By JOHN FORTMEYER
SALEM — A statue in Washington D.C. is seen by many evangelical Christians as a visible and important reminder of Oregon’s Christian roots. But some are voicing clear concern about the state’s governor ‘s new focus on the artwork.
Gov. John Kitzhaber in late August issued an executive order creating a 10-member commission to review Oregon’s contributions to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.
That collection features up to two statues of prominent citizens representing each state; Oregon’s statues depict two pioneers — “Father of Oregon” John McLoughllin, who oversaw trapping and trading enterprises of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Rev. Jason Lee, missionary who founded Salem and Willamette University and organized the first provisional government in the Oregon Country.
The new commission will consider whether Oregon should replace one of the two statues representing the state.
“There has been significant legislative interest in recent years about who would best represent the Oregon spirit in our nation’s capital,” said Kitzhaber. “This is a forum for Oregonians to have a conversation about which historic and modern pioneers to showcase to Washington, D.C., visitors.”
Even though it’s coming from the governor, any new discussion on replacing the statue of Lee amounts to fightiing words for those Christians who have battled bills in the state Legislature the past two years that sought to remove Lee from the U.S. Capitol and instead have a statue of the late U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield.
Sponsored both times by Rep. Vic Gilliam (R-Silverton), who considered Hatfield a personal mentor as well as one of the greatest figures in Oregon history, the bill passed the state House of Representatives, but each time died because of inaction by the state Senate.
Both bills’ failure was a great relief to evangelical Christians who argued that Gilliam’s legislation denigrated the state’s spiritual roots by drawing attention away from Oregon’s Christian heritage. They now fear that Kitzhaber’s new proposal could do the same.
“Erasing our Christian roots seems to be the latest goal of the progressive Democrats in Oregon and around the nation,” said David Crowe, a longtime Oregon resident and now executive director of Tennessee-based Restore America, but who continues to be heavily involved in religious freedom issues in Oregon. “I assure you, if there is not a concerted and organized effort to stop this, they will make it happen under the guise of a ‘study’ ‘approved by the people.’ ’’
Similiar opinions were offered by Aaron Auer, director of ROAR (Restoring Oregon’s Amazing Roots) Ministries, who was the most visible opponent to Gilliam’s bills. Auer, who this year is the Constitution Party’s nominee for Oregon governor, often portrays Lee in costume during his ROAR Oregon presentations on the state’s Christian history.
Auer expressed deep concern that removing the statue would be yet another step in a dangerous long-term path being taken not only by the state, but the nation. Noting that the Legislature considered Gilliam’s bills under an emergency provision, Auer said elected officials might not grasp how serious the real emergency is.
“I do believe an emergency does exist, but the emergency is we are about to lose our heritage,” said Auer. “I do believe that if we don’t make a stand and preserve our heritage, (Islamic) Sharia law is coming into our nation.”
Auer also pointed out that his and Kitzhaber’s Republican opponent in the governor’s race, Rep. Dennis Richardson, had voted in favor of Gilliam’s proposal.
The commission will have nine voting members, with five appointments by Kitz-haber, two by House Speaker Tina Kotek, and two by Senate President Peter Courtney. Kerry Tymchuk, director of the Oregon Historical Society, also will serve in an advisory, non-voting role. The panel will hold public hearings in each congressional district and will solicit additional comment from schoolchildren and historical societies statewide. It must make its recommendations to the Legislature by Feb. 4.
Auer said he fears the result of the commission’s work might be a foregone conclusion — to remove the Lee statue. But on the other hand, he said, the public hearing process might be a golden opportunity to awaken Oregonians’ awareness of their Christian heritage.
“We are believing that the Lord can bring good from this,” Auer said.