The Common Good
September-October 1996

The Courage of Conviction

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1996

An interview with Sen. Mark Hatfield.

After reading the first issue of Sojourners' precursor The Post-American in 1971, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield wrote to the editors, "I believe you may be helping to ignite a new movement of the Spirit in our land." Hatfield, an evangelical Christian and a Republican from Oregon, has remained a friend (and served as contributing editor) of Sojourners since that introduction. He announced earlier this year that this term in the Senate, his fifth, will be his last. Sojourners editor Jim Wallis interviewed Hatfield in July at his Senate office in Washington, D.C. —The Editors

Jim Wallis: It's hard to believe, in some ways, that you're leaving the Senate. Ever since I've been politically conscious, you have been, in my view, the political conscience of this body. You have raised moral questions that no one else was raising.

I remember years ago you gave a wonderful Prayer Breakfast speech about Vietnam, and President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were there, and you talked about the war as a sin. You have always been one to raise what you felt to be the moral question, which derived for you from your Christian faith. Is it possible to link faith and politics in a place like this?

Sen. Mark Hatfield: 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.

Wallis: There are other Christians up here who would say similar things about faith as related to politics, who would say, "I put the Lord first," but their voting records tend to come out pretty much party line. Historically, you've angered the leadership of both parties sometimes with your much more independent stances.

Hatfield: My constituency in Oregon has a very independent attitude politically. I'm not sure my style could be tolerated very long in some other states.

I have never made a deal with Mephistopheles about my future. Once you start planning for a career in politics beyond the current term, you have in effect taken a major step of selling your soul to the political game. Then your staff begins to trim their sails of counsel, because they say, "Well, that's not going to play well in the next election." So I've never committed myself to more than one term at a time, and that is liberation.

Wallis: Is that a difference that faith makes?

Hatfield: Yes. 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.

Wallis: You were one of the earliest and strongest critics in either party against the war in Vietnam. The nuclear arms race, for you, was a deep matter of conscience, as were issues of hunger. How did you come to those convictions, which are not predictable for white, evangelical church people?

Hatfield: It wasn't that I sat down and weighed all the arguments for and all the arguments against and then said, This is my position. They really were outgrowths of specific experiences that made indelible impressions.

I was in some of the bloodiest operations of World War II, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In 1945, we were sent up the coast of China, where we saw the bloated bodies of little kids along the roadways, not killed by bullets but by starvation. After that, we were sent in to occupy Japan. One month after the bomb, I walked through the streets of Hiroshima and I saw the utter devastation in every direction from nuclear power. All of those experiences were really the fundamental beginnings of my thinking about those specific issues, of Vietnam, war in general, nuclear power, and hunger.

Wallis: You became a pacifist or...

Hatfield: Not quite.

Wallis: ...committed to nonviolence?

Hatfield: Nonviolence, yes. I can't be a pacifist because I bore arms and wore a uniform. When people say, Are you a pacifist? I say, "No, I haven't reached that level of thinking yet, but I'm very close."

Growing up, my parents had the utmost trust in me, but I always got this admonition: "When you're out, if all the other kids are doing it and you know it's wrong, stand alone, or come home." And that had its impact, that word to stand for what you believe, to stand on your convictions. So later, it was just natural to say, This is where I stand.

Wallis: You've received lots of criticism for your stands, particularly from Christians. It must have been difficult. Hatfield: It was difficult. 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."

Wallis: For Vietnam?

Hatfield: For Vietnam. My own pastor at home was very critical of me. I felt estranged from him. I was giving very serious consideration to resigning on that basis, maybe even before the term ended.

Then Dave Hubbard, president of Fuller Seminary, invited me to give the commencement at Fuller Seminary (in 1970). Now I knew Fuller was not just evangelical, it was really fundamentalist, as we think of the old term. I knew that as a consequence they saw Vietnam as a holy cause against godlessness and communism. And yet I got this invitation. So I immediately said, Yes, I'd be happy to come.

It was evident that among the faculty there was less-than-enthusiastic support for my presence on campus. Then they took me by the graduating seniors. I walked in and as far as I could see—boom, boom, boom—there were black armbands on their gowns, a symbol of their opposition to the war.

Dave Hubbard and I led the procession into the First Methodist Church where they held these ceremonies. We marched down the aisle and up on the platform and turned around. Up in the balcony there were some students unrolling a sign that said, "We're with you, Mark." I could hardly keep from tears. At that moment I had a very warm peace of mind. To me, that was the sign I was looking for.

Wallis: My earliest memory of you was when we published the first issue of The Post-American in 1971. I sent you a copy because I admired your stand on Vietnam, and we were strongly opposed to the war. You were the only evangelical Christian I knew of who was against the war in Vietnam except us. You invited us to Washington, and we came and had dinner in the Senate dining room.

Hatfield: I remember that so well. To find others within the body of believers was an awfully important reassurance.

Wallis: That began a friendship that's lasted a long time. You've been a kindred spirit from the beginning. What have been some of the highlights for you of your Senate career?

Hatfield: What I call the "soul of the office" is basically case work, which has no news value. It is the ability to make a bridge between the citizen and the government. It may be a social security problem or an immigration problem. The fact that you can make a difference in that person's life is to me the most important part of this office.

One of the most significant legislative highlights was, after 27 years, achieving the underground test ban on nuclear testing. I'd introduced it dozens of times over the years and never got a hearing. Then in 1992 we finally achieved the Underground Test Ban Treaty. Another highlight was finally getting the Institute of Peace established.

Wallis: On a broader level, there is a prophetic quality to the positions you've taken time and time again over the years, which has empowered and encouraged wider movements for peace. Even when you were losing battles, your stand here was deeply encouraging to so many of us who were trying to build movements outside of this place.

Hatfield: I couldn't agree with you more that the role played by people like yourself and others outside of the Senate has been very significant. When Sen. George McGovern and I offered an amendment to cut off the funds for the war, I think we had seven co-sponsors. To me, it did little good to wring your hands on television interviews every night about the horrible war and not offer some symbol around which people could rally. That amendment became one of those rallying points.

Wallis: The amendment that you and McGovern offered was tremendously encouraging and empowering to the peace movement all across the country, because here were two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, who were standing up and articulating what was indeed a rising sentiment in the country. That partnership we felt was very powerful.

Hatfield: We drew strength from it, and we drew courage to continue. It's so important to bridge these efforts, to develop that public base of support.

Wallis: What do you have to say to the churches about the things you've learned over this period about faith and politics?

Hatfield: I would reassert the basic tenets of pluralism of our society, and that means pluralism of religion, of politics, of economics. 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.

Wallis: Is this your problem with the Religious Right?

Hatfield: That's my problem, especially with the Religious Right, which is so powerfully committed to a political agenda. How many times have you heard these people relate their agenda to a Christian tenet or a Christian teaching? Political, political. It's either to stop communism or the threat of the liberals, or the homosexuals are going to take over the government if you don't send in your $15 contribution. All of these things they're expounding don't have a biblical base. And that bothers me.

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.

Wallis: You're a problem for them because you're an evangelical Christian, you're pro-life, but you don't share their political agenda on the economic issues, and on issues of war and peace. They almost imply that those who don't agree with them are not real Christians.

Hatfield: That's a point. The impression they create is that if you accept Christ, you've got to accept their politics. I just don't believe that's biblical, any more than what Harry Emerson Fosdick of the liberals used to say: You've got to be for low-cost housing, you have to be for civil rights, you have to be for all these things to be a Christian. I think, frankly, that anything political ought to be an outgrowth of your own religious convictions.

Wallis: You don't like "Christian politics"?

Hatfield: I don't like "Christian politics."

Wallis: Of the Left or the Right?

Hatfield: Nothing. I don't want to assume that somehow I have the right to take a very sacred word, the word "Christian," and have that applied to a specific set of political issues.

Wallis: At the same time, you insist that faith has political meaning....

Hatfield: Absolutely. For me, you can't divide your life that way, into the secular and the sacred. Whatever you do is sacred, or should be.

Wallis: Looking back, what would you say are your greatest satisfactions and your greatest disappointments?

Hatfield: I feel that I've made little impact on the disproportionate amount of our brain power, our labor, our dollars that have been apportioned to improving the ability to destroy life, as against those opportunities to improve quality of life. That's the greatest disappointment.

As for satisfactions....I've seen some advances on peace, because as you have said so many times in your talks, peace is not just an absence of hostility, it's fulfillment of the divine creation of humanity. And that means education, housing, health, opportunities to work, benefits of your labor, all of those make up the totality of what I think government's obligations are. And we've made some impact there.

Wallis: If you could gather every member of the Senate for a farewell address in the chamber, what would you say to your colleagues?

Hatfield: I would urge a vision of the future. By that I don't mean just a platform for the year 2000. So many things are done on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis, avoiding or putting off the tough decisions. Get your eyes up and look down the road into the next generation so that we realize what we do today or what we fail to do has a tremendous impact on the future.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)