For nearly four decades, perhaps American evangelicals' most prominent and admired politician was a man associated with liberal politics, one of the country's leading voices against the Vietnam War and military spending, and a critic of the nascent religious right.
Mark Hatfield, who served 30 years in the U.S. Senate and two terms as governor of Oregon, died Sunday, August 7, at age 89.
"For a certain sector of evangelicalism, he was the political hero," said David R. Swartz, assistant professor of history at Asbury University. "He was morally upstanding, explicitly spiritual, and they really admired him for identifying as an evangelical so publically. Someone admired by the secularists and political elite was exhilarating for them, especially before the 1970s Newsweek cover on 'The Year of the Evangelical.' Hatfield offered respectability they craved."
Indeed, Hatfield's outspoken faith earned him the nickname (used both warmly and derisively) "Saint Mark" among his colleagues. But his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War also put him at odds with many evangelical leaders. A group called the Christian Freedom Foundation, with heavy backing from Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, sought to "get rid of those so-called liberal Christians like Mark Hatfield." Bright himself promised "to pray the wrath of God on Mark Hatfield," though he had invited Hatfield to join Campus Crusade's board of directors in the late 1950s, when the politician was Oregon's secretary of state. (Hatfield himself had become interested in Campus Crusade while teaching political science at Willamette University, where he was an advisor to the chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.)
Wheaton College president Hudson Armerding felt that allowing Hatfield to speak in the school's main chapel in 1974 would communicate institutional opposition to the war, and moved his speech to a lesser building. But students and faculty enthusiastically packed the venue and greeted the senator with standing ovations.
"Continually it seemed as though I was becoming a divisive force within the evangelical community, a role I had no desire to play," he later wrote. "Yet I felt compelled to say what was on my heart, without compromising any convictions."
Indeed, Hatfield earned a reputation as someone willing to rebuke allies with his headline-grabbing keynote speech at the 1964 Republican Convention—in which he attacked the John Birch Society as "bigots … who spew forth their venom of hate," though many of that year's delegates were members. Boos could be heard throughout the venue as he spoke.
At the 1973 National Prayer Breakfast (Hatfield and founder Doug Coe had become friends at Willamette University), Hatfield spoke shortly before President Richard Nixon, who had two weeks earlier ordered the ceasefire in Vietnam. "Today, our prayers must begin with repentance. … We must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul," Hatfield said. "Then we can soothe the wounds of war and renew the face of the earth and all mankind." The speech garnered headlines, with one reporter calling it "one of the most dramatic confrontations since the Prophet Nathan told King David, 'You are the man!'" And it got Hatfield placed on Nixon's "enemies list."
But divisive as his views might have been, Hatfield was a compelling political figure throughout his life. Nixon reportedly took seriously Billy Graham's recommendation that he consider Hatfield as a running mate in 1968 ("Well, Dick, you know who my candidate is—it's Mark Hatfield," Graham said. "I believe in his spiritual commitment. I believe that he's a moderate liberal and that you need a balanced ticket because you are considered to be a conservative. You need the spiritual strength he could bring to the country. The country needs it.") And Democrat George McGovern (with whom Hatfield had sponsored the famous eponymous 1970 amendment cutting off funds for the Vietnam War) considered him as a running mate in 1972.
As the Vietnam era waned, Hatfield maintained his opposition to military funding, especially nuclear arms. But he was also staunchly pro-life, introducing the first constitutional amendment on abortion, and joining Rep. Henry Hyde in prohibiting federal funding for such procedures. But as his influence as a senior senator grew—he twice became chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee—his presence as an evangelical icon diminished somewhat.
"Part of the issue is the political parties hardened in the mid to late '70s," said Swartz, whose history of the Evangelical Left will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press next year. "It wasn't clear where they would come out on abortion, for example. So an evangelical progressive could function in that earlier system better than they could later, in the '80s and '90s. He became far less influential in evangelical circles because of that. Partly because evangelicals inaccurately became synonymous with the Religious Right, he was just dismissed as an anomaly. He was left politically homeless, left behind by the secularist push of the Democratic Party and by the Religious Right."
But Hatfield had been a critic of aspects of the Religious Right even before that movement emerged. In his 1971 book Conflict and Conscience he complained, "There is a theological 'silent majority' in our land who wrap their Bibles in the American flag; who believe that conservative politics is the necessary by-product of orthodox Christianity; who equate patriotism with the belief in national self-righteousness; and who regard political dissent as a mark of infidelity to the faith." And he criticized the creation of Christian political action groups. "Christian political action tends to pull apart," he said in 1982. When we try to form a new force, we're imitating the world and its means of exercising power. We have a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, expressed in love, compassion, and the other fruit of the Spirit. Why should we reduce that power, thinking we're enhancing it through organizations?"
Still, he steadfastly maintained that his political work was thoroughly Christian. "My goal as a senator is the same as my goal in life," he said. "Whatever role I may have, it is all part of my goal of helping build the kingdom. I am striving to help trigger a spiritual revolution. … I haven't changed the world or transformed American society, and I doubt if I will. But I think there has been an impact, a voice raised when maybe other voices have not been raised, and an ability to stand in the breach, make up the hedge on occasion."
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.