Mark Hatfield, 89, who died last weekend in his native Oregon, was the first Christian politician I recall meeting in Washington, which is to say he did more than keep a Bible on his desk. He sought to keep its words and teachings and its main ‘‘Character’’ in his heart.
When we first met in the early ’70s I was in the middle of my own ‘‘faith journey,’’ trying to sort out what Scripture teaches about this world and the next and to see if it could match my conservative political leanings. Hatfield suggested to me that the two kingdoms — of God and of the world — sometimes intersect, but more often diverge. He was criticized by some political conservatives for aligning himself with liberal Democratic senator George McGovern against the war in Vietnam. The McGovern-Hatfield amendment, had it passed, would have set a deadline for the end of U.S. military operations in South Vietnam. McGovern-Hatfield became ‘‘the most outstanding defiance of executive power regarding the war prior to 1971,’’ writes Wikipedia. That defiance is repeated today in debates over wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and the use of U.S. military might around the world.
Hatfield and McGovern were right about Vietnam. The reason more of us didn’t recognize it at the time was that proponents of the war (most of whom didn’t have to fight it) wrapped themselves in the flag and treated any criticism of Presidents Johnson and Nixon and their prosecution of the war as unpatriotic. Sound familiar?
In 1981, after his elevation to chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I met with him in his upgraded office. This when what was known as the ‘‘Religious Right’’ was flexing its muscles in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s victory and the defeat of five liberal Democratic senators, including McGovern.
Hatfield told me he had been through the religious wars before. He mentioned the Scofield Reference Bible, which to many self-identified fundamentalist Christians was the only ‘‘true’’ and reliable translation. Some regarded any other translation as ‘‘heretical.’’ Hatfield thought it more important to apply the teachings of Jesus, rather than argue.
Hatfield wasn’t perfect. He was the target of two ethics investigations. One involved his wife, Antoinette. In 1984, Mrs. Hatfield, a realtor, received $55,000 in fees from Basil Tsakos, a Greek financier, ‘‘while Hatfield was promoting Tsakos’ trans-Africa pipeline proposal,’’ Salon.com reports. ‘‘Hatfield denied wrongdoing.’’ The Hatfields apologized and donated the money to charity. And in 1992, Hatfield, writes the Washington Post, ‘‘was formally rebuked by the Senate ethics committee for not disclosing more than $42,000 in gifts from friends and lobbyists.’’ He apologized again and was later cleared of the charges. Mostly, though, Hatfield lived up to the ‘‘St. Mark’’ label applied to him by his admirers.
Hatfield was thought of as a consistent ‘‘pro-lifer.’’ He opposed abortion (though he never worked to limit it), the death penalty and war. In 1982, he told the Christian Science Monitor, ‘‘There is to me a direct ratio between the increase of our arsenals and the diminishing sense of national security. There comes a time in a nation’s life when additional money spent for rockets and bombs, far from strengthening national security, will actually weaken national security — when there are people who are hungry and not fed, people who are cold and not clothed.’’ That last line is straight from the teachings of Jesus.
Some of his fellow Christians may not have always agreed with Mark Hatfield, but they couldn’t accuse him of hypocrisy. He consistently lived by the standards he professed and challenged others to do the same. Though we may have disagreed on some political issues, our common faith kept us close. In the end that is all that really mattered — to Mark Hatfield and to me.
Email nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.