Elected U.S. senator in Kansas in 1996 to finish Sen. Bob Dole's unexpired term after he ran for president, he was re-elected in 1998. He has co-sponsored several pro-life bills, notably to end partial-birth abortion and to make all cloning illegal. He and his wife, Mary, have five children and live in Topeka, Kan.
Brownback spoke to the first graduating class of the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then spoke by phone with Register correspondent Bob Horning.
Your bout with melanoma in 1995 was a turning point both in your career and in your life. What happened?
When you hear those words “you have cancer,” something grabs you at that moment and it tells you that there's an end to the physical existence here and it may come sooner than you want it to.
I deem it a great, great privilege and a great, great blessing that God let me stare at the end of life and work back from that at a relatively early age, to be able to see that what I was pursuing at that time was not something that was going to last. And that while I might achieve a position, I was not going to do anything that was lasting; that I was pursuing things that just weren't worthwhile. It caused a radical departure and a radical change.
In what way?
Prior to that, I was pretty much a standard, how-far-can-I-climb politician, wanting to get to the top for I guess no other reason than it's there. I saw that my objectives were carnal, not eternal. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” I was able to draw near to God and saw that he loves me — and all of us — incredibly. Though it was a time of mental anguish, it became a beautiful time. Suffering brings on glory. It was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me.
You know that old saying, “You can't take it with you?” It's true in an earthly sense. If we play for earthly things, they just don't last. But in the spiritual sense you can take it with you. You can trade in wanton mammon for the eternal. In the parable of the good and faithful steward, he was rewarded for his work by being given rule over a number of cities. What we do here can be put into an eternal bank.
Are you completely free from cancer now?
I am. We were fortunate to catch it at an early stage. I still go in for a checkup every year to make sure all is clear.
How did growing up on a pig farm in Parker, Kan., prepare you for a career as a public servant?
Being raised on a farm helped instill a work ethic and a strong desire to serve. It was a small family farm, which my dad and brother (I have two brothers and a sister) still operate today.
How did you get from agriculture to law to politics?
I was involved with Future Farmers of America and expected to go back to the farm after school. Law was a profession that I thought I could do to support the farming. But my wife didn't want to go back to the farm. From law to politics is a natural move because you already understand the law and are now switching to writing laws. [Brownback became the youngest secretary of agriculture in state history in 1986].
You aren't able on Capitol Hill to say the same things you can now to Catholic readers. How do you express your faith in Washington?
Eternal principles don't change no matter whom you are talking to. Fortunately we can put them into the language of the day. For example, you can rephrase “to whom expected,” and people will know what you mean even if they don't know it's from the Bible.
Does an eternal perspective work in Washington?
Sure. Talking to a person's spirit and soul rather than to his flesh is much more powerful. For instance, we could discuss the usefulness of the NASA program within the framework of national security. That leads to endless debate. Or we can discuss it from the point of view that one of man's purposes is to soar and to discover. Almost everyone will agree with that.
When you are speaking to a group of people, you know when you are able to lift their souls. This country needs things that focus on the soul and cause it to soar. Sure, we have to care for the physical, but we need also to engage the soul of this country. The greatness of our country at this time is that it can and must help others and stand for their dignity. Look at Iraq. One of the enduring pictures there is seeing liberty on the faces of the women in Baghdad.
It's important for American Christians to pray for their leaders. What else should we be doing?
There is a grace that comes with being a senator, but we need prayer, too. Prayer moves the hand of God. He put us in charge here, and he wants us to ask him for help.
Let me tell you a little story the necessity of prayer. When she spoke to us in Congress, what she said most of the time was, “Pray for the sisters, pray for the sisters.” And I thought at the time that this was kind of a throwaway line. Why would you say that, why don't you ask us for something tough like a billion dollars? I'm thinking in legislative terms — but she was asking for the most powerful thing we could give her. And I ask it from you. Pray for us in Washington. Pray for the leaders of your country. It's the most powerful thing you can do.
I must say I was a bit disappointed at the time because I was hoping for one of her great one-liners. Afterward, as I put her in her car, she took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said three words four times. “All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus.” I received the wisdom of the universe right there.
The second thing is to repent if we have walked away from God; likewise to repent of our wayward actions, individually and corporately. We need to identify with our sins and walk away from them. In recent years we have gone away from the protective hand of God, but now we are moving back to our motto, “In God We Trust.” It is still our motto.
And whatever we do, it has to be encased in love, or it will be counterproductive.
Bob Horning writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.