Chris Smith, Republican congressman from New Jersey, was once a Democrat.
He switched parties in the late 1970s because of the Democratic Party’s embrace of legalized abortion. First elected in 1980 at the age of 27, Smith has been relentless in his support of life. He serves as co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.
He spoke recently with Register senior writer Tim Drake from Washington, D.C.
Tell me about your family.
I grew up in a very strong working class neighborhood — very pro-union, very blue collar. My parents were hard workers. My father was a milk truck driver before he started his own business. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until necessity required her to work at the family enterprise — a sporting goods wholesale store. When Borden’s closed in the late 1960s, my father went into it full time. My father had seen combat and my mother epitomized Matthew 25. They were a perfect team together. I got justice and mercy as a combo.
When did you first decide to enter into politics?
In eighth grade a group of us took a trip to a minor seminary — Blackwood Minor Seminary in Camden. At that age I thought maybe someday I would be a priest. During the trip I got hit in the head by a friend with a shot put. When I woke up I knew I had been hurt. That was the only day I spent at seminary. My wife jokes that that’s the day I decided to go into politics.
Other than the shot put, was there a particular event that spurred you into public service?
It was getting involved in the pro-life movement. In 1972, my first year of college, abortion had been legalized in New York, and New Jersey was considering legalizing it. Many of us were getting concerned. I gave a pro-life speech for a public speaking class and received unbelievable retaliation in response to it.
It became very clear that if you wanted to make a difference on the legal side, you needed to change the law. I ended up running a campaign for Steve Foley, a pro-life Democrat. His theme was “Put life back in the Democratic party.” We found very quickly that we were not treated with respect.
I found that I liked campaigning and policy work. Two years later I ran myself and lost. I ran again in 1980 and won.
I apply the lessons I learned from my parents to the issues of protection for the unborn, anti-trafficking legislation and religious freedom. It’s all part of the same seamless fabric. We care for the least of our brethren. The unborn are the most prejudiced against. We’re approaching 47 million dead in America. We’re getting close to the total number killed in World War II.
What do you make of the 2006 mid-term election results?
I think they were driven by the constant and legitimate concern of people about Iraq. While the Democrats didn’t offer a plan, they offered opposition. I hope those who voted that way will reevaluate what they’ve done. It has put into position people who are vociferously pro-abortion. Eighteen to 19 of our pro-life riders are now at risk because pro-abortionists now run all the committees. People voted against the Republicans because of the war, but now you get this other war.
They also support experimentation on and the destruction of human embryos. I’m asking those who support embryonic stem-cell research to consider that if it ever works, millions of embryos would have to be destroyed in order to meet the projected need. Their only worth would be their utility. I don’t think that has been adequately dealt with.
Is there any hope for forming a coalition with pro-life Democrats on the pro-life front?
We have already done it. There is a remnant of about 20-25 pro-life Democrats who are critical to any pro-life victory we’ve had — people like Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. We work hand-in-glove as friends and colleagues. They have received an enormous amount of pressure from the leadership. I pray that the Democrats, once the party of the little guy and gal, reemerges as such.
I pray that the Republican Party does not become indifferent or take the big tent theory of allowing the tail to wag the dog. We’ve made some progress, but we could have made more had it not been for the fighting in our own ranks.
You grew up Catholic?
Yes, I grew up in Iselin. My neighborhood was near St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church. From first to 12th grade my two older brothers and I went to Catholic school. I’m grateful to my parents for making that decision, from a spiritual as well as an academic point of view. It made a difference for us. That’s why my wife and I chose 12 years of Catholic school for our kids. Throughout, you get a sense of God’s wonder. The order of the cosmos is woven through all the subjects. It’s like the sense of wonder that you get when you go camping. The faith that I received from my family, school and Church put layer upon layer on that. The early years are indispensable for that grounding.
My parents had such a strong faith in Christ and dependence upon Our Blessed Mother. We prayed the Rosary frequently. I remember when I would ride with my dad in his Borden’s milk truck. Often we would go to Mass, and he would tip his hat every time we passed a church. Those signs were indelibly etched into me.
What role does your faith play in your day-to-day decisions?
It’s at the core — hopefully — of everything I try to think, say and do. My wife and I pray every day together, and with our children — the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy or both. I’m trying to constantly turn to the Lord, praying, “Lord, what can we do?”
Congress needs wisdom more than anything else. There is so much surface appeal and intellectual dishonesty. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the abortion fight. When Nancy Pelosi invited all the children to come touch the gavel during her swearing in, she said this Congress is about the children. She’s leaving someone out. She’s voted for partial-birth abortion, for abortion funding and to [allows teens to] violate parental notification laws. Watching that vexed me. Is it ignorance? Blindness? I don’t know. That’s where faith comes in. I started praying for the speaker. We’re supposed to pray for those in authority.
Has there ever been a time when your faith has been seriously tested?
During college I had a time of testing. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it’s me that was having the problem. I read about six of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s books, and read through the Psalms, Proverbs and the New Testament a few times. I prayed about it and asked for God’s wisdom.
What I’ve found most discouraging in Congress is the intellectual dishonesty — that which is implausible masquerading as plausible. You can’t be pro-child if you’re slaughtering an entire class of people.
Pro-abortionists are being aided and abetted by the medical and academic community, including academics at Catholic universities. [There are Catholic Colleges that] have vehemently pro-abortion teachers. I don’t understand that.
There’s a great sense of indifference on the abortion issue. With 4-D ultrasound, we know that the life of an unborn child is a robust one. They aren’t lying there like a potted plant. They’re breathing and going through the miracle and explosion of life. Yet, so many people don’t want to touch that issue. Our pro-life academics should be standing at the forefront.
Tell me about the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005, which you authored.
We started working with interested parties at 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. The bill provides more than $250 million for the creation of a bone marrow/umbilical cord blood system for freezing, typing and matching. I still maintain that the best kept secrets are the cures that have been attributed to cord blood. The supply is without limit. I’m all for stem cells — the ethical type. It took us three years to get heard above the chorus of embryonic stem-cell research that crowded out legitimate cord-blood research. Embryonic is the false hope, not the Rolls Royce, of stem cells.
I’m convinced that the reason the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and Planned Parenthood types, by and large, support embryonic stem-cell research is that the more you make us dependent upon the unborn, the harder it will be to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.