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Baptist congressman has learned even losing ‘is a way of serving’

WASHINGTON (BP)–Ever know a politician who not only did not mind losing but seemed actually to thrive on it? If not, meet Tom Coburn.

It probably is a misnomer even to call the U.S. States representative from northeastern Oklahoma a politician.

He pledged when he was first elected in 1994 to spend no more than three terms in the House of Representatives. He declined his government pension and health-care benefits. As a Republican, he has frequently exasperated his party’s leaders, especially in his resolve to reduce federal spending. His outspoken convictions on moral issues have not ingratiated him with liberals. He infuriated moderate and liberal House members of his own party earlier this year when he campaigned on behalf of a conservative challenger to a congresswoman in a GOP primary. He has continued to practice medicine weekly in Muskogee, Okla., throughout more than five years in Congress.

And he takes on losing causes. He is able to do so, Coburn says, because of the security found in his relationship with Jesus.

If the things you believe in are “really [grounded] in biblical principles, it’s OK to stand up for them and lose,” Coburn, a Southern Baptist, says in an interview in his office on Capitol Hill. “I don’t win a whole lot of victories up here, but I don’t back down from any fight if it’s based on something that I believe is right.

“The real thing I’ve learned is losing is a way of serving … . [Christians] have already won. We don’t have to have a victory.”

Coburn’s time in Congress has reinforced for him “that self-esteem comes mainly from the Lord.” When you know “the price was paid for you, even though you’re fallen and you fail every day, [and] that you have tremendous value … that’s enough security. I don’t have to have security from winning.”

The willingness to lose on principle was one of the reasons Coburn ran for Congress in the first place, he says.

“I believe that it’s OK to stand up for what you believe in, even if some other people don’t like it,” he says. “[W]hen you do that, it builds trust. And one of the things that we’re lacking today in our country is confidence and trust in our leadership.”

Another reason he decided to seek a congressional seat is based on his belief “people besides career politicians ought to be in Washington,” the maverick from Muskogee says.

“I honestly believe … that we will never have a true representative body in Washington as long as we have the careerism that we have now,” he says. “And the reason that I feel that way is because decisions are made to the benefit of the political goal instead of the benefit of the country. I don’t believe that [the country’s founders] thought that decisions would be made on how to maintain power rather than how to represent people.”

One of numerous times Coburn’s determination to stand for his beliefs clashed with congressional careerism came on the ongoing attempt to introduce RU 486, the French abortion pill, into this country. Twice, the House passed a measure by Coburn that would have prevented the Food and Drug Administration from using federal funds for the testing, development or approval of any abortion-inducing drug. The last time, 1999, the margin was only three votes. Both times, however, the Senate failed to follow the House’s example.

“Just go out and ask Americans, ‘Should the federal government be figuring out how to kill babies in the womb, and should we be spending tax dollars on how to do that?’ And I would tell you I think 85 percent of this country would say, ‘No, you really shouldn’t be doing it.’

“[W]e’ve got careerists in the Senate that are beholden to the special interests, and they never consider the moral question,” Coburn says. “They consider, ‘Well, here’s the way things are. They’ve worked this way, so why rock the boat? It might hurt my election chances.'”

His three terms have been marked by successes in battling government waste and encouraging HIV testing of infants. He founded the Congressional Family Caucus, a coalition of representatives who seek to support the family. Coburn also has become known for his annual sex-education slide show. Each summer when the intern population on Capitol Hill is at its peak, Coburn hosts a luncheon/slide presentation with graphic evidence of the harm caused by sexually transmitted diseases. About 400 young men and women attended last year.

With two exceptions for House votes, Coburn has returned to Muskogee every weekend he has been in Congress. When he is home, he not only spends time with his wife, Carolyn, and their family, which includes three grown daughters and two grandchildren, and attends New Community Church, but he sees patients and does congressional work in the district. Every fourth weekend he is the doctor on call for the practice. The weekend prior to this interview, Coburn delivered five babies, three to unmarried teenagers. Last year, he delivered about 100 children.

Though it has taken him away from home and his practice, being in Congress has strengthened him spiritually, Coburn says.

He has memorized, as he put it, “a ton of Scripture” on airplanes and in Washington; he meets with House colleagues from both parties in a Bible study on Tuesday nights; and he leads six House staffers, all but one from other offices, in a Wednesday morning study.

“Scripture has become more real to me,” Coburn says, “the realization that it is inerrant, that the truths that Jesus spoke apply in Washington, D.C., and the House of Representatives as much as they apply if you were going to work or anything else you do. And, matter of fact, they probably have more impact. The greater the challenge, the more impact they have.”

While his losses in Congress have been numerous, it appears Coburn will leave Washington at the end of this session with a decisive personal win.

“My greatest victory is the closer walk [with Christ] that I have now than what I had when I came up here,” he says.

Reprinted from Light, bimonthly publication of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: TOM COBURN.