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Their faith affects policy & lives on Capitol Hill, congressmen say

WASHINGTON (BP)–Walking the polished marble steps of Washington is like taking an excursion through history — to follow in the steps once made by Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and others who have given leadership to our nation.

Today, a new generation of statesmen and political leaders walk these steps. But what is the source of their inner strength and direction? As they walk these corridors of power, what place does faith play in their own lives?

The pressures may be greater in Washington, said Ed Bryant, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, but the challenges are no different than those experienced by Christians in the private sector.

“I think it’s a challenge for everybody, not just the people that are in Congress,” Bryant said. “Once you step outside your church walls, you’re in a secular world that obviously doesn’t agree with you on a lot of issues.

“Trying to represent everybody in terms of typical political issues is pretty easy, but it’s when you begin to draw that line and talk about social issues — that’s when your faith particularly comes into play, like with abortion,” Bryant said. “I think the answer for me and other people out there is simply living your faith.”

J.C. Watts, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma and a member of the House leadership, also believes that whatever a person’s profession, his or her faith must stay real.

“I think God wants us to grow wherever he plants us,” Watts said. “Whether in the halls of Congress, in education, the business community, in nursing. I think you can be a witness wherever you are. I’ve always thought you should allow your faith to navigate your politics, as opposed to having your politics navigate your faith.

“If your faith is inexplicably woven in your daily lives, I don’t know how you can put it on and take it off,” said Watts, a former Baptist youth pastor who still preaches many times each year around the country.

Tony Hall, a Democratic congressman from Ohio for more than 20 years, focuses much of his work on bringing God into the workplace, particularly in the area of feeding the hungry. Early in his political career, he was challenged as a believer by one of his friends to think about how to integrate his faith with his work. After a visit to Ethiopia in the early ’80s, where he witnessed 25 children die in the space of an hour, he knew what he had to do.

“Coming back on the plane, as I began to read the Scriptures, I began to think — I can bring what the Scriptures say into the workplace and work on them as a congressman and try to save lives at the same time,” Hall said.

But living one’s faith in Washington regularly involves decisions, votes and polls that can dictate whether you return to Congress.

“I think one of the things that would surprise people to know is how much support there is for faith-based lifestyles and faith-based decision-making,” said Roy Blunt, a congressman from Missouri and a former Southern Baptist college president who now serves as Republican chief deputy whip in the House. “There are a number of activities during the course of the week that are available to members of Congress, in both parties.”

These opportunities include early morning prayer breakfasts, afternoon Bible studies and a number of small-group fellowships organized by individual congressmen.

Zach Wamp, a Republican congressman from Tennessee in his third term of office, is active in his fellowship group. Loosely termed “The Fellowship,” he is one of seven members — four Republicans and three Democrats — who share a house during the weeks when Congress is in session.

“We walk together, we meet together, we pray together, we are together,” Wamp said. “That group is then part of a larger group of people of faith in Congress.” Their goal, Wamp noted, is to not just focus on things seen, but to focus on things unseen.

His group sees themselves as ministers not only to each other, but to other members of Congress as well, Wamp said. “The Scripture says pray for laborers. We pray that we would be laborers in the field … .” The principle of the group is based on 1 John 1:7. “If we walk in the light with each other, you know, he will cleanse us from our sin, and we will have fellowship with one another,” he explained.

When mixing politics and faith, Wamp added, the operative word is love.

“A lot of people look at anyone of faith that’s involved in public life and they assume that they’re some self-righteous, Bible-thumping zealot. Our thought and goal is that we would bury Jesus so deep in our heart that everyone would know that he is alive in us, without us preaching to them. St. Francis of Assisi said that in all things preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words.

“The operative word is love. If we can be hearers and carriers of his love to others, then we’re carrying out public service and a life of faith,” Wamp said.

Sam Brownback, a Republican senator from Kansas, agreed.

“One of the most difficult things in politics is to speak truth in love, as we’re called to do. It’s so often come to speak in truth and hate. And then you’re just a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Or worse, you’re harmful to others, and you actually drive people away from Jesus, from the very fundamentals of a God of love.”

When asked how he speaks the truth in love, Brownback explained. “You don’t impugn another person individually. You don’t attack them personally.”

While speaking truth in love on issues may be possible, expressing Christian love across party lines can sometimes prove more difficult. Ronnie Shows, a Democratic congressman from Mississippi who is completing his first term, said he has been discouraged at how partisan relationships can become.

“I’ve actually had some people with whom I’ve shaken their hand find out I’m a Democrat and pull their hand away,” said Shows, who said that partisan views reign in both parties. It’s common for staff members to disassociate themselves with other staff unless they belong to the same party.

“If you’re a good person, and you vote your convictions, I don’t care what party you belong to. I can live with a person if that’s the way they really feel about a particular vote,” said Shows, who added that while he will occasionally vote along party lines, he won’t vote against his convictions.

The majority of politicians who are Christians say that what they need the most are prayers and support of other Christians.

“I ask people all the time if they will pray for all of us in Washington because I realize the decisions we have to make are enormous and very complex,” said Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina. “I think that people of faith really need to be more conscientious and much more serious than ever as to what candidate they might vote for. They need to look in depth at what that person pledges to do.”

Wamp noted that one of the biggest burdens on politicians is the physical separation from home and family. Like most members serving in Congress, Wamp is away from his family during the week and commutes home on weekends.

“People in public office are the same flawed and failed humans that we all are,” Brownback said. “We have the same sets of problems as everybody else. But I would hope that would cause others to pray for people in public office all the more.”

Brownback also pointed out that he wishes more Christians would be active in public service.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m just going to trash this group of people because I think they’re all a bunch of crooks,’ I would hope people would say, ‘No, I’m going to go in and help change the system, and make it better for people and better for the country.'”

While America continues to have its share of problems, with eroding morals and widespread apathy for value and truth, Bryant said he believes there is still hope.

“Without Christ we have no hope. While I realize how difficult our situation can be, there are many good people up here in Washington, as there are around the country, that are praying and trying to do the right thing. We have that hope,” Bryant said. “Without hope, we’re all in trouble. As a believer, we have that hope, and that goes beyond just simply my family having salvation, but also this country. There could be a spiritual revival in the future. Ultimately, that will be what saves this country — a renewal, a spiritual-type revival. I see a sense of people up here that people back home don’t see — a lot of people getting together quietly, and it doesn’t make the headlines of the newspaper or the 6 o’clock news. So I think there’s hope. I really do.”
(BP) photos to be posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ED BRYANT, J.C. WATTS, TONY HALL, ROY BLUNT, ZACH WAMP, SAM BROWNBACK, RONNIE SHOWS, and WALTER JONES.

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  • Sara Horn