A nonprofit Christian ministry organization

Standing Alongside Those Who Serve in Public Office

By Lon Fendall

United States Capitol BuildingAbout ten years ago I completed a book about the spiritual and political values of the public official on whose staff I had served for a number of years, Senator Mark Hatfield. The title of the book is, Stand Alone or Come Home. That unusual title came from the stern advice the Senator had received from his father when their family lived in Dallas, Oregon. The context of this advice was a discussion the two of them had when Hatfield was young and his father realized that some of his friends might try to get him to participate in inappropriate “fun” when they were bored. This probably referred to such things as throwing rocks at the windows of abandoned buildings. Just because it sounded cool. With the sternness of a railroad blacksmith, which was his father’s career, the elder Hatfield made it clear to his son that he only had two appropriate choices when his friends were urging him to take part in something that was clearly wrong and inappropriate: stand alone against what they were setting about to do in the hope that they wouldn’t go ahead, and if that failed to turn them away from their plans, he was to walk away and come home.

Those who recall Hatfield’s career in public life, starting with a position in the state legislature and continuing through five terms in the U.S. Senate, will recall that there were many times that he felt the need to go against the wishes of his friends and colleagues in elected office. And that included the chief executives at the level he was serving, first the governors and then the U.S. Presidents. In fact, at a most inopportune time, while he was planning his first campaign for the Senate, he became painfully aware that the majority of Oregon Republicans and maybe of all the voters in Oregon, wanted him to support the U.S. continuation of its war in Vietnam. Hatfield’s political courage was severely tested when President Lyndon Johnson tried to twist his arm to join all the other governors in endorsing the president’s continued pursuit of “victory” in Vietnam. The prudent thing would have been to “take a hike” when these votes were being cast, but Hatfield realized there would be many other tests of his political courage if he were to be elected to the Senate. This was no time to back away from his insistence that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was both wrong and doomed to fail.

May we not allow the courageous, but lonely public officials to stand alone.

But what about those of us who have not been elected to public office and feel that there is little we can do to stand alongside those who are casting hard and unpopular votes in Congress, in state legislatures, or in city councils? Jim Wallis, the longtime editor of Sojourners magazine, was kind enough to write the foreword to my book about Hatfield. Wallis wrote about having seen Senator Hatfield on a news show, engaged with other Republican Senators in trying to reach agreement on new war plans in Central America. Wallis noted how troubled and distraught Hatfield seemed to be about the direction the group was taking. He called Hatfield’s office and left word that he was available if Hatfield wanted to talk. This was one of many times when Wallis went to the Senator’s office to listen to his frustrations and help him think through his options. The two would talk about their common faith in Christ, the meaning of often overlooked biblical passages, and some of the difficult political issues of the day.

Reflecting on those times the two of them spent together, Wallis said he had known three kinds of political leaders:

  1. The kind who would do the right thing even if it might cost them the next election.
  2. The kind that want to do the right thing and will if there is enough public opinion supporting it.
  3. The kind that just want to get re-elected.

Wallis said he could count on one hand the number of those he had known who belonged in the first category. And Hatfield was at the top of that small group.

Few if any of us will ever have the kind of relationship Wallis had with Hatfield, whose staff knew that when Wallis called, time would be found for the two of them to talk. I certainly do not have such an open door with local or national officials. But I often wonder if there is something more I could be doing to stand alongside public officials who are grappling with hard issues. We would hope they would be willing to “stand alone,” but why should they have to? Can we not find even some small ways to stand alongside those who are under a lot of pressure to do what their party wants, and what those whom they represent are asking them to do. With whom may we be led into “standing alongside” some policy-maker who is under pressure to do something they know to be wrong? Even if we don’t see a way to literally stand at their side, maybe there are other ways-through regular and intense prayer, through expressions of support, and through thanking and encouraging those who have an open door with these leaders. May we not allow the courageous, but lonely public officials to stand alone.