You might not have heard about it, but one of the early exemplars of the evangelical in American politics died last week. Two decades before the Christian Right came of age, and evangelical politics calcified into the hawkish, socially conservative, and fiscally
conserva plutocratic mixture we recognize today, America’s most famous evangelical in Washington was a reasonably moderate Republican senator from Oregon. This man, Mark Odom Hatfield, served for 8 years as his state’s governor, and followed this office up with 30 years as a senator from 1966 to 1996, a tenure spanning seven presidencies. His career is an instructive one; it reveals the striking open-endedness of the evangelical enterprise in the 1960s and 1970s. With few models to draw on, Hatfield was able to rough-hew his own path, stake out positions in accordance with his own conscience, and his own understanding of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Hatfield’s reputation was not an accident, but one of intent and design. Mark Hatfield actively courted the mantle of “the Senate’s evangelical.” When Richard Nixon asked Rev. Billy Graham for recommendations for his vice-presidential pick, Graham offered Hatfield’s name, since despite occasional disagreements, Hatfield was the most pronounced Christian he could think of holding a significant political office. (This was a suggestion Nixon rejected outright; an antiwar choice would have alienated many of Nixon’s key constituencies and would have compromised the very tentative support Nixon enjoyed among Barry Goldwater supporters.) Hatfield published two books on his struggles to connect his faith to his political life, and he served as commencement speaker at dozens of evangelical colleges and seminaries during his senatorial career. This includes his famous address at Fuller Seminary in 1970, where he spoke on his obligation as a Christian to stand against the Vietnam War and to work against civil religion. But he also gave more obscure and less dramatic speeches at other colleges, including my own alma mater, Houghton. Hatfield actively got involved in many of the key evangelical youth groups, including Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, and World Vision. He started prayer meeting groups in the Senate, and worked hard to keep these events private, so that they could not be construed as currying political favor of evangelicals. My dissertation research (on McGovern, not the Oregon senator) revealed that Hatfield even routinely did some minor proselytization even among his fellow senators when sending them memos.
In spite of these qualities, Hatfield’s significance is not his outward professions of his faith, but how he integrated them into his role as a senator and how they guided the policy choices he made. Unlike Billy Graham, a man who has supported every U.S. military engagement since the 1940s (can any other living person in the country claim this distinction?), Hatfield worked to curb needless death and protracted war. When Hatfield’s death got a brief mention on the CNN news scroll, he was characterized a “vocal critic” of the Vietnam War. Hatfield remains most famous for speaking out against U.S. involvement in southeast Asia. In the mid-1960s, he was the only governor in the nation who refused to sign a statement of support for Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. More famously, he lent his name to the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, which would have cut off funding for the Vietnam War in such a way that the U.S. would have withdrawn from Cambodia 30 days after its passage, would have gotten out of Laos by the end of 1970, and out of Vietnam altogether by the end of 1971. But his dedication to peace went beyond America’s role in IndoChina; he also opposed the first Persian Gulf War (although he curiously supported the war in Iraq in 2003), and worked to limit underground nuclear tests and arms build-ups. In this, he was party to the oft-forgotten anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, a stance that often positioned him against Ronald Reagan, a president from his own party and from a neighboring state.
In this, Hatfield often walked a lonely road, taking positions that were noxious to both his fellow evangelicals and all but the most liberal and northeastern of Republicans. He ended up casting the deciding vote that shot down the Balanced Budget Amendment in the Senate, wisely realizing that such an action would have tied the government’s hands in the event of a severe financial or military crisis. In retaliation, the ’94 “Contract with America” class of Republicans lobbied to remove him from his chair on the Appropriations Committee. In the 1970s, dozens of evangelicals wrote angry letters to him for his dovish stance on Vietnam, calling him an “ex-Christian”, and a “former brother in Christ.” One wrote, “I heard you speak at the Men’s Fellowship at my church a year ago and at that time you believed in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Now, because you won’t support the boys in Vietnam and you’re fighting President Nixon who has been placed there by God, I know you’re not.”*
Additionally, as I mentioned on this blog about a month ago, Hatfield was a great critic of civil religion. In conversation with many of the academics who brought civil religion into public discourse, the senator perceived that the conflation of U.S. nationalism and the practice of one’s faith created something dangerous and ruinous– not only to public discourse, but to the practice of the Christian faith as well. “Let us beware,” he once wrote, “of the real danger of misplaced allegiance, if not outright idolatry, to the extent we fail to distinguish between the god of American civil religion and the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.” **
These stances made him something of a hero to a generation of his co-religionists that are sometimes called the “Young Evangelicals.” These young seminarians, magazine editors, theologians, and professors had departed from the instinctive anti-communism and American nationalism that characterized their elders, and had been moved by the civil rights and antiwar movements to seek a broader social justice. Hatfield gave his support to the landmark Chicago Declaration, a bold statement of social concern for race, poverty, environment, and gender equality that a number of evangelicals who were no-namers then had signed. Sitting here in 2011, though, its signatories read like a “who’s who” of the evangelical left: Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, Tony Campolo, and many others. Hatfield was one of their earliest “respectable” supporters. His aide, Wes Michaelson, had found a copy of Wallis’s pre-Sojourners magazine, called The Post-American, and immediately gave a copy to his boss. Hatfield was gobsmacked at what he saw, and in short order was writing editorials and commentary for the preeminent magazine of the evangelical counterculture and social justice movements.
Despite these characteristics, Mark Hatfield often fit comfortably with the Republican Party of his time. Like many other evangelicals in the Senate, Hatfield steadfastly opposed abortion, even voicing support for the short-lived move behind a Life Amendment to the Constitution. This would have made abortion illegal in all cases except rape and the endangerment of the mother. Unlike his mainline Protestant brethren such as McGovern (or Birch Bayh or John Brademas or any number of others), Hatfield remained suspicious of seeking solutions that would have required more centralization, regulation and bureaucratization. Accordingly, he took the historical role of the evangelical, who stood outside the religious mainstream, and this usually made him resistant to the centrifugal forces of establishment liberalism (and as many of my readers know, I do not use “establishment liberalism” as a pejorative or an insult.)
Ultimately, Hatfield demonstrated that perhaps the best role of the evangelical Christian in society is one that is both prophetic and servile. It does not seek grandeur or prestige, and it makes bold to speak truths- and sometimes embarrassing, impolitic, and yes, inconvenient, truths- to those who hold power. One chapter in his treatise, Rock and a Hard Place characterized “Power as Servanthood”. In his defense of Christian politics, he wrote, “I have come to see more clearly the prophetic role any Christian is called upon to exercise within our political realm. Our witness within the political order must hold fast, with uncompromised allegiance, to the vision of the New Order proclaimed by Christ. Our allegiance and hope rest fundamentally with his power, at work in the world’s system and structures to bring about social righteousness in the eyes of God.”***
At once, this statement is both edifying and terrifying. In the hands of someone like Hatfield, these principles could be channeled to provide food for needy families, to stymie a devastating military policy. But in less scrupulous hands, a commitment to “the vision of the New Order” could be channeled for more sinister purposes, as the candidacies of Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, candidates with strong Christian nationalist roots, hint at. Not the least of these problems is that it circumscribes a role for the politician outside of Christianity, and does not directly address its baring on those citizens of the United States who did not share Hatfield’s faith. I have always argued that libertarianism might work if each libertarian was as personally scrupulous as Barry Goldwater. But this is not so; workers might be abused, the environment might be harmed, racial and gender discrimination may take place, and there is no means for redress or justice in such a worldview. By the same token, Hatfield’s mantle as the righteous outsider is benign enough when applied to the great causes of Hatfield’s life, but it becomes dangerous when the same means are applied to very different ends. So, while The Nation and a number of Christian journals and blogs are eulogizing Hatfield as an example of an era of bygone political courage, it would behoove us to take a slightly more nuanced and skeptical view. It is fitting that we remember Hatfield as a champion of peace, and as a long-serving and deeply competent governor and senator. Let us also use this remarkable man’s life as an opportunity to call into question those who seek righteous transformation and millenialism as the first causes of their public life.
*Robert Eells and Bartell Nyberg, Lonely Walk: the Life of Sen. Mark Hatfield, Chappaqua, NY: Christian Herald Books, 1970, pg. 73.
**Mark Hatfield, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976, 94.
*** Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 29.