Womack highlights U.S. Capitol’s history, religious attributes ahead of National Prayer Breakfast

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (right), R-Ark., helps lead a spiritual heritage tour at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in this Feb. 1, 2023 file photo. Womack led a similar tour for a group on Jan. 31, 2024, with stops in the Rotunda as well as the Congressional Prayer Room. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (right), R-Ark., helps lead a spiritual heritage tour at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in this Feb. 1, 2023 file photo. Womack led a similar tour for a group on Jan. 31, 2024, with stops in the Rotunda as well as the Congressional Prayer Room. (Courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., has made more than 8,000 consecutive votes during his time in the House of Representatives.

Some of his final votes for the week happened Wednesday evening when the House passed legislation addressing the expansion of the child tax credit and current laws for non-citizens convicted of driving under the influence.

After the vote, Womack rushed through the U.S. Capitol toward the legislative building's south entrance. Womack, of Rogers, wasn't trying to leave for the night, but rather meet a group of people at the entrance ahead of a tour.

Womack has become well-known on Capitol Hill for his interest in providing tours of the Capitol during his free time. Wednesday's tour was a special occasion, with Womack serving as a sponsor for a group visiting Washington, D.C., for the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

"I am a privileged congressman. I have an opportunity to go places that normal people don't get a chance to go because of my position," Womack told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I realize that I am their opportunity to see something that they would otherwise never have seen, and it makes me feel really good."

President Joe Biden and congressional leaders spoke Thursday in the Capitol's Statuary Hall as part of this year's National Prayer Breakfast, a long-standing Washington tradition uniting lawmakers and religious leaders across political parties and religious affiliations.

"I have long believed we have to look at each other even in our most challenging times not as enemies but as fellow Americans," Biden said Thursday.

"My prayer, my hope, is we continue to believe our best days are ahead of us. That as a nation we continue to believe in honesty, decency, dignity and respect. We see each other not as enemies, but as fellow human beings. Each made in the image of God, each precious in his sight."

Twelve hours earlier, as Womack faced around 60 people from across the country, he asked the group to say a few prayers for Congress with the hope they could "kind of massage the polarization of our country, and maybe bring very bitterly divided sides kind of back together."

"That's what government's really all about," he added.

Billed as a "spiritual heritage tour," Wednesday's event marked the second consecutive year Womack has sponsored such an evening tour. People affiliated with the National Prayer Breakfast had contacted Womack before last year's event about giving a tour, fully aware of his fondness for providing Capitol tours.

Legislative chaplains and historical theologians join lawmakers on the events and provide historical and religious perspectives on the Capitol's architecture and art.

While the Capitol and congressional offices offer tours, these outings often follow a set path with limitations on what people can see.

"It's a little bit different from other Capitol tours," said Rob Fields, the legislative chaplain to the Pennsylvania General Assembly who helps National Prayer Breakfast groups. "This Capitol tells so much in so many ways where faith is intersecting. It's not that it's competing, but it actually is complementary of faith and the hallways of government."

One of Womack's stops on the tour was the Congressional Prayer Room located near the Capitol's Rotunda and not accessible to typical tour group. Congress authorized the creation of this space in 1954; Womack emphasized it was Rep. Brooks Hays of Arkansas who introduced the coordinating resolution.

"To come in [the Capitol] and express your faith, recognize your faith -- even to be in silence meditation -- you didn't have a place for that," Womack told the tour attendees.

Hays, a native of London, Arkansas, served in the House from January 1943 to January 1959. Toward the end of his congressional career, he became president of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the few lay people to serve in this capacity.

"He crafted legislation, got it signed into law and created this room," Womack said during his presentation. "This room was created out of respect for the foundations of faith that went into the formations of this country."

At the front of the room is a stained glass window showing George Washington kneeling in prayer, surrounded by the words of Psalm 16:1 -- "Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust" -- and text from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address: "This nation under God."

"It just is important to me that when people are visiting the nation's capital, they have an opportunity to see and experience the halls of Congress and the inner workings from the venue itself," Womack told the Democrat-Gazette.

As the tour continued, Womack led the group into the House chamber, which was empty after the completion of legislative business. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, who also has a reputation for giving evening tours of the Capitol, gave a presentation on the chamber's features and how the House conducts legislative business on the floor.

"They are being given a historical perspective by two members of the Arkansas delegation," Womack said. "That makes me feel good for our state. I like that, and I hope our state likes that."

Fields said the spiritual heritage tour gives people a unique understanding of the Capitol and Congress considering the timing of the National Prayer Breakfast. He noted the tour has been a highlight in prior years in part because of the lawmakers sponsoring the event.

"Some people just walked away with, 'You know what? I'm going to pray for you. I really do like you,'" he said.

John Stait, a longtime volunteer for the National Prayer Breakfast, said the tour gives people a chance to see not only the U.S. Capitol from a unique perspective, but also their political leaders.

"The most important thing is hope, because we're all getting beat down with the stuff that's going on, and it doesn't look good for the world," he said.

"If people believe in demons and evil, they concentrate on people in power. These brothers and sisters that have to put up with that and still be moving the ball down the field, it's a beautiful thing to be around them."

The National Prayer Breakfast provided a break from the current tone of national political discourse highlighted by a split Congress with a fractured Republican majority in the House and a slim Democrat control in the Senate.

During his remarks, Biden called on the nation to "remember who we are."

"We're the United States of America, and there is nothing -- and I mean this sincerely -- nothing beyond our capacity if we act together," he said.

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