June 22, 2012

The historic significance of the day was not lost on the congregation that packed St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom two Sundays ago.

People from across the region gathered to celebrate the anniversary of a church founded 145 years ago.

They also had come to hear the morning’s prized speaker: the 82nd attorney general of the United States, and the first African American, Eric H. Holder Jr.

St. Mary’s, the church my wife, Gwen, and I attend, was the vision of 28 free African American men and women, many of whom had been slaves themselves. What a sweep of history: from bondage to the top suite in America’s Justice Department, in the space of a few lifetimes.

It was a time of celebration, a moment to reflect on how far the church, and the nation, had come since 1867.

No more separate pews in corners of the church for “people of color.” No more whites first, colored second when Holy Communion is served. No more separate Sunday school classes for white and black children. No more Washington as a bastion of segregation.

June 10, 2012, was the day to take stock of the church’s rich history, to come hear the attorney general speak of the critical role, as he told the congregation, “that houses of worship and faith-based organizations always have played in strengthening this nation — and bringing us closer to fulfilling America’s founding promise of liberty, opportunity and justice for all.”

It was a day to listen as Holder held up for praise the redeeming power of God’s grace and the values of tolerance, nonviolence, compassion, love and — above all — justice.

He used the occasion to call for a renewed faith in the power of those values “not only to heal fresh wounds and bridge long-standing divisions but also to fuel tomorrow’s progress.” “Seize the opportunity,” Holder said, “to look upon our nation as the founders of this church once did: seeing both its history — however imperfect — and its future of limitless promise; understanding both its weaknesses and its strengths, appreciating both the challenges we face and the infinite opportunities that lie ahead.”

It was a good day.

But then, as the elders like to say, “up popped the devil.”

In fact, 23 devils.

Actually, they aren’t devils. They are the 23-member Republican majority of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who like to do devilish things such as recommending that the attorney general be held in contempt of Congress simply because they have the power and lust to do so.

Their pack is led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a headline-chasing publicity hound who never met an accusation too loopy to hurl. Issa got the Republican members to believe — or at least to say they believe — that Holder is withholding critical information from the panel. The committee’s 17 Democrats believe otherwise and voted against the contempt citation, noting that Holder’s Justice Department has turned over 7,600 documents relating to the issue that’s got Issa in a faux snit.

The issue is called “Operation Fast and Furious,” a venture of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed illegal gun buyers to take weapons to Mexico in the hopes that federal agents could track the weapons to a drug cartel.

Committee arithmetic being what it is, Issa got his way, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has promised a vote on the House floor next week if Holder doesn’t turn over all of the internal documents that Issa seeks. With the Obama administration citing executive privilege to withhold some documents, a nasty, partisan floor fight is likely.

Score one for cheap political opportunism.

Neither Fast and Furious nor Issa’s fake fury justifies the looming crisis between the House of Representatives and the Obama administration. This politically inspired dispute diverts attention from issues of real consequence. That’s the shame of it all.

Two weeks ago, the talk at St. Mary’s was about the urgent priority of fulfilling the promise of security, liberty, opportunity and justice for everyone in this country. It was all about progress and the ability to come together to realize the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. entrusted to us.

There was optimism in the congregation that Sunday morning. People in the pews seemed to share Holder’s view that the record of progress passed to them can be extended, and that, as he said, they should “keep faith — in the Divine, in one another, and in the great nation it is our honor to help lead — and our solemn responsibility to serve.”

It was all about shared purpose and common cause, collective efforts, individual actions and marching toward progress.

Alas, that was before this week, Darrell Issa and his devilish ways.

kingc@washpost.com