Dinner Highlights - 2010
Congressman J. Randy Forbes
Since his first election in 2001, Congressman Forbes has continued to serve in the United States Congress representing the Fourth District of Virginia.
Congressman Forbes has a wide portfolio, as he sits on the Judiciary Committee, and is Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. He additionally founded and chairs the Congressional Prayer Caucus, and has led this group of bipartisan Members in national efforts to protect prayer and our nation’s spiritual history.
Groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, the National Taxpayers Union, and the American Farm Bureau Federation have all recognized the work of Congressman Forbes. He and his family attend Great Bridge Baptist Church, where he has taught Sunday school for over 20 years.
Speech given by Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA-4TH) at the April 13, 2010, Religious Liberty Dinner at the Washington, D.C., Capital Hilton.
Thank you, Barry. It’s a privilege for me to be here this evening.
One of the things that I try to do well is to learn from mentors and to be able to absorb, either through osmosis or watching them or listening to them very diligently, the great things that we need to do. And one of those mentors, I think for many of us in Congress, is here today, and that’s Roscoe Bartlett. Roscoe, we just appreciate your great leadership in Congress for so many years.
One of the other mentors we had from Virginia was Senator John Warner. I used to travel with Senator Warner a lot, and one of the things he would always say is, he would have his own Beatitude which would be basically this: “Blessed are those who are brief, because they will be invited back.” So I will make sure that I try to honor that tonight.
Also I want to congratulate the award and medal recipients tonight for the great work that they have done. We appreciate that so much, and we thank you all for the fight that you do for religious freedom and religious liberty, not just in our country but around the world.
I was thinking as I was coming here tonight that oftentimes the complexities of life itself just seem to weight us down and to confuse us more than they do lift us up and give us direction. It’s oftentimes the simple truths that really kind of open the doors where we want to go, and perhaps provide light to the paths that we should be traveling.
Last week I had the occasion to be home for just a few hours. I’d come back from a trip that I had been on, speaking some places. I came back, and you don’t get to rest because your wife is always there with loving arms to give you that list of things that you need to do. One of the things that I had to do was to change the oil in my car, get it changed.
I got up early in the morning. It was a beautiful day, and I drove over to the car dealership, carried the car, and I thought, “It’s only $30. That’s what it normally cost to change the oil.” I said, “This is a good day—I’m only going to spend $30. I’m here on time, and I get to check off part of my ‘honey-do’ list.”
I walk in to the guy and I say, “Here’s my keys, there’s the car. If you would change the oil, I know it’s about $30.” He looks at me and says, “No-no-no.” He said, “It’s time for your gazillion-mile checkup, and that’s going to be $400.” And then he said, “And we need to flush the engine, and that’s another $179.”
And then I dared to say, “My wife is saying that the air conditioning is not cooling quite as good as it would. Would you mind just checking that?” I’m thinking, For $500 he’s going to check it free. But that doesn’t happen. He says, “Oh sure, $199 for that.”
So after that, I’m standing out on the sidewalk. It’s been 12 minutes. I went from $30 to $640! And I’m thinking this: I graduated valedictorian from my college class. I’m a United States Congressman. I went to law school. I was a partner in one of the largest law firms in southeastern Virginia. What just happened to me? How did I go from $30 to $640?
About that time this elderly man walked by. He was 81 years old, I found out later. I looked at him and said, “Well, how is your day going?”
And he looked back at me and said something that was so simple, but so profound. He said this: “It’s going great. The Lord let me get up today and see a day I have never seen before, and one I will never see again, and I’m not going to miss a single minute of it.”
I got on a plane later that day and traveled to New York. This man at the dealership clearly was not very wealthy, clearly didn’t have much money, but he was full of joy in his life. I went to New York, and I met with another individual who was 80 years old and at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. One of the wealthiest men in the country, very successful, a great guy. He’s produced plays, he’s done all kinds of things around the country. When I met him I said, “How are you doing?”
And he said, “I’m doing great! I got up today and I got to see a day that I’d never seen before.” And he said, “You know what? I knew it was going to change from the morning till the evening, and the people who don’t expect it to change are just foolish. All I had to do was be in there, and I got to watch it, and I get to live that whole day.”
And I thought, Here’s a guy that is probably economically not very wealthy on one end of the spectrum. Here’s a guy that’s incredibly successful and wealthy over here. But they both had a simple truth. And that simple truth was, “Today is a great and important day, and we can’t afford to miss it!”
It was a simple truth. But let me tell you another simple truth that has guided my life and most of my career, and I think most of what you do here. It’s simply this: In the marketplace of ideas, truth will win out. Now, it may not win out in 60 minutes. It might not win out in 60 days, and it might not win out in 60 years. But it will win out, if we give it an opportunity. And I was thinking that if we studied history and looked at all of recorded history, and we looked at that marketplace of ideas that history would describe to us, there would probably be as many products in that marketplace as the imagination could possibly dream up. But there would be two questions that would work their way to the top no matter what society you were in, what period of time you were in. Whatever you studied, there would be two questions that would always be blinking like neon signs, no matter what the period you were studying.
The first one would be this: What is the purpose and the meaning of life itself? Almost every group of people have wrestled with that problem and tried to ask it.
But the second question would be this: What rights and obligations do I have as a human being?
Now the reason I throw those two questions out to you is because equally important throughout history, if you look at it, it has been religion and faith that have always served as the skeletal backbone in the marketplace of ideas when men and women have been asking those two questions: What’s the purpose and meaning of life? What are my rights, and what are my obligations as an individual?
That’s why in my office in Congress—it was like every other office, I was sitting around one day and bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t get anything done. And I looked around the office and it was filled with pictures. But you know what? They were all pictures of me. They were pictures of me with some group of firefighters, or pictures with the President, or pictures with some ambassador, but they were all pictures of me. And as I began to look I realized what we do is look at those pictures all day long, and all of a sudden we begin to think, This is all about us!
So I brought my staff in, and they thought I was having a senior moment, but I said, “Take ‘em all down! All these pictures down!”
They kind of looked at each other, and said, “Do you really mean…?”
I said, “Yes, take ‘em all down. And here’s what I want on this wall. I want a copy of the Declaration of Independence, full size. And I want the 56 signers of that document on that wall. So every time we make a decision, we’re not looking at pictures of us. We’re looking at them and realizing whose shoulders we stand upon.”
And you know, when you look at that document, it is not just the looks. That document is so important. It is truly a magnificent document. Because that document, more (and Roscoe will throw something at me for saying this) more even than the Constitution of the United States, that document is the foundational document of freedom in the United States. I think it’s the foundational document of freedom in the world. It gives us the legitimacy for the Constitution itself. But there were some wonderful, wonderful things in there about faith and freedom that were so important to me. And two concepts in there were that we believed when we signed that document, when it was founded, when it was written, that all men had certain rights, “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.”
We can all quote them. They were unalienable. We couldn’t lose them. We couldn’t transfer them. We couldn’t be cheated out of them. My father couldn’t keep me from getting them. My son couldn’t take them away from me. But the government was there designed to secure those rights, not to give them to me. But God Himself had given them to me. And that was huge. Because what God had given to me, no one else, including government, could take away.
The reason I think that was so important is because I think the founders had a wonderful glimpse, maybe a moment in time, of what religion and religious freedom and religious liberty was all about. Because they understood the importance of faith and religion in the marketplace of ideas. I’ve often thought about this: How in the world could we have the right to the pursuit of happiness if men and women could not pursue the answers to those two first questions that I raised to you? And how could they pursue those two questions unless they had the freedom of religion and the freedom of their faith to be able to do it?
That’s why I believe that Jefferson wrote, after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. And that’s why I believe that our founders believed so much in the First Amendment. The First Amendment was never designed to be a brake on religion and faith going into the marketplace of ideas. But rather, it was designed to be a cruise control to keep the throttle open so that ideas of faith and liberty and freedom could come in.
If I could bring that list of speakers that was reeled out here before Barry introduced me back here, all of them were great speakers. But if I could bring one person in here tonight, anywhere in time and history, to talk about freedom or liberty, probably the guy that I would bring in here would be John Adams. And the reason I would bring him in is because he smelled and he tasted freedom in America before almost anybody else did. He fought to birth it through the Revolution, and then he served as president, helping to found it and to preserve it.
And if you were to ask him what he thought about faith and freedom, probably the best quote he had—and I quote him not because he’s a genius or because he’s right on every issue, just because he can articulate it better than I can articulate it. He said this. He said “Statesmen—“ and that’s giving Roscoe and I the benefit of the doubt—he said, “Statesmen can plan and they can speculate on liberty, but it is only religion and faith and morality that can birth the principles to establish it.”
I want you to just think about that one moment, because this is my fear of what we’re doing in the country today. Every place I see, we’re taking a “No trespassing” sign and we’re putting it up on the marketplace of ideas, and we’re saying, “This is not a place for faith or for religion to be discussed.” If John Adams was right, if John Adams could honestly say that if we can’t birth those principles to secure our freedom without faith and religion, how dangerous it is for us as a nation (or for any nation) to say we’re not going to have those concepts in the marketplace of ideas.
One day as I was traveling back to Washington I started looking at all the places where we were boarding up and saying, “No, faith and religion can’t come in there.” And understand this, the founders had a great idea. They said, “The reason we’re not going to pick one denomination over the other is because that’s a restrictor on the entrance into that marketplace of ideas.” But they never would have dreamed of keeping God out of that marketplace of ideas. But the reason they wouldn’t have done that is because that would have been a huge restrictor to keep ideas out. And I was traveling back to Washington, and I realized how important it was.
We have caucuses on everything in Washington, as you know. We have caucuses—you name it. In fact, Barry, they might even have a lawyer’s caucus. I haven’t seen that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had it! But in the history of our country we’d never had a prayer caucus, never. I remember walking in and telling my staff, “We need to establish the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Because we’ve got to draw a line in the sand of this boarding up in the marketplace of ideas and trying to keep faith and religion out of it, because it’s important that we keep the doors open, and that faith and religion not dominate the marketplace of ideas, not control it, but have a seat at the table.”
Now, once again, they thought I had aged quickly, and they looked at me and said, “There’s no way, no way that’s going to happen.”
And I said, “It will happen; I’ve drafted it. Turn it in.”
Shortly thereafter we had every lawyer that was available in the Capitol who paid a visit to my office. And I still remember, they were all seated around, and they said, “Congressman, how flexible are you on this?”
And I said, “I’m very flexible. What would you like for me to do?”
And they said, “Would you consider changing the name?”
And I said, “Sure. Do you not like the word ‘Congressional’?”
And they said, “No, no, no, that’s OK.”
And then I said, “Do you not like the word ‘Caucus’?”
And they said, “No, no, we don’t have a problem with ‘Caucus.’”
And I said, “Well, what do you want me to change?”
And they said, “Would you consider changing the word ‘Prayer’ to ‘Spirituality’?”
I had a young lady who worked for me, very sharp, always been quiet, never expressed her faith very much. I still remember (she was about 30 years old), she sat in the corner. She jumped up (and they’re not supposed to do this, of course), and she said, “He would never consider changing that name from ‘Prayer’ to ‘Spirituality.’”
And I looked at the chief lawyer and I said, “You know, she’s young, but she’s right. I wouldn’t do that.”
And then he said, “Can you tell me the precedent for doing this?”
On my wall in my office, I had a picture of the first prayer in Congress. And I looked at him and I said, “What about that?”
And to his credit, he looked at the other lawyers, he looked at me, and he said, “I think that’ll do.”
And they signed off for the first time a formal Congressional Prayer Caucus for the United States House of Representatives.
And let me tell you why it was important. Because prior to that, every time an issue of religious freedom or religious liberty came up, Trent would have to hunt me down, I’d have to hunt him down, Roscoe would have to hunt us down. And getting members of Congress to do that before something goes through is very, very tough. Today, with the Prayer Caucus we can walk on the floor with a letter, and we can have 100 members of Congress sign it within an hour, getting it signed. And let me tell you some of the successes we’ve had.
Many of you remember when you had the Washington Monument and the attempt by the Park Service. As long as any of us could remember, you could walk in the bottom of the Washington Monument and there was a replica down there of the inscriptions on the top, one of them saying basically in Latin, “Praise be to God.” It’s designed so that when the sun would come up in D.C., it would shine on those words, the first thing.
The Park Service came in, they pushed that replica over to the wall where you could no longer walk around it and see the part referencing God, and they took every single reference to God off the wall. We went in to bat; they reversed that decision.
The Veterans Administration came in. And for as long as we could remember, you could have a flag folding ceremony on a voluntary basis in a funeral for a veteran, people who had given their lives in sacrifice for our country. But because one component of the 13 parts of that flag folding ceremony mentioned God, the Veterans Administration banned it, and you couldn’t have it. The Prayer Caucus went to work; they rolled that back.
The third thing is flag certificates. For as long as we could remember, we could fly flag certificates over the Capitol, and we could dedicate them to whoever we wanted, for whatever reason. A young Boy Scout in Michigan wanted to have a flag flown over the Capitol for his grandfather, and this is what he wanted to put on there: “To my grandfather, who taught me to love my God, my country, and my family.” The architect of the Capitol said, “No, can’t have the word God on it.” After arguing with him for two and a half hours, he literally told me the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag should not be on the flag certificate because it contained the word, God.
Four days later and 2.5 e-mails, he reversed that decision, and today you can have God once again on those flag certificates.
But the biggest thing of all was in the Visitors’ Center, $621,000,000. When we could walk into the Visitors’ Center for the first time and they let us see it. “In God we trust” had been removed. And if you looked behind where the speaker’s podium was, instead of “In God we trust” as it is on the House floor, it had stars that would go there, and the picture in there was cropped out of the actual House floor where it said, “In God we trust,” and they wouldn’t even have the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag because it contained the word, God.
Fortunately the bill had a technical amendment, and when it came back members of our caucus stopped the bill on the floor until about 10 o’clock that night, when they finally came over and said, “What do you want?” If you walked in to the center of the Visitors’ Center, engraved in stone it said our national motto, “E pluribus unum.” That was not our national motto. We said, “We want you to take that off.”
And they said, “You mean, pull it out of the stone?”
And we said, “Pull it out of the stone, because it’s not our national motto.” They did.
They said, “What else do you want?” We said, “We want ‘In God we trust’ put in the Visitors’ Center.” Today when you walk in the Visitors’ Center, “In God we trust” is engraved in that Visitors’ Center.
We said, “We want the Pledge of Allegiance put in there because the Pledge of Allegiance needs to be in stone.” Today the Pledge of Allegiance is in stone.
And the last case I want to tell you about is one that many of you have probably read about. Many of us never thought, where we had literally the criminalization of prayer in the United States in Santa Rosa County, Florida. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. Frank Lay, Robert Freeman, you had a principal, athletic director. Their big sin, the thing that they did that was so tragic, was that the principal dared to ask the athletic director to do a 16-second blessing over a meal. For that they were carried into federal court under criminal charges, to be put in jail for 6 months, to have a $5,000 fine, to have their retirement pulled back. One had 30 years of service and one had 40 years of service.
The Prayer Caucus signed a letter. We had 60 some members. The Washington Times printed it first, front page. On Thursday night the federal judge dismissed that case against those two individuals for simply having a prayer that they had at that time.
And in closing, I just want to tell you a strategy that I think is important for us to think about and follow across the country today when we talk about religious freedom and religious liberty. We are going across the country state by state. Mississippi’s doing it, Virginia’s doing it, we’re on to Minnesota, then Georgia and Florida, establishing prayer caucuses in every state legislature. Why? Because it will be the first time that we have a clearing house of ideas and concepts that can come quickly when these cases move, and we can see them across the country. And we’ve even had calls to go to Oregon now, and California, to try to establish them.
We thought at first it was going to be limited to the United States. We’ve now had representatives from France, Canada, Norway, and Africa coming and saying, “How can we partner with you with prayer caucuses across the globe, to be able to make sure these issues are coming back, and we’re talking about them?”
And the final thing I want to say is, I think it’s important we get everybody in the fight. We’ve got to continue to do this because I think religious freedom, religious liberty is at the heart of answering the two fundamental questions that make life worth living: What’s the meaning and purpose of my life? And what are my rights and my obligations?
I believe the fight for religious freedom is growing stronger, but I’m excited just to be in that fight and to continue to see the First Amendment reach its goal as the Supreme Court stated, to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail. I believe it’s going to be a marketplace that always allows faith and freedom, not to dominate, not to control, but to have a seat at the table.
Thank you for your part in that fight, thanks for letting us continue to do it, and thanks, Barry, for letting me be here tonight. God bless you.