Conservative lawmakers bring God to Capitol Visitor Center

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Protests by conservative lawmakers led architects to promise to add "In God We Trust" as the national motto and to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance in the new $621 million Capitol Visitor Center.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, had threatened to delay Tuesday's opening of the marble-and-stone center that took seven years to build at triple the original cost.

The estimated 3 million people who tour the U.S. Capitol each year will now assemble in a grand monument-like building likely to become a tourist stop on its own.

After taking a tour of the visitor center in September with Steven Ayers, the architect of the Capitol who oversaw its completion, DeMint correctly noted that it had erroneously described "E. Pluribus Unum" -- Latin for "from many, one" -- as the national motto rather than "In God We Trust."

Despite winning a months-long battle to highlight the importance of religion in American life, DeMint said the center still misrepresents American history by downplaying the faith of the Founding Fathers and other prominent figures.

"The current Capitol Visitor Center displays are left-leaning and in some cases distort our true history," DeMint said. The center's "most prominent display proclaims faith not in God, but in government."

DeMint, rated the most conservative senator by several think tanks and advocacy groups, also protested an engraved statement near the center's entrance: "We have built no temple but the Capitol. We consult no common oracle but the Constitution."

That quote was uttered by Rufus Choate, a Massachusetts lawyer who represented his state in the House of Representatives in the 1830s and in the Senate the following decade.

"This is an intentional misrepresentation of our nation's real history and an offensive refusal to honor America's God-given blessings," DeMint said.

Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, along with Republican Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, joined DeMint in the protest.

In a recent letter to DeMint, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, agreed to make several of the changes he'd sought.

"We agree in principle to support engraving 'In God We Trust' in stone in a prominent location within the Capitol Visitor Center; engraving 'The Pledge of Allegiance' in stone in a prominent location ... and removing the words 'Our Nation's Motto' from the Unity panel on the Wall of Aspirations of the Exhibition Hall ... and replacing it with a new panel," Feinstein and Bennett wrote to DeMint.

Feinstein is chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees the new visitor center. Bennett is the panel's senior Republican.

The two senators acknowledged that it was a mistake to call "E. Pluribus Unum" the national motto.

Feinstein and Bennett noted that the changes compelled by DeMint and the other conservative lawmakers would cost $150,000.

Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman, responded, "These historical mistakes occurred under Senator Feinstein's watch, and she is responsible for any additional costs."

For now, "Our Nation's Motto" has been plastered over so that it no longer describes "E Pluribus Unum." That phrase is on a ribbon over an eagle on the official seal of the United States.

In emphasizing religion in American history, DeMint was "referring to our Judeo-Christian heritage," but he wasn't excluding Islam or other religions, Denton said.

Asked whether a passage from the Koran would be appropriate for the Capitol Visitor Center, Denton said it would depend on its context in American history.

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