TERRY EASTLANDTerry Eastland is now a resident scholar at the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. A frequent contributor to various magazines, including the American Spectator and Commentary, he also serves as a commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
On May 13 last year, Terry Eastland, Attorney General Edwin Meese III’s chief spokesman, went to ask his boss how to respond to rumors about Panama’s General Noriega. A few minutes later, Eastland was fired, he said, for not having defended the attorney general aggressively enough to reporters.
It was a strange finale to a 12-month period of incredible pressure. Court-appointed Special Prosecutor James C. McKay had been investigating Meese’s relation to an Iraqi pipeline project promoted by one of his close friends and to the questionable dealings of the Wedtech Corporation, a Bronx military defense contractor. Conservatives in government (such as Secretary of Education William Bennett) and the press (such as Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Snow) came to Eastland’s defense, while 25 Republican members of Congress called for the attorney general’s resignation.
Through it all, Eastland maintained a charitable attitude toward Meese. Said Snow, “Even in private, Eastland tried to put the best gloss on Meese.”
Here Eastland talks about how his Christian faith helped him endure the turbulence and pressure of life in the U.S. Department of Justice.
During my five years of government service, I dealt with a great variety of issues: criminal law reform, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking, international terrorism, civil rights, obscenity control, abortion law, public corruption, religious liberty, judicial selection, and proper constitutional interpretation—to name a few. Reporters asked me thousands of questions on these and other matters. Not once did any of them try to write stories about my own faith. Not that they should have: A story about a government official’s faith isn’t the sort of thing a journalist covering the Justice Department ordinarily would write. And anyway, my faith never became an “issue,” as it has for some in public life.
But now that I’ve left government service, I thought it might be helpful to have “on the record” some personal reflections on the life of faith of one Christian during his time in office.
Over the past five years I found myself frequently turning to several biblical passages, all from the New Testament. I don’t know why I went so often to these passages instead of some others—except to say, of course, that it was providential: these were the lamps that lit my way.
One was Philippians 4:8. I first learned this verse in the King James Version, and I still like it that way: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Paul wrote this, but it might as well have been written by a moral philosopher from Athens. There is nothing specifically Christian about the virtues Paul lists, and indeed two of them don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. These are virtues apparently within the natural reach of all men. Still, God inspired Paul to include this advice in his letter.
When dealing with news stories that were not quite true or fair, with people both in and out of government who were not totally honest, with actions that lacked the best motives, I often thought of Philippians 4:8. For me, it was a statement of a minimum standard—not the highest ideal for a Christian, but one a Christian should certainly live up to before striving to fulfill the ultimate commandment to love one another. How do we live up to this standard? Paul supplies the answer: “Think on these things.” In C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought, Yale theologian Paul Holmer writes that “character is a quiet consequence of what we think.” So it is.
I am happy to report (here is a thing of “good report”!) that during my years at the Justice Department I saw some displays of character strength. I recall an occasion when someone I knew learned something about a government official whom she didn’t particularly like. The information did not suggest anything criminal or unethical on the part of this official. But it would have been embarrassing had it become known. Fortunately, the person who came across this juicy tidbit resisted the temptation to leak it to the news media.
On another occasion, a probable nominee for a Justice Department position decided to withdraw his candidacy. Reporters were obliged to write a story about the event, but I was pleased that without exception they declined to print the reason for the withdrawal, which concerned the man’s marriage and only would have hurt him had it been published.
A second passage was actually an entire chapter—Romans 12. Paul, who liked imperatives, snapped off at least 32 in the 21 verses of this chapter.
Of particular importance to me was the second verse of Romans 12. In the Phillips translation, it reads: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds within.…”
The world around me was (and still is) Washington, D.C., a place unlike any other—and I’ve lived overseas, in the East, the South, the Midwest, California, and my native Texas. Washington is a one-company town, the company being politics, and there is only one individual at the top—the President. Many, both in and outside government, scramble to get closer to the top. A job in the executive branch is coveted over all others in government—except, of course, for those in the White House itself. And within journalism, covering the White House is considered the plum of plums.
Of course, everyone has a world around him, and all worlds squeeze. I can testify that the Washington world can put a hard squeeze on you, and for me it was important to remember Paul’s imperative to resist the squeezing and allow God to work from within. This meant time alone with God and with other Christians, time apart from the power scramble. An early morning Bible study once a week proved a constant source of refreshment, and helped point my mind and heart in the right direction, away from the City of Man and toward the City of God.
A third passage was Romans 8:26. Here Paul writes (as translated in the Revised Standard Version): “… for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
How many of us begin to pray and stop in midsentence? How many of us utter words intended for God that seem to go nowhere? I did at many points in the past five years. It was a great comfort—the Great Comforter is the perfect name for the Holy Spirit—to know that the Spirit was there praying for me when I groped for words, when I did not have any, and when I was distracted by the cares of my world from the discipline of prayer itself. Which is to say: God was there, even when I wasn’t. That is the nature of God, and a tremendous theological truth.
The fourth passage takes us back to Philippians, specifically to chapter 3, verse 10; still more specifically to the first five words: “that I may know him.” That expresses my life’s ambition. During the past five years, the ambition of the moment—confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee or passage of important criminal-law reform—received a great deal of my attention, and necessarily so. But for me as for others in other lines of work, it was valuable to have the longest possible perspective on life. Philippians 3:10 summed it up.
Of course, I am far from having achieved this greatest ambition. The second verse of “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” written by John Newton more than two centuries ago, goes this way: “Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; / But when I see Thee as Thou art, I’ll praise Thee as I ought.”
During my government years, I often felt weak of heart and cold of thought. But I knew that Newton was right: someday I will see him as he is, and praise him as I ought. I will know him.
Our day-to-day lives are important. We can make a difference in this world, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have served in our government where, I hope, I did make a difference. But I also know that during these years God worked a difference in me, just as he does in all of us, in all the years of our lives.
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