New Catholic Elected Officials Hope to Lead with Faith
Newcomers to public service encourage other Catholics to enter the public arena.
They come from different places and different backgrounds. One spent his teenage years adjusting to life in the United States as a refugee of the Vietnam War. Another is less than a decade removed from serving as Miss Minneapolis.
But whatever their differences, Catholics newly elected to state or federal office this November have responded to a similar call to enter into public service — with many of them telling the Register that their faith, in one way or another, played a critical role in their decision to seek election.
Newly elected Arizona State Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott, for instance, told the Register that he decided to run after becoming “a little bit worn out” of attacks on religious freedom in the public square. In particular, the convert cited hostility displayed toward the Catholic beliefs of then circuit-court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in 2017 as a reason for wanting to get involved in the political process.
Others, like Lisa McClain, Michigan’s newest U.S. congresswoman, emphasize the role her Catholic faith played in clarifying her course of action.
“I prayed about the opportunity to run, and my faith has kept me going during the entire campaign,” McClain, a Republican, told the Register while in Washington for new House member’s orientation.
Julia Coleman, who was nine months pregnant with her first child when she announced her bid for Minnesota’s Senate, also leaned on prayer at the beginning of and throughout her successful campaign.
“The only reason I felt I had the calling and strength to run for office during that time in my life was because of my faith,” said the Republican, who, at 28, will be Minnesota’s youngest state senator.
Tony Gonzales, a new Republican U.S. congressman from Texas, told the Register that faith was “a big part of our campaign,” from beginning to end.
“On election night, when we got word that we were successful and won, the very first thing I did was praise God and give thanks and all the glory to him,” said Gonzales.
Foundation for Actions
Of course, if done well, the faith of newly elected Catholics won’t be left on the campaign trail. Many of the newcomers to state or federal office who spoke to the Register say their faith will continue to inspire them as they serve their constituents.
Pro-life concerns topped the list of ways those who spoke with the Register said they hoped to put their faith into action. Some talked about advocating for policies that protect life from conception to natural death. Others mentioned cutting off public funding to abortion businesses.
Beyond specific issues, the Catholic faith was also mentioned as a foundation from which to bridge the oft-acrimonious partisan divide for the sake of the common good.
“As a Catholic, I plan to work with everyone who wants to better our country,” said Representative-elect McClain.
State Sen.-elect Coleman said that her Catholic faith informs her policy views “the same way it informs every decision I make.” In Arizona, State Rep.-elect Nguyen says something similar.
“I love Jesus, and he’s always going to be a part of my decisions,” he said.
Integrating public service with the rest of one’s life as a Catholic is the approach advocated for by Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a relative newcomer to political life who just won a second term as a Missouri state representative. Coleman said that one’s Catholicity shouldn’t be fragmented between his or her public and private activity, but should be a constant. She said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s now famous observation to then-judicial nominee Barrett in 2017 that “the dogma lives loudly in you” is “a really beautiful thing to have said to you,” and a sign that a Catholic in public service is living authentically.
“If I’m doing it right, I’m trying to do it in a way that’s fully integrated with who I am,” said Coleman of her vocation as a Catholic in public life. “It’s not a piece of who I am. It’s just who I am.”
As a state legislator, Coleman said that while particular solutions might differ, this means bringing the moral teachings of the Church to bear on every issue that comes up — from serving the poor to ensuring the education of children. In fact, a tax lawyer by trade, Coleman got her start in politics by serving a one-term stint in local government to address a number of lawsuits her municipality was facing.
“Although we’re not of this world, we are in it,” she said of the mindset that motivated her initial foray into political office. “And we have an obligation to contribute to helping our community.”
Calling All Catholics
Obviously, this obligation to contribute to one’s community can be lived out in various ways, most of which don’t include running for office. But those interviewed for this story offered encouragement to fellow Catholics who might be considering venturing into politics, even if it’s a local level, like a city council or a public school board.
Coleman pointed out that, at least at the state level, legislative offices are not meant to be fulltime jobs. She has found that, although the work is important, the expectation in Missouri is that legislators are primarily at home and in their community, allowing her to be faithful to both her political calling, but also her primary vocation as a wife and mother of six children.
Coleman also addressed another concern some Catholics might have about venturing into political life: its inherent imperfection and “messiness.”
“Well it is messy,” she says, acknowledging the difficulty of the work. “But if somebody has an interest and they feel like that’s the work that you’re supposed to do, I think we have to trust that God will equip us to do that work, even in a messy arena.”
Others encourage Catholics interested in politics to not be afraid that their faith might be a liability.
“Just be who you are,” said Gonzales, who attributed his own electoral success to being clear about his Catholic identity. “If faith is important to you, let it be important to you. Don’t try to necessarily shy away from that.”
McClain said it’s important to have more Catholics serving in public office, especially given what she characterizes as a challenging moment in U.S. political life, during which the Catholic faith can help “lead us in the right direction.”
Nguyen agreed, and encouraged Catholics to overcome any complacency that may be holding them back from giving more of themselves.
“I think Catholics need to think about what’s going on,” he said. “They need to step up. Can you think of a better time to be involved than this?”