Former U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon died at the age of 89 on Aug. 7. He was one of the last of a remarkable breed of politicians – a moderate Republican.
In this day of intensely ideological politics, when RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and Blue-dog (conservative) Democrats are marked for extinction, Hatfield seems like an odd duck indeed.
There really was a time, before the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon brought the Southern Democrats en masse into the Republican “big tent,” when liberally minded people like Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Charles Percy and many others populated the party of Lincoln.
It was a different world when I, the great-grandson of an Indiana Union soldier, cast my first presidential ballot for Gen. Eisenhower.
Born into a Baptist family in 1922, Hatfield was interested in politics from his youth.
As a 10-year-old, he passed out election propaganda for Herbert Hoover, of whom he was a life-long admirer.
Hatfield first was involved in school politics, running for various student offices. (The only election he ever lost was for student body president at Willamette College, a Methodist-related institution in Salem, his hometown.)
Upon graduation, he served as a naval officer in the Pacific Theater and after the war earned a master’s degree in political science at Stanford University.
He returned home to take a teaching position at Willamette and within a year was promoted to dean of students.
Hatfield was elected to the state senate in 1954 and two years later became Oregon’s secretary of state.
Meanwhile, his religious faith deepened under the influence of some evangelical students at the college, led by Douglas Coe, who later became a major figure in religious life in the nation’s capital.
In 1953, Hatfield underwent a conversion experience, and thereafter he identified with the Conservative Baptists (a significant denomination in Oregon) and as an evangelical.
In 1958, he was elected governor and soon gained a national reputation as a progressive reformer.
He was assigned to second Richard Nixon’s nomination for president at the 1960 Republican convention and to deliver the keynote address at the 1964 convention.
It appeared the youthful Hatfield was being groomed for vice president, especially since he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966.
However, many fundamentalists/evangelicals were unhappy with him because he denounced right-wing organizations like the John Birch Society, seemed soft on communism and supported the civil rights movement.
What upset them most, however, was his opposition to the Vietnam War, best exemplified by casting the single “no” vote against President Lyndon Johnson’s war policy at the National Governors Conference in 1966.
It was then that I came in contact with Hatfield. In 1966, three of us who were evangelicals and had been students in the University of Iowa’s doctoral history program – Robert Clouse, Robert Linder and myself – were working as assistant professors at state universities.
We were unhappy about the ultraconservatism that permeated our community – super-patriotism, unconcern for the poor and needy, opposition to the civil rights movement and unquestioning support for the Vietnam War.
We felt we must speak out. We recruited some like-minded acquaintances to contribute essays to a book that would question the stance of the evangelical establishment.
Since we were all unknowns, we needed someone who had national stature. Bob Linder, then involved in Kansas Republican politics, approached Gov. Hatfield about a chapter titled “How Can a Christian Be in Politics?” Hatfield agreed to write it.
We assembled the manuscript for “Protest and Politics: Christianity and Contemporary Affairs” but then found to our dismay that no one would touch it.
The rejection letter from a well-known denominational press said that part of their job was to keep things like this from being published. Another editor later apologized to me for rejecting it.
Finally we found an obscure firm in South Carolina, The Attic Press, that would publish it with a subsidy from us. The book finally appeared in 1968.
Thanks to the Hatfield chapter, it attracted some attention and launched our careers as critics, albeit ignored ones, of evangelicalism.
Soon after, Hatfield closely associated with the Sojourners Community and supported its efforts to promote social justice and peace.
Hatfield was a formidable opponent of the war. He and Sen. George McGovern introduced a major end-the-war measure in 1970 and 1971, but it did not pass.
At the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1973, Hatfield gave a stunning speech about the “god of civil religion” and “we must turn in repentance from the sins that scarred our national soul.”
It so upset Nixon that he refused to attend the 1974 event unless it was renamed the “National” Prayer Breakfast.
Later, in the 1980s, Hatfield prevented the passage of a balanced budget amendment by just one vote.
Uneasy at the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party, he decided to retire from the Senate in 1997 after serving 30 years. He spent his last years teaching and speaking.
He was a model of the moderate statesman whose Christian faith, more than some ideology, shaped his actions.
In these troubled times, would that more of our political leaders emulated his example.