WASHINGTON — Bible reading wasn't on the itinerary. But when Hun Jang stepped off a Washington tour bus this week and heard scripture coming from the west lawn of the US Capitol, he walked over to see what was going on.
Volunteers at the 17th Annual US Capitol Bible Reading Marathon invited the South Korean soldier to the podium. He began at Proverbs 5 - "My son, attend unto my wisdom ..." - using a Korean Bible, one of 84 translations on hand. "I feel really good when I am reading the Bible," he says. "I feel something full in my mind."
The 90-hour marathon, which will include readings by about two dozen members of Congress and their staffers, is a lead-up to Thursday's National Day of Prayer. President Harry Truman signed the day into law in 1952 as an interfaith event. But in recent years, evangelical Christian groups have taken the lead in organizing activities around the day, especially those located near seats of government. And in Washington, as in real estate, location counts.
Critics say that evangelical groups and their allies in Congress are staging events like the Bible Marathon near centers of power as a bid to link secular Washington to Christian ideals. Supporters say they're simply trying to remind people of the important role that faith played in America's founding.
It's important to have the event so close to the Capitol, says co-director Terry Shaffer Hall, citing Biblical accounts of the reading aloud of sacred texts at times of national renewal. "Most of the foreign visitors who join us for the reading can't read the Bible from the seat of their own government. It's precious to do it here," she says.
Starting with the book of Genesis, the Marathon will end with the reading in unison of the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. Organizers extended hours for this year's event, "so that the children who participate don't have to read so fast," Ms. Hall adds.
The marathon comes at a time of heightened debate about the role of religion in public life.
"The Congress is always under tremendous pressure to give some kind of official role to religion, and in an election year that gets even more intense," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
GOP leaders are gearing up to bring a number of issues on the Christian conservative agenda to the floor of the House and Senate in the next few weeks, including gay marriage, broadcast decency, the 10 Commandments Act, a cloning ban, and laws protecting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"There's going to be some trouble down the road if they don't get on the ball," said Dr. James Dobson, in an interview with the Fox News Network on May 1. He's the chairman and founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is helping to organize some 40,000 events for the National Day of Prayer.
Inside the Capitol, lawmakers and historians are winding down their debate over how prominent the Bible should be in the text and displays on the history of the Congress in the $522 million Capitol Visitors Center, slated to open in 2007.
For more than five years, staff from the Capitol Preservation Commission, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and staff of the leadership of the House and Senate have met almost weekly on Monday afternoons to make decisions on the Capitol Visitors Center, including the text and displays for the exhibition gallery on the history of the Congress.
"I'm concerned that the Capitol not be presented as a purely secular building," says David Barton, the founder of WallBuilders, a Texas-based group committed to "educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country." Also the No. 2 in the Texas Republican Party, Mr. Barton drafted a 20-page memo refuting points in the draft text for the Capitol Visitors Center. Circulated by then-majority leader Tom DeLay, the memo became a flashpoint in the final deliberations over the language of the exhibition.
"The Bible had a huge impact on the signers of the Constitution," says Barton, who says he has led hundreds of members of Congress on his Spiritual Heritage Tour of the Capitol. With the change in House leadership from Tom DeLay to Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, "I'm not sure how many of our ideas will be included," he adds.
Striking a balance between a glowing personal faith and respect for the beliefs (or nonbeliefs) of others is a theme of much current scholarship.
"For American politics, the KJV, either quoted directly or as a model of discourse, could not be more significant," said conservative theologian Mark Noll, in Washington last month for a talk at the Library of Congress on "The King James Version of the Bible in American History."
"When the language of the KJV was everywhere the common public language, it was very easy to bestow a sacred aura on public discourse," he says. "Politicizing the Bible can be a risk both for politicians and the faithful," he adds. But "if the Bible gets out of the public square, it's left entirely to the Internet and movies and TV - the lowest common denominator."