By J. Douglas Holladay
A very special man and mentor, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, died earlier this month at age 89.
Senator Hatfield was a revered and grounded public servant. We met during my college years. The senator first impacted my life as the author who inspired me with his words. Later, he was the engaging politician to a young and passionate intern. Finally, he became a friend.
My college experience was significantly shaped by the Vietnam War when I was wrestling with the moral implications of all that was going on in Southeast Asia. What intrigued me about Mark Hatfield was his intense desire to align his personal faith with his various political stances. He saw no light between the two. To watch a U.S. senator struggle to understand the nexus of practical politics and orthodox theology was powerful indeed. It made a profound impact on a young staffer.
Hatfield was a rare breed in Washington, a liberal, pro-life Republican. I, too, was to the left in my thinking in those days – but migrated to the right over time. (As Churchill once mused, “If you aren’t liberal before you are 30, you have no heart. If you are not conservative after 30, you have no head.”)
The idea of Hatfield was important. Here was a successful politician in the rough and tumble of the blood sport of politics, yet one who struggled mightily to bring a living faith to his various policy determinations. He was a thoughtful, principle-driven, Christian politician. While not everyone agreed with him, one never doubted the integrity with which he approached his craft.
His was a more sophisticated version of the line, “What would Jesus do?” As a vociferous critic of our Vietnam policy, he often stood quite alone from his party. For Hatfield, the approval and fear of God determined his politics. He was comfortable in that skin despite its inherent loneliness at times.
His north star seldom wavered. This enabled him to embrace positions that were at times liberal and at times quite conservative. He had little need to adopt a narrative where compromise was off limits. He would never compromise on principle, but frequently on politics. He was not a ‘people pleaser,’ the dreaded Washington disease.
I thought of the good Senator on a recent Saturday morning when I was teaching a class at Georgetown University. I wrote his name on the chalkboard and told the students of Hatfield’s lonely Vietnam stance during those turbulent years. Then, I asked a question: “Have you ever taken a stance on anything which cost you something?” Only a handful, actually two, raised a hand.
Learning to stand alone for something, anything, you believe to be right is important. I urged the students who had never stood alone to spend some time contemplating the question of why they have never taken any such stance. It will be important in life. Mark Hatfield taught me that.
Hatfield’s faith enabled him to stand alone when he felt it appropriate. He became a staunch opponent of abortion, the death penalty, and war. Oregon political scientist Bill Lunch saw him as a “consistently pro-life politician”. Indeed. His views on Vietnam caused him to be passed over for the Vice Presidential nomination, a price he gladly paid for following faith and conscience, as he understood it.
As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he wielded enormous power of the purse. He was handsome, impeccably dressed, smart and articulate, and a bit reserved, which in combination made him intimidating, at least to me in those days.
Imagine my surprise at an informal Georgetown dinner party in his home where the Senator kept admiring my emerald green crew neck sweater. The fourth time he sang the sweater’s praises was enough. With his big grin, he implied that the gift of such a sweater would be appreciated.
The next morning, I was off to the cleaners, eventually dropping off a special gift to a special friend. He often wrote me notes conveying me how much he loved that sweater! This made Mark a bit more human to me.
Over the years, I had a number of long one-on-one conversations with Senator Hatfield about the importance of creating a ‘worldview’ that was informed by solid orthodox theology and robust faith. He was my first mentor who challenged me to consider all of life and reality as important to God. From the environment, to economics, to politics, to sex… everything matters to God.
Today, we have departed from such a comprehensive understanding of faith and frankly, use faith to support our personal bias rather than as a means to challenge our preconceptions. Hatfield spoke of the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. As Augustine articulated centuries earlier, those two worlds must intersect since the incarnation (God became man) is all about the divine entering a broken fallen world.
Hatfield was conversant with the German theologian Karl Barth who urged believers to have the Bible on one knee and the newspaper on the other. These two worlds must be in constant conversation. Hatfield taught me that.
Senator Hatfield gave fresh meaning to the prayer of Jesus where he taught His disciples how to speak with God. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Hatfield saw his life’s work as understanding practical ways to bring God’s Kingdom to a needy world. Talk about purposeful living! To have as one’s life goal to bring joy, hope, healing, love, peace, forgiveness, and other noble traits to our world is pretty amazing.
Thank you, Senator Hatfield. The two personal letters you penned to me after my mother, father and grandmother died within weeks, is on my wall. It reminds me that people in politics can be truly human, public servants if they study the model of the ultimate Servant. In one letter of September 21, 1982 you wrote words that resonate still:
You inspired me to avoid being ‘religious’ but rather fully human and a kingdom person whose clear mission is to give my life away for others.
You don’t become you, a true public servant, without a grounded philosophy that repudiates the political curse of hubris. You taught me that.