Congressman spreads gospel on Capitol Hill

Rep. Steve Palazzo of Mississippi
Rep. Steve Palazzo of Mississippi Courtesy of the Representative’s office

Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi has found a way to inject new meaning into constituent service – by obliging a request to distribute Bibles to his colleagues in Congress, all 534 of them.

Palazzo’s staff and student interns circulated the King James Bibles just before Congress began its summer recess, at the request of a 79-year-old constituent, retired businessman J.B. Atchison, who shipped boxes of them to the congressman’s House office in late July.

“On a daily basis, we contemplate policy decisions that impact America’s future,” Palazzo, an assistant majority whip, said in a “dear colleague” letter enclosed with the unusual gift. “Our staffs provide us with policy memos, statistics and recommendations that help us make informed decisions.

“However, I find that the best advice comes through meditating on God’s Word.”

In the letter, dated July 29th, he said that Atchison had provided the Bibles “as an inspirational and informational resource.”

Jill Duckworth, a spokeswoman for Palazzo, said that the congressman checked with the House Ethics Committee before proceeding and was assured that his endeavor wouldn’t violate House rules. He learned that Bibles had been circulated before, she said.

At his brick, one-story Biloxi home on Wednesday, Atchison said that he got the idea while reading the Bible himself. A copy of the Bible, worn with yellow highlights throughout, remains on his coffee table.

“A thought came to me,” he said. “I said, ‘Boy, if some of our lawmakers would read this and abide by it -- and God almighty is the real lawmaker -- I thought rather than doing things for reelection or help me now, help you later maybe reading this and reading about the Commandments would make them feel that there's things more important in life than just getting ahead for themselves.’ I just got kind of inspired to do it.”

He actually shipped 552 Bibles, he said, including some intended for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.

Palazzo was traveling in Asia on Wednesday with a delegation from the House Armed Services Committee and unavailable for comment while barbs were flying in his direction from the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Although the congressman laid his action off as constituent service, “there is a certain presumption and more than a tinge of proselytizing behind it,” said Rob Boston, the group’s communications director, who said he doubted that Palazzo would have agreed to distribute the Koran or copies of “Dianetics,” written by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

Boston said the group is concerned because of Palazzo’s “insistence that the Bible should be used to guide public policy.”

“The Bible is many things, but it’s hardly a manual for political action,” he said. “History has shown us that people can find support for almost any political stance in the Bible. If you listen to liberals, Jesus is a socialist who redistributes wealth. If you listen to conservatives, he’s a bootstrap capitalist and probably would have been a member of the NRA (National Rifle Association).”

The version that Palazzo circulated contained both the Old Testament and the New Testament, so its appeal stretched beyond narrow Christian denominations.

But a Congressional Research Service report at the beginning of this congressional session found that there are 247 Protestants in the House and 52 in the Senate, 136 Catholics in the House and 27 in the Senate, 22 Jews in the House and 11 (now 10) in the Senate, eight Mormons in the House and seven in the Senate, and two Buddhists in the House and one in the Senate. Not to mention two Muslims and one Hindu member in the House, and a smattering of Greek Orthodox, Quaker, Unitarian Universalist and Christian Scientists.

Atchison said that for congressmen and senators who don’t accept that Bible, “I didn't think of it as trying to convert anybody. ... I thought, 'Well, you don't have to read the book. Nobody is forcing you to, but how can you go wrong with being kind to people, love thy neighbor and all the things that are in the Bible?'”

Duckworth said that Palazzo has received thank you notes from some colleagues in Congress.

It wasn’t the first time that deep, Christian beliefs have surfaced on Capitol Hill this summer.

A few weeks ago, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, a tea party member from Texas, was taking testimony from the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United church-state separatist group, when Gohmert asked whether he believed in “sharing the good news that will keep people from going to hell.”

“I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or why one gets there,” Lynn replied.

Gohmert pressed on, asking whether Lynn believed people “would go to hell if they do not believe that Jesus is the way to truthful life.”

After several exchanges, Lynn said: “Congressman, what I believe is not necessarily what I think ought to justify the creation of public policy for everybody.”

The story was first reported by Washington, D.C.-based website Talking Points Memo.

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