A Tribute to Mark O. Hatfield | Sojourners

A Tribute to Mark O. Hatfield

1100808-markhatfieldMark O. Hatfield's political witness shaped a whole generation of students, teachers, pastors, and social activists in the evangelical community and beyond. The voice of Christians today who plead for social justice and peaceful alternatives to war would not have emerged with its strength and clarity in the 1970s without his leadership. His death underscores the vacuum of such spiritually rooted voices uncompromising in their commitments to peace and justice within the cacophony of political rhetoric today.

One of my life's greatest privileges and joys was to work as an assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield for nearly a decade, from 1968 to 1977. I saw first-hand what courageous leadership, combined with unswerving compassion and civility, looked like within the political life of that turbulent and formative era. Those experiences are shared in my book, Unexpected Destinations (Eerdmans).

In 1968, Mark Hatfield was one of the few political figures voicing strong opposition to the Vietnam War, and the only well-known evangelical and Republican to do so. And he never compromised. In 1970 and 1971 he teamed up with Senator George McGovern in legislation to block funding for the war. Though the legislation never passed, it galvanized growing political pressure to change policy.

It's a remarkable and little-known fact that in 1972, George McGovern had Hatfield (without his knowledge) on his short list for the vice-presidential nomination prior to choosing Senator Thomas Eagleton, and the subsequent debacle. This was after Mark Hatfield had been on Nixon's short list in 1968, before he selected Governor Agnew -- and an earlier subsequent debacle. Just this example is one of many underscoring Hatfield's commitment, when it mattered, to put principle before partisanship -- a practice nearly alien to today's political culture.

But Mark Hatfield's influence within the evangelical community during those years is a largely untold story. Constantly speaking at Christian college campuses, seminaries, and church gatherings, he shared his strong evangelical convictions and their motivation for his opposition to war and uncontrolled military spending. Much of that was articulated in his book, Between and Rock and A Hard Place (1976) that became a classic for evangelicals trying to formulate a biblically rooted approach to the issues of social justice and peace.

His voice was not without opposition in the evangelical community. Hudson Armerding, president of Wheaton College, prohibited him from speaking in chapel after its chaplain (my former pastor) had extended an invitation. And the office received letters like those addressed to "Dear former brother in Christ." Throughout his entire career, Mark Hatfield dealt well with strong political criticisms. What was most painful to him, however, was when fellow Christians questioned his faith on the basis of his opposition to the Vietnam War and similar issues.

But voices seeking a new integration between faith and politics were constantly growing during those years, often looking to Hatfield as their inspiration. And he reached out to them. When the first issue of the Post-American (the precursor to Sojourners magazine) was sent to the office, he told me to "get these folks on the phone right away." That began a relationship with Jim Wallis and these "young evangelicals" that endured over his political career.

His witness remained resonant through his 30 years as a U. S. senator. For instance, as incredible as it may seem, he never voted for a military authorization bill. He joined forces with Ted Kennedy to prose legislation for a "nuclear freeze" in response to the arms race. He was one of the few senators to oppose the "first" Iraq war. He pleaded for a "balanced" approach to the Middle East conflict that recognized the necessity of justice for the Palestinian people. He opposed the death penalty and abortion, making him, combined with his opposition to war, one of the few politicians with a "consistent ethic of life."

He also cast the deciding vote in the Senate against a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, arguing that it was not appropriate to the Constitution and would in practice likely have a devastating effect on the needy -- much to the anger of his Republican colleagues.

The whole other dimension of Senator Hatfield's legacy lies in his tireless work for his home state of Oregon. Countless institutions and projects were established through his influence, including the Oregon Health and Science University, now Portland's largest employer, and the light rail system in that region. He utilized his power as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to shift dollars from military spending to causes such as medical research, a consistent passion.

And in the life of the U.S. Senate, Hatfield always reached out to those serving him, such as the workers in the cafeteria, the waiters and waitresses in the Senate dining room, the Capitol Police, and so many others. To them, Senator Hatfield was a compassionate friend.

Personally, Mark O. Hatfield served as a mentor, example, and friend. Rarely have I seen anyone like him combine a courageous commitment to principle with a consistent respect for those with opposing views. He was always willing to seek bridges in order to serve the common good. Like so much of Mark Hatfield's legacy, these are qualities so destructively absent from our present political climate.

Within the Christian community, Mark Hatfield's legacy will be the example of an evangelical political leader who believed that his deepest Christian convictions compelled him to seek peace and protect the most vulnerable in society. He then acted accordingly, often at great political risk and cost. How deeply we need those who would follow his example today.

Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served on Senator Mark O. Hatfield's staff from 1968 to 1977, with responsibilities for a range of foreign policy issues, legislative matters, and relationships to the Christian community. Last month, Granberg-Michaelson retired as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America after 17 years of service. His recent book, Unexpected Destinations; An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity (Eerdmans), is a memoir including his experiences serving with Senator Hatfield.