Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Uncommon Contributor to the Common Good: The Legacy of Mark Hatfield, 1922-2011

Stanley Carlson-Thies


November 4, 2011
by Stanley Carlson-Thies

 This essay was originally published online at Q: ideas for the common good.

Mark Hatfield, who died on August 7th, had a lengthy political career, serving in both houses of the Oregon legislature, as Oregon’s Secretary of State, twice as governor of Oregon, and then for thirty years in the U.S. Senate.  He was an outspoken Christian, an evangelical politician who witnessed to his faith in speech, action, and with a considerable list of publications.  His was an unusual witness in American politics.

His unconventionality was remarked in his obituaries.  He was a life-long Republican with strong anti-war and pro-environment positions.  Both Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern considered him as a possible vice-presidential running mate.  His leadership was respected by both Billy Graham and Jim Wallis.  Most important, and the reason for his unconventionality, was his principled Christian stance.

Principled Christian politician
Hatfield’s desire to follow Christ in politics drove him to keep asking what the Bible’s teaching about the Kingdom of God and about the world required of him, our government and our society.  That’s very different than the common tactic of identifying a few key biblical themes, deciding which party best comports with those themes, and then adopting and blessing the whole party agenda.  I’m skeptical of some of Hatfield’s choices, but his commitment to continually test political options against biblical wisdom seems to be just what a Christian politician must do.  It accounts for why his views only partially overlapped with the Republican Party—and only partly with the Democratic Party.  His commitment first to the Bible and second to party is the reason for the breadth of his political agenda:  against both abortion and capital punishment, anti-war and pro-environment, pro-civil rights and pro-religious freedom.  This was a broad political agenda advocated strongly just when mobilizing conservative Christians were focusing on a narrow set of Religious Right issues.

Principled Partisan
Hatfield was both deeply principled and fully engaged in actual politics, with its bipartisan structure.  It isn’t easy to stick to a set of political principles that doesn’t align with either party menu if you are, at the same time, dedicated to actual legislating and governing, but somehow Hatfield managed it. 

Principled Pluralist
One of the most significant political and partisan divisions in the last quarter of the 20th century was between (to put it crudely) a theocratic tendency and a bitter secularism. Hatfield refused to choose either.  He believed that Christians were not to force themselves on society but neither were they to hide in the corner.  Hatfield was a “staunch advocate of the separation of church and state” but not of the divorce of faith from life.  So, he co-sponsored the Equal Access Act of 1984, which requires public high schools that permit student clubs to not forbid religious clubs. He also pushed passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which obligates government to respect the freedom of religious persons and institutions to follow their convictions, even when those convictions differ from the current social consensus.

Uncommonly Serving the Common Good
A maverick with a broad-agenda, Mark Hatfield reminds us

“Of course if one temptation is to withdraw from the world, the opposite one is to take part in the world’s systems uncritically, playing by their rules, their standards, in order to work for God’s purposes. . . . Our fundamental allegiance and loyalty is always to another kingdom. Hence we can expect a tension, a clash, between the calling of that kingdom and those purposes to which societies and nations want to give themselves.”

This warning is especially vital in our time of strong passions.  Biblical wisdom may well illuminate understandings of both problems and solutions that differ from the current consensus.  Sometimes Christians may need to be what Francis Schaeffer termed “co-belligerents” rather than uncritically joining campaigns dreamed up by people with opposed commitments.  And Christians, it seems evident to me, need these days to champion religious freedom, not just for others but also for ourselves—freedom to follow Jesus in our social activism even when that leads us to do things differently.

As evangelicals get re-energized for social and political action, we should take care not to underplay the urgent need in our secularizing world to preserve freedom of religion and conscience.  For, as Mark Hatfield knew, our best contribution to the common good may be an uncommon contribution.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies is president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.  He served on the church-state task force of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the founding staff of President George W. Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  He also serves as a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.


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