asked by leading Members of Congress to help them monitor the content of the hundreds of displays and exhibits in the proposed CVC. Those leaders understood the importance of presenting accurate information throughout the CVC, for 15,000 people go through the Capitol each day, including thousands of school children.
We were given full access to the proposed content for the CVC and we closely monitored those materials, filing regular reports with congressional leadership. We found much objectionable content including not only inaccurate historical facts but especially a deliberate omission and even censoring of the rich religious history of the Capitol. An astute government researcher accurately noted that historical omission is one of the most effective means of producing a slanted bias:
[L]iberal and secular bias is primarily accomplished by exclusion. . . . Such a bias is much harder to observe than a positive vilification or direct criticism, but it is the essence of censorship. It is effective not only because it is hard to observe (it isn’t there) and therefore hard to counteract, but also because it makes only the liberal, secular positions familiar and plausible.
We detailed for the congressional leaders the many omissions and the liberal left secular bias evident across the hundreds of displays in the CVC. Much of the objectionable content was changed and the inaccurate material corrected – until congressional leadership changed following the 2006 elections. Since that time, there has been a full reversion to the liberal bias and historically inaccurate content originally evident in the displays.
Several House Members intervened with specific attempts to correct some of those problems – including former Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), who in October 2007 introduced HR 3908:
To direct the Architect of the Capitol to ensure that the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the national motto “In God We Trust” are each displayed prominently in the Capitol Visitor Center on a permanent basis and to prohibit the Architect from removing or refusing to include language or other content from exhibits and materials relating to the Capitol Visitor Center on the grounds that the language or content includes a religious reference or Judeo-Christian content.
The new congressional leadership refused to act on her bill – or to act on additional recommendations offered by other Members.
Those Members therefore concluded that the general public needed to be made aware of the situation within the CVC so that they could apply pressure to Congress. To that end, in early July 2008, we began work on an 8-minute video to highlight some of the many problems with the CVC. (That short video – “The War on God in America” – can be viewed on YouTube or at www.wallbuilders.com.)
While working on that DVD, on July 23, 2008, we were asked to give a formal briefing about the problems within the CVC to a group of several dozen House Members. Eight days later on July 31, 2008, 108 House Members sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol (responsible for the construction of the CVC), expressing their deep concern over what they saw (or rather, what they did not see) in the CVC, explaining:
We have been troubled to learn in recent weeks that some aspects of the new CVC – including displays, videos, and historic interpretations – may be historically incomplete and reflect an apathetic disposition toward our nation’s religious history. . . . It is clear that those who designed and developed the displays produced products excluding any significant references to God or faith. . . . In fact, not only is our national motto, “In God We Trust,” not a central theme of the CVC, it has been totally excluded from any effective presentation. . . . Some omitted facts are so glaringly obvious that to exclude them offers a distorted view of American history that is not acceptable to us and that we believe will ultimately not be acceptable to the American taxpayers. None of us should want to construct a $621 million shrine to political correctness that does not accurately reflect a significant part of American history.
Under this growing pressure, the Architect promised to make changes – including the addition of the National Motto. Amazingly, the part of the Visitor Center designed to replicate the actual House Chamber omitted its prominent phrase “In God We Trust,” even though it’s boldly displayed in the actual House Chamber (and it is also displayed in the actual Senate Chamber). However, despite the promises, no changes were made by the Architect. (The Architect had previously been a central figure in the national controversy about prohibiting the word “God” from the personal flag certificates that Members of Congress award to individuals to commemorate notable achievements and events.)
Shortly after that letter was sent to the Architect, our “War on God in America” video was released. Many Members posted it on their own websites and even showed it at town hall meetings to urge citizens to put pressure on congressional leadership. Media stories and viral marketing also spread the word, thus further increasing the public pressure. In September 2008, an opportunity finally arose in Congress to make positive changes.
When the CVC was originally proposed in the 1990s, it was projected to be a $71 million structure. By 2000, the proposed price had risen to $265 million, and when construction finally began in 2002, the predicted price tag had soared to $368 million, with construction to be finished in 2004. However, construction was not finished until late 2008, and the price tag was $621 million – four years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Because of the numerous cost overruns, the CVC repeatedly returned to Congress seeking more money, and in September 2008 they sought the final monies necessary to finish the facility and open it to the public in December 2008. Additionally, HR 5159 was introduced to transfer the permanent administrative authority over the CVC from the congressional oversight committees and move it to the Architect of the Capitol. This situation offered Members an opportunity to leverage positive changes in the CVC.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), supported by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), placed a hold (that is, a complete stop) on the CVC transfer bill unless specific positive additions regarding religious content were made. Although Senate leadership warned DeMint that “Delaying the opening of the CVC has serious security implications . . . [and] significant financial consequences,” Sen. DeMint held firm.
On September 25, 2008, DeMint agreed to release the measure if (1) the National Motto and the Pledge of Allegiance were engraved in stone in the CVC, and (2) the errant declaration was removed that E Pluribus Unum was the national motto. On September 26, Senate leadership agreed to his terms (although complaining that adding the National Motto and the Pledge would cost an additional $150,000). Having achieved this victory, on September 27, Sen. DeMint took to the Senate floor to announce the agreement and highlight some of the problems within the CVC:
In touring the CVC, I found the exhibits to be politically incorrect, left leaning, and secular in nature. The secular aspects were especially surprising because of the deep connection between faith and the Capitol and our Judeo Christian traditions. . . . The first thing you are confronted with once you have entered the CVC is the phrase “E. Pluribus Unum” engraved in stone above a mockup of the Capitol dome. A panel next to the dome describes E. Pluribus Unum as our Nations’ motto. This is not only completely false but also offensive to the 90 percent of Americans who approve of our Nation’s actual motto “In God We trust,” signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Unfortunately, nowhere in the CVC will you find the words “In God We Trust” engraved in stone. The acknowledgment of God and our Nation’s motto has been left out of the CVC. In fact, the massive replica of the House Chamber omits the “In God We Trust” from above the Speaker’s chair. We are now told they are planning to fix this “mistake,” but on my tour 2 days ago, it was still missing. Also missing are the words to our Pledge of Allegiance – the only words spoken each morning by both Chambers of Congress.
The Architect of the Capitol, under increasing pressure and media attention, finally relented and placed “In God We Trust” in pinned bronze letters above the section in the Visitor Center designed to replicate the actual House Chamber.
Over on the House side, Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) declared that the CVC was a “$600 million dollar godless pit,” and the108 Members of the House who had earlier written the Architect of the Capitol authorized Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) – head of the Congressional Prayer Caucus – to negotiate on their behalf with House leadership. On September 26, 2008, Randy laid out their demands for the CVC, explaining:
As Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, I am writing on behalf of over 100 Members of Congress who recently contacted the Acting Architect of the Capitol sharing our concerns about the historical inaccuracies in the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC). Specifically, we are concerned about the lack of content that accurately represents our nation’s religious history and the principles on which our nation was founded. . . . We are requesting that the following changes be made to the new CVC before it opens on December 2, 2008:
- That the phrase “Our Nation’s Motto” be removed from the plaque describing the engraving of E. Pluribus Unum;
- That “In God We Trust” be engraved in stone in a prominent location within the CVC and that the panel describing the engraving include the proper recognition of this phrase as our national motto;
- That the Pledge of Allegiance be engraved in stone in a prominent location within the CVC;
- That there be a significant permanent display of religious history in the U. S. Capitol, reflecting the rich tradition that prayer, acknowledgment of God, and Judeo-Christian traditions have played throughout the history of the Capitol, and comparable in size relative to other themed displays; and
- That there be an ongoing effort to investigate and correct historical inaccuracies throughout the Center.
On October 1, 2008, Randy submitted eight essential items to be included in the permanent display on the Judeo-Christian religious history in the Capitol, including:
1. History of the Chaplaincy of the House and Senate, to include a list of the chaplains who have served and the different faith backgrounds of each.
2. History of the Capitol as a Church, including the fact that (1) religious services took place in the Capitol when Congress was in session and was an official function of Congress, and (2) that in 1867 the Capitol was the largest church in Washington with 2000 people attending weekly.
3. A list of the “firsts” who preached or prayed at the Capitol and excerpts of their text, such as: Dorothy Ripley – first woman to preach in the Capitol (1806) [President Jefferson was in attendance]; Bishop John England – first Catholic to preach in Capitol (President John Quincy Adams present, 1826); Morris Raphall – first Jewish Rabbi to open the House in prayer (1860); Henry Highland Garnet – first African American to speak in Congress, and he preached a sermon…just two weeks after the 13th Amendment passed (February 12, 1865);
4. “God Bless America” sung in unison by the Members of Congress on the steps of the Capitol on 9-11 after the terrorist attacks.
5. Photos/reference to Members reading during the Annual Bible Reading/National Day of Prayer events;
6. Congressional Resolutions Requesting Presidential Proclamations for days of Thanksgiving and Prayer (Washington and Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamations);
7. The Aitken Bible of 1782 – “Bible of the Revolution” (with an informational placard explaining that it is the first English Bible printed in America and the first Bible ever to be printed as an Act of Congress);
8. Lincoln’s Bible and his 2nd Inaugural address next to the table at his side during the speech.
On October 2, 2008, House leadership agreed to Randy’s demands (just as the Senate had agreed to Sen. DeMint’s demands), but when the CVC opened two months later on December 2, 2008, still nothing had been done – the engravings had not been added, nor was there a permanent display of Judeo-Christian influence in the history of the Capitol.
National media outlets (such as The Washington Post, The Hill, National Review, The Washington Times, the Seattle Times, and many others) covered the CVC opening and talked candidly about its anti-religious bias and historical content problems. Senator DeMint also issued a press release that strongly criticized the CVC for ignoring its agreement to include the National Motto and the Pledge of Allegiance. He noted that the new structure “fails to appropriately honor our religious heritage that has been critical to America’s success. . . . You cannot accurately tell the history of America or its Capitol by ignoring the religious heritage of our Founders and the generations since who relied on their faith for strength and guidance. . . . The CVC’s most prominent display proclaims faith not in God, but in government.” Many pro-family groups (including the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and others) also spread the word; citizens responded and called congressional leaders, but still nothing happened.
On May 20, 2009, Congressman Dan Lungren (R-CA) quietly introduced a measure (very similar to Marilyn Musgrave’s original 2007 proposal) that would embody the agreements reached by the Senate and the House regarding the engravings in the CVC (at least 160 other Members of the House co-signed his measure). Working diligently with leaders of a few specific committees, but in a low-key unpublicized manner, Dan was able to garner agreement in both the House and Senate to pass H.Con.Res.131: “Directing the Architect of the Capitol to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the National Motto of `In God we trust’ in the Capitol Visitor Center.” That measure was approved by the House on July 9, 2009, and by the Senate on July 10, 2009. (Because it was not a public law but only a decision by Congress of the policy to be followed within its own building, the measure did not require the president’s signature.)
As soon as the measure passed, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (located in Madison, Wisconsin) promptly filed suit in federal court to prevent the phrases from being inscribed inside the CVC. However, on September 21, 2009, the day that the Architect of the Capitol was officially served with the lawsuit, the phrase “One Nation Under God” had already been finished. And before the lawsuit was scheduled for trial before a federal judge, by November 25, the Pledge of Allegiance had also been engraved inside the CVC.
Consequently, if any federal judge orders those phrases to be removed, they will literally have to tear down part of the CVC in order to remove the acknowledgments of God from the building! Many have joked about how Washington, D. C. would have to be sandblasted if the acknowledgment of God were ever ordered removed from public buildings, and the CVC is now another in the already long list of such structures (e.g., the Library of Congress, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the White House, the federal courts building, the U. S. Supreme Court, Union Station, etc.).
The Capitol Visitor Center is the latest in a lengthy tradition of federal buildings in Washington, D., C., including public acknowledgments of God. The fact that this tradition has continued is due to the hard work and committed leadership of several Members of Congress in both the House and Senate, including Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Randy Forbes, Rep. Dan Lungren, and others.