NEW YORK—With the president in peril from a host of sexual and ethical allegations, and the ugly realities of political hardball popping up on both sides of the congressional aisle, why would any self-respecting, young pro-life Christian become involved in politics?
Yet at the March For Life in the nation's capital late last month, Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, an 18-year political veteran, exhorted the thousands of young people from all around the country to spurn discouragement and disillusionment, run for office and change the course of history.
“A special word to our young people who march today in record numbers,” said Smith, 45, in a brief address on the Ellipse, with the White House in full view behind him. “Think about running for Congress someday. Despite what you hear, public service can and certainly should be honorable, ethical and clean.
“You can make the difference.”
His words received applause, but will they spark action? The annual March for Life is focused on the political aspects of abortion, with high school students delivering symbolic roses to congressmen in the morning, and marchers heading along Constitution Avenue to the steps of the Supreme Court; yet an informal survey among young participants turned up few who were considering a political career. A number expressed a fear of public scrutiny and others considered themselves too idealistic and doubtful of the political process, using words as “compromise,” “sellout,” and even “I don't want to lose my soul.”
Still, Smith is convinced that his offer will gain takers, and he repeats it often in speeches and college commencement addresses. Unless the seed is planted by a committed Christian, the next generation—born in the wake of Watergate and bombarded over the years by a host of political scandals—will not be prepared to take up the mantle of leadership, he says.
“Despite all the negatives you read about, there are laws to be made in this country, and they will be made for good or for ill, depending on the character and ethics of the lawmakers,” Smith, a Catholic, told the Register. “My advice to young people is that this thing called politics can be a ministry. But you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and take part in a nasty business. You must be willing to take the good with the bad, and never use power, unless it is power for the good.”
The toughest decision Smith made was the compromise on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of abortions except to save the life of the mother. Democrats moved to dump the amendment and Smith, Rep. Henry Hyde of Indiana, and their cohorts did not have the votes to preserve it. They settled on a watered down version for the sake of “saving some babies,” Smith explained.
“It broke my heart. We prayed together in Hyde's office,” said Smith. “Every day I hope I've done all that I can.”
Two strong pro-life Catholic senators expressed similar thoughts in recent interviews. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who led the partial-birth abortion debate on the Senate floor said that young people have an obligation to speak out for their beliefs.
“Stay focused on what you believe in, don't let the cross-currents working against you stop your progress. Always remember, abortion is the moral issue of the day. Like with slavery a century ago, this country needs people who are idealistic and active and willing to suffer persecution for the truth. If you walk away from the arena, you'll leave it to those who will promote their own agenda.”
Pennsylvania's Sen. Rick Santorum said that young people must stick to their principles and not buy into the argument that Catholics and other Christians cannot bring their faith into politics.
“There is a moral dimension to what we do. To say that we must leave morality outside the public square leads to immorality all over. This will continue to happen if young people don't stand up and get involved. The battle is going to be won or lost in the public arena.”
He said that the debates and publicity surrounding partial-birth abortion have led to a dramatic shift in how the public views abortion in general and late-term abortion in particular. Recent surveys indicate that 50% of Americans consider abortion murder, and some 61% disapprove of abortion in the second and third trimesters.
These lawmakers are heartened by the entrance into the political fray of a number of ardent pro-life Christians, led by Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. Ten years ago, Terry was the lightning rod leader of a grassroots effort to close abortion clinics by bodily blocking their entrances. Claiming biblical mandate and using apocalyptic imagery, he seemed little interested in the give-and-take of politics.
Yet he recently settled out of court a long-standing lawsuit with the National Organization of Women to be free to set his sights on Capitol Hill. Running on a populist pro-life, pro-family platform, he is seeking the seat of the 26th congressional district in upstate New York. Five other Operation Rescue veterans have begun campaigns in other north-east districts.
If elected in the fall, they will join a group and young, openly Christian legislators who have gained office in recent years, like Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun, the former world record holder in the mile, who speaks easily of God's saving grace, and former football star and now Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, a regular at a weekly Capitol Hill Bible study.
Congress, of course, is not the only goal for committed Christians. Chris Smith tells young people to start with local posts, to test the political waters, develop a winning record and a thick, but not impenetrable, skin. He caught “the bug” to run for Congress in 1980 after working on pro-life issues in college and running the campaign of a New Jersey pro-life candidate.
All Christians are called to sanctify themselves and others through their work, he noted, but politics offers a unique opportunity to labor for the common good of millions and make it easier for them and their families to live safe, moral lives.
“This [congressional] job is strategic, it is a place where I can do a lot of good,” he said. “As Christians and as Catholics, we cannot sit back and say that God will take care of everything. God chooses to work through his people and we have to fight for his kingdom. We need to outwork and out-think the opposition. As Christ said, be gentle as lambs but wise as serpents.”
Sen. Tim Hutchinson, a Baptist minister from President Clinton's home state of Arkansas, said that many young people are reluctant to enter politics because of the scandals surrounding Clinton and other politicians. He tells them, “The reason politics is dirty is because a lot of bad people are in it.”
About pro-life issues, he told the Register, “The other side knows the importance of getting people elected. It's about time we took that seriously too.”
The recent vote by the Republican National Committee rejecting a proposal to cut off campaign funds to candidates who support partial-birth abortion could have a negative effect on young people considering a political career. The one major party whose platform upholds the right to life showed a pragmatic face that placed power above prolife principles. Smith was “amazed by the party leadership who went back to the big tent ideas of party unity.”
Even Hyde, who throughout his career has been one of the leading prolife voices in Congress, voted against withholding funds from Republican candidates who do not support the partial-birth abortion ban.
The ultimate test of Smith's message to young people is found in his own family. He would be thrilled of any of his four children would enter politics .
“There are many mine fields along the way,” he said, “but I trust the Lord will protect them as he has protected me.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.