Rep. Steve Largent, 43, has represented the 1st congressional district of Oklahoma in the House of Representatives since 1994. He first gained national fame as a record-setting wide receiver in the National Football League. Now, Largent has emerged as a strong, new voice in Congress for pro-life positions and religious freedom. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Eleanor Kennelly.
Kennelly: How has your faith guided or strengthened you in what has been quite a successful public life?
Largent: Interestingly enough, I've been asked that question for 25 years. Prior to being in Congress, I was in professional football for 14 years and I was asked, “How do you mix your faith with what you do? How do you mix your faith with playing a violent sport that schedules all of its games on Sundays? How does that work?” So I've been answering that question for a long, long time. And my response is that my faith is at the foundation of who I am as a person.
It's not a club I belong to, or an appendage to everything else I do. It's not something I just take along and bring out to experience at appropriate times. My relationship with Jesus is the foundation of who I am. And so everything else is built on that foundation: all the decisions that I make, the way I conduct myself as a husband, a father, a congressman, or a football player all emanate from this core value and belief that I have in [my] relationship with Jesus. My faith strikes at the core of who I am.
Did you develop a commitment to faith at a young age or as you got older?
Actually, I was not raised in a religious family at all. My parents were divorced when I was six. My stepfather was an alcoholic. There were a lot of problems that accompanied that. And when I was a high school student I really began to sense, as Pascal said, the “God-shaped vacuum” that only God can fill. I discovered that friends, and football, and popularity, or drinking, or smoking, couldn't fill that vacuum I had in my life. It was when I was a high school student that I first had an experience with Christ.
What kind of experience was it?
Really it was the first time that I heard the message about love and forgiveness, about reconciliation, about joy versus happiness, about the eternal versus the temporal, about the invisible versus the visible, and all I can say is that for me, all the pieces came together and I knew that this was what I needed to fill the vacuum that I had in my life.
So did you join a Church at that time?
No, not really. I like to say all the time that following Jesus is not a destination that you arrive at, it's a process that you walk, with him. Like any relationship, it's a dynamic thing. It's different for different people. And I am still involved in that process, a process that began slowly and has no end.
As a pro football player, especially a successful one, you must have felt on top of the world. How were you able to maintain perspective in the midst of the kind of success so many young people dream about?
You can come home and think you're a superstar guy but when your wife tells you to change a diaper or take the trash out … it really has a humbling effect.
I can honestly answer this and say that two things were absolutely instrumental in helping me keep my feet on the ground and my head out of the clouds—my faith and my family. When you have a relationship with Jesus and he teaches you all the things that are diametrically opposed to the world in order to gain life, you have to lose your life. In order to receive, you have to give. All these principles are about humility, and about sacrifice, and about service and love. Those are not values that you learn in the NFL or in Congress. So my faith has a very important role in terms of gaining a healthy perspective on who I am and my role in the world.
My family also played an important role. You can come home and think you're a superstar guy but when your wife tells you to change a diaper or take the trash out, which I did, it really has a humbling effect. And I think part of the beauty and the chemistry we've had for 23 years is that my wife knew me when I was a pimple-faced, curly-haired, nerdy guy in high school. That's how our relationship began. It didn't begin when I was an NFL football player with money, all that sort of stuff.
You've gone from one career to another that are both hard on families.
It's hard on families and it's very inflating as well. When you walk down the hall and people say, “Hi Congressman” or “Let me open the door for you,” or buy you lunch, or if your staff is bowing down to worship you because, you know, you're the boss: That is very addicting and ego-gratifying, and gives you tremendous temptation to let that go to your head.
How did you make the transition from sports to politics?
This is one thing [politics] I said I would never do, this and coaching. And I learned you should never say never. All I can say is that my wife had been whispering in my ear for a long time after I retired from football, “Why do you think it is you have this tremendous platform in name-identification and reputation? Is this just so you can come back to Tulsa and blend into the woodwork or are we supposed to leverage it for some higher purpose—like politics.” And that was the end of the conversation because I wouldn't go any further. I didn't want to go down that road. I never had an appropriate answer for her until there was an open congressional seat and I got a call from [the Republican Party in Washington]. I said I would pray about it with my wife. We did, and my heart was changed. It was still not something I wanted to do, but it was something I knew I was supposed to do.
Now when you look back on that experience, do you have a clearer understanding of why you got that message?
I think so. Because my impression at that time was … well I was totally naive. I knew I had some core values and principles that I thought would make me effective as a representative and legislator. But I had no experience. I would say that in May 1994, when I made the decision to run, the conclusion I had reached was, well, it must be that I'm supposed to do this to go change Washington and now in hindsight I can say that that was not the reason at all. It was that God would change me. And that's what has happened. I have learned a lot about myself. I've learned a lot about people. I have matured and grown, personally and professionally, in ways that I never would have if not for this experience.
Why do you think you were given that direction, toward what end? Not just personal edification certainly.
Well, I have always heard it said that God is more concerned about your character than your comfort, and this has not been a comfortable job. This has been very hard, personally going back and forth every week from Tulsa to Washington, D.C., but for my family as well. My wife has experienced being a single mother for most of every year. For more than half of the year, she's a single mother at home alone dealing with four kids, and three of them are teenagers. So that is a very difficult thing.
All I can say is that God has not only transformed my character but my wife's and my children's as well—not through tremendous blessing but through tremendous hardship. And that's why I say I don't know if I can do this forever. What I'm saying is I came with this idea that I was Don Quixote and I would slay the windmills in Washington, D.C. and I've found out that what has actually taken place is that God has transformed my heart. If you're asking me where I take this from here, I haven't a clue. I have no political aspirations. I didn't have any when I ran for office.
Have you found that the American political system today is essentially a “Godless” system?
I think I came into the political system thinking that, but what I found is that the American political system is a very human business. It is about people, it's not about institutions. And all of the greatest qualities of people and the worst attributes of people are glaringly obvious in the political arena. So all the worst aspects of human nature are very evident, but so are the greatest—like sacrifice and humility, those things appear as well in the people who work here.
Do you think that the division between Church and state, which is very pronounced in the American system, has become more exaggerated than it should be?
I don't think that we currently have a balanced view of the separation between Church and state. You know they always say that the pendulum is never in the middle except when it swings from one extreme to the other? Well, we have swung to an extreme in trying to eradicate every semblance of God in our public institutions. We are ripping down the Ten Commandments from courthouse walls while we protect pornography on the Internet. Something's wrong with that picture, and so I think what we need to do is to return to a more balanced view, the view of the founding fathers of this country.
You can not deny the spiritual roots and foundation that our country is built upon. You walk over to the House chamber and you see “In God We Trust” above the speaker's chair. You've got the face of Moses looking down upon the House floor. We say the Pledge of Allegiance and we pray before every session of Congress. Things you can't do in the schoolhouse we do in the Congress. So there is a great misappropriation of the term “separation of Church and state”.
Is prayer in the school a political issue any more?
Yes, I think it is. I think all the religious issues—the Religious Freedom amendment—the whole issue is still a political issue. I just believe that when it says in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my presence and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and revive their land.”
And I think when we are living in a country where we have the plague of the AIDS virus, we have 20 some million women who have experienced abortion, there is a lot of pain and hurt and guilt that we need to heal. The way you do that, according to 2 Chronicles 7:14, is to pray. And I really don't see how the circumstances within schoolhouse walls are exacerbated in the wrong direction by praying. How can it get worse than putting up metal detectors, students beating teachers, teachers sexually abusing students, nobody learning anything, SAT scores down, truancy up, drug use and violence up. How will that be worsened by allowing students to pray?
Are there any new faith-based political issues, or issues of particular interest to religious people, that you see on the radar for this Congress or the next?
To me, all the issues related to and surrounding the abortion issue—while that's not the root problem—symbolize a deeper spiritual problem in our country. To me it is a vital test of this Congress and a litmus test of where we go from here as a nation and as a culture. How we deal with that. It is not an issue on which we can merely sit back and wink and nod and give a few lines for applause at a rally and then do nothing about. We have the partial birth abortion debate coming up again. I think we should do it every week and continue to pound on it.
Well, because it's the right thing to do. That's the only reason we should continue to do it. I think parental notification on Title X funding is the right thing to do. Those are like incremental steps in the right direction, but again the underlying problem is a moral meltdown in the country and there are no laws that we can pass to address that.
Are you worried that the public response to the current White House crisis represents a certain weak morality on the part of the American public?
I don't know how to interpret that, but I am still confident that the country has a very moral fabric woven into it, and that people with deep-seated beliefs and values are out there. They may be quiet but I sense a real restlessness in the spirit of this country. You know the landscape is really ripe for revival, which is what I think we need.
What kind of revival?
A spiritual revival, not a political revolution.
Do you see that spirit stirring more in Oklahoma than in Washington?
I see it here in Washington, too, absolutely. As I come in contact with members of Congress from around the country, I see their response to the spiritual vacuum and they too are seeking the deeper things in life on a personal level.
Do you see this revival as occurring across religious denominations, or mostly within Protestant Churches.
I think, absolutely, across religious differences. You know the idea that most people don't reject Jesus, they reject a caricature of Jesus, and I think a lot of our religious institutions are responsible for erecting most of the caricatures of who Jesus is. So if we can just break down the caricatures, erase those, and really lift the person of Jesus up, not Church dogma or doctrine or a particular theology, just lift Jesus up, we'll be able to get beyond all the differences. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Unity on the essentials, liberty on the non-essentials, and love over all.” That's the goal.