WASHINGTON — Most people who walk through the Rotunda of the US Capitol see it as an impressive room - the fount of American democracy in 8.9 million pounds of masonry-covered cast iron. For Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, it's a "cloud of witnesses" to the prospect of a religious revival in the US.
"The Rotunda is really a cathedral," he says, noting the murals around the wall that include Pilgrims praying, the baptism of Pocahontas, De Soto planting a cross on the banks of the Mississippi, and, at the very top, George Washington passing into heaven.
Here, in a strictly members-only session, Senator Brownback and others recently led a congressional day of prayer and reconciliation - the first since President Lincoln and his Congress declared one during the darkest days of the Civil War. The two-hour meeting last month, which included nearly one-quarter of the members of the House and Senate and ended with lawmakers repeating the Lord's Prayer on their knees, highlights how public expressions of faith have become in the wake of Sept. 11 - even in the halls of government.
Many Americans, to be sure, have turned to prayer for comfort and support since the attacks. But some find the combination of patriotism and religion being practiced so openly in the marbled corridors of Congress deeply troubling, given how embedded the idea of a separation of church and state is to the nation. "There have been fights from the beginning, and throughout the centuries, over whether there should even be prayers in Congress," says Richard Baker, Senate historian.
For decades, the religious life of the US Congress has been one of the better-kept secrets in Washington. Each Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers hold a prayer breakfast. There are also weekly Bible study groups on the Hill. Cameras are barred. Lawmakers like it that way.
But Sept. 11 brought issues of faith to the surface, especially after Congress was the object of the largest biological-agent attack in history. In addition to public moments, like the singing of "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps, there were spontaneous calls for prayer as lawmakers evacuated the morning of the attack.
"We prayed for reassurance of the fact that we are a nation under God, and whatever the attack, we could call on Him for strength and the courage to face it," says the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, the Senate chaplain.
Later that day, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut called for prayer, as members waited at Capitol Police headquarters for a first word from their leadership, still in seclusion. A prayer session for staff later that week drew hundreds.
In many ways, the anthrax attack was even more challenging to the ability of the Congress to function. The disruption of daily life (half of the Senate is still barred from their offices in the Hart Office Building) was wearing. Even worse were the constant rumors of unseen deadly threats in the air, present or to come.
"I've had more discussions with people about death, fear of dying, and immortal life [since Sept. 11] than in all my years in the ministry," says Chaplain Ogilvie. "The best way to deal with fear is to clarify your thought - to ask yourself, 'what are the convictions that cannot be compromised.' I really believe that love casts out fear. Love and fear cannot exist together."
Some people began meeting to pray in smaller groups. Some who had barely ever had a personal conversation found themselves talking about God and faith.
"What an event like this does, is it allows one to express a deeply held personal religious belief and conviction in a public context," says David Rodgers, a GOP staffer. "It's suddenly relevant."
By some measures, the spike of religious activity after the terror attacks is already subsiding. Church attendance in many communities, for instance, is back to previous levels. But the perception that religion is increasing its influence in American life remains strong. A Dec. 6 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of Americans see religion's role increasing, up from 37 percent eight months ago. A Gallup survey put the number at 71 percent, the highest since the organization began asking the question in 1957.
Experts attribute this in part to the prominence official Washington is giving to religion. "The very public displays of religion by politicians and others have given the impression that religion is more ... influential in public life," says Charles Haynes, a scholar with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.
It's that combination of religion and politics that worries some groups. "Since Abraham Lincoln laced his inaugural address with a merger of patriotic and religious symbols, this tendency has been seen in the country on a regular basis," says the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Others see different problems. "When religious worship is entwined with expressions of patriotism and atheists don't participate, our patriotism is questioned," says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists Inc. Her predecessor, Madalyn O'Hair, led a successful fight to overturn school prayer in the courts. But she failed in a 1982 bid to ban the use of public funds for a congressional chaplain.
The reason prayer in Congress passes constitutional muster - and school prayer doesn't - is that legislative prayer is "deeply imbedded in this history and tradition of this country," said the US Supreme Court in a 1983 decision (Marsh v. Chambers). The court also noted that legislative prayer involves adults who are under no compulsion to be present for the exercise.
Even within Congress, the issue of how much prominence to give religion or prayer has always been sensitive. Historically, the balance has shifted during periods of national crisis.
The first calls for prayer to start legislative sessions date back to the Continental Congress. "The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men," Benjamin Franklin said at the time. During the Civil War, President Lincoln frequently called for prayer days. Prayer breakfasts started in World War II, after a senator quipped that a commission studying war issues could use divine guidance. A weekly version of the meetings endures today.