The United States of America lost an incredible political leader last night when former U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) passed away after a long illness. He was 89. In his two terms as Oregon's governor and five terms in the United States Senate he developed into what many called the "moral conscious " of the Congress, as he battled members of both parties by insisting that the needs of the "least of these in society" come first in budget debates, by fighting for civil rights before it was popular or safe to do so, and for taking on presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan over questions of war and peace and military spending. His politics were shaped by his deep Christian faith. There are lessons to be learned from his example today as politicians exploit religion for political gain in ways that he railed about.
In 1986, Senator Hatfield told Sojourners Magazine that as an evangelical Baptist he felt that:
I'm not one of those who believes you can compartmentalize between your public and private life, between your spiritual and secular life. As I understood my commitment to Christ, it was an integrated commitment in all aspects of my life. I often say that my first commitment is to the Lord, my second is to my family, and my third is to my constituents. Keeping them in that order, I feel, puts me in the best position to serve my constituents. I'm not suggesting my voting record should be blamed on the Lord. It's from my experiences, mixed with study, analysis, and intellect, that I take this position or have that viewpoint.
That way of thinking often got him into trouble. As Oregon's governor, before being elected to the Senate, he was the only governor in America not to support Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam. In 1968, Richard Nixon briefly considered naming Hatfield as his vice-presidential running mate but Hatfield's views on the war and record in support of civil rights drew opposition from Southern GOP leaders. Hatfield never felt easy about the controversy his positions sometimes created but he rarely wavered.
If you truly commit your life to the Lord, the opponent may end up getting more votes, but we've won, because that would just be another direction the Lord would be aiming me. That's different than saying, 'Here's my blueprint. I want two terms as governor, five terms in the Senate. Now ratify, dear Lord, so that I know it's your will.' It's my view that you commit your life to the Lord and not try to have your views ratified by the Lord.
Some liberals in Oregon voted against Hatfield based on single issues they disagreed with him on, such as abortion. Hatfield was pro-life, anti-death penalty and a strong opponent of war. As a pro-choice Christian, I had no difficulty voting for Hatfield in his final race (the only election he stood for in which I was old enough to vote). Hatfield himself said: "We are getting to the place where the single-issue mentality, a demand to conform to a certain viewpoint, is destructive to us as a people -- and also counter to our Christian faith."
As Hatfield told Sojourners, he faced increasing opposition from those on the Religious Right as that movement grew during the 1980s:
I knew when I went into politics it would be something that would divide people. Controversial issues have a tendency to divide people, and I expected that. But when it came to dividing people in the same church congregation, that got to be very difficult. In my first term in the Senate, I got a deluge of mail: "Dear former brother in Christ, I thought you were a Christian. Now I know you're not."
For me, there never was a question of Hatfield's Christian faith (just as today I have no questions about President Obama's Christian faith) even when I disagreed with him on important matters. People of good faith can come to different conclusions on difficult moral issues.
What I knew about Mark Hatfield was this: when I needed him he would come. In 1989, during a difficult period at a homeless shelter called Baloney Joe's that I served on the board of, Senator Hatfield visited at Christmas time and made a strong call for donations from the public and for more government funding for affordable housing and mental health care. Previously, in 1987, he went toe to toe with President Reagan until the president finally dropped his opposition and signed the McKinney Act (now called the McKinney-Vento Act), the nation's first federal response to homelessness. That Act remains the linchpin in America's efforts to address homelessness today.
A faithful Baptist who loved the Lord, you could not find a more committed follower of Christ. He spoke often of his faith but was also critical of those who tried to turn faith into something purely political:
I am basically suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for everyone within the Christian faith. And I get so uptight about those who purport to speak for the Lord for political reasons. That to me is saying, Here is the political agenda that is, in effect, a substitute for the biblical gospel. Peter was asked by the Lord one question: "Who do you say I am?" He gave the right answer, and it wasn't "plus school prayer," "plus abortion," plus any kind of a political agenda. I'm pro-life, very strong pro-life. But having taken that position, I still feel that there are those I have run into who may have even a closer walk with the Lord than I have, and who may be pro-choice. But that's not what Christ asked Peter, "Are you pro-choice or pro-life?" Some people ask me, Aren't you concerned about your party being taken over by the Religious Right? I say, I couldn't care less about the Religious Right as it relates to my party. It's an embarrassment, but what I'm really concerned about is the impact it's having on the cause of Christ--that somehow I'm going to come into a relationship with Christ by agreeing to their political agenda. That is not the key to salvation from the biblical teaching.
Those words take on special meaning today as candidates and political organizations mobilizing for the 2012 elections continue to claim that God "calls" them to office and sets their political platforms. Senator Hatfield was a faithful man who also felt called, but always humbly so. His heart was huge and while, like all, he was imperfect, he never pretended to be otherwise. He will be remembered in Oregon and across the nation as a United States Senator who, guided by his faith and respect for the pluralism of our nation, fought to reconcile a fractured world.
Follow Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RevChuckCurrie