Before Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or Michelle Bachmann, there was Mark Hatfield. Except most Americans probably know little about the late Oregon senator’s brand of evangelicalism. He didn’t shout it from every corner, either to run down opponents or rack up votes. Hatfield’s quiet legacy is worth considering as another presidential campaign heats up.
Hatfield, who died this month at 89, was both a liberal evangelical and liberal Republican, pairings that may seem odd today. But Hatfield blended them, including drawing on his faith to oppose the Vietnam War as a governor. When elected to the Senate in 1966, he was one of the few evangelicals in national politics.
Most evangelicals then saw politics as too worldly. Fortunately, that has changed. People like Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman and current Republican presidential hopeful, feel compelled to engage the world.
But there’s an important difference between Hatfield’s compassionate evangelicalism and the swaggering modern brand we see today. Jesus taught that we are our brother and sister’s keepers, but Christ’s emphasis on the “we” over the “I” is less apparent among today’s evangelical politicians. True, Bachmann has admirably adopted numerous foster children. But she also describes her politics as being about liberty, which translates into wanting government to leave people alone. She rightly warns about an arrogant government, but there’s less concern for the least among us.
Hatfield, who served in the Senate until 1996, was no raving socialist. Herbert Hoover shaped his political thinking, so he was no statist, either.
But Hatfield also advocated for those left behind. He worked to expand food aid programs. He supported federal civil rights laws when conservatives balked. He backed strong public health programs here and abroad.
Another key distinction: Hatfield didn’t align his politics with a Christian political movement. I remember interviewing him once when he warned about the dangers in that approach.
For one thing, there’s no single Christian position on issues. For another, when people of faith put so much emphasis on acquiring political power, they risk losing their prophetic voice, the one they must use occasionally to call foul on their country’s course.
Hatfield played the prophet when necessary, but especially when he stood before President Richard Nixon and warned a National Prayer Breakfast audience about abuses of political power and the dangers of a “national folk religion” that assumes God is “a defender of only the American nation.”
We probably wouldn’t hear that from a Bachmann or a Perry. But there’s a lesson in Hatfield’s legacy, including that people who align their faith closely with a political movement lose the ability to collaborate with others for the common good.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Contact him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; email: wmckenziedallasnews.com.