Lessons in Statesmanship

Lessons in Statesmanship
Photo credit: Shad Reed

Tom Minnery: How did you wind up serving on Capitol Hill?

Tom Coburn: I was practicing medicine, seeing the encroachment (of government on the private sector). People that knew me in high school, college, med school—nobody would have said, "This guy's suited for politics." But I became so disenchanted with my personal representative and the direction of the country. And with Bill Clinton at that time trying to push socialized medicine, which is destroying quality of care in this country today, I just kind of woke up one morning and God laid it on my heart, You need to think about this. My wife said, "You're nuts." She said, "Why in the world? You're doing what you want, you deliver all these babies, you have this great big practice, people love you. Why would you go do that?" and I said, "I don't know, I just feel called."

Everybody in my district at that time was highly Democratic, it had one Republican back in 1920 for one term. Everybody said, "You can run but you can't win, it's impossible." And so long story short, I got kind of a confirmation and did it and didn't do a conventional campaign at all and ran and won. And of course it was the right time to run—I didn't know that, I just knew I was called to run and didn't have any doubt about it.

TM: So you wanted to go and you wanted to keep your faith intact. How did you do that?

TC: The best benefit of my time in Washington—beside the great relationship I had with my staff which were stellar, I mean stellar, all believers, just great young individuals—was a group called The Fellowship. It's a group of people on the Hill and around the world and around the country that work to be followers of Jesus. I started meeting with a group of guys, Democrats and Republicans, around the teachings of Jesus and having dinner and talking and praying together and studying together, and I did that for 16 years, every Tuesday night while I was there.

TM: A lot of people run for office because they want to cut the size of government, throw the bums out, or shut it down. Why is that not motivation enough?

TC: You can't be effective by being mad. As a matter of fact, that's one of the reasons social conservatives and fiscal conservatives lose elections—they're seen as angry rather than compassionate. And you know the grace that we're given and the commandments that we're given is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves—those aren't just Sunday tools. And so righteous indignation is a component of what you work with and should be utilized appropriately, but it's only effective if it's seen coming from somebody that has real compassion, somebody who's gained respect. So we can be as angry as we want, but we're not going to change anything by being mad about it.

What we have to do is change the hearts of people—and if you really want to change somebody, you have to love them. You can't be mad at them, you have to love them.

TM: So much that the Bible speaks about seems foreign to the detailed work of the federal budget—knowing when to stand, when to allow something to go through. How can one hear from God on secular worldly details of the federal budget?

TC: Well I don't think you do. I think you hear from God in terms of are you supposed to go and serve, one. Two, are you using the principles of Jesus as you go and serve? And three, do you grant people the same grace and mercy that you've been granted through your salvation? You're not going to get an answer on each one of those issues, but the question is, are you loving God and are you loving your neighbor? How you carry yourself so that you can be effective. Being there for the right reason with the right purpose, because you feel called to be there and it doesn't have anything to do with your ego.

I will readily admit when I first ran for Congress it was because I wanted to see change and I was disgusted. I wasn't angry, I was disgusted because I saw the games being played with the future of our country. I didn't have any respect for that—and I still don't, having served up there 16 years. I don't have any respect for the vast majority of the people that actually serve in the Senate and the House because I see a motivation that is different based on what you see coming out of their actions than what they claim. So what does my faith tell me, what am I supposed to do? What's important? Am I to be a tool to change things?

People used to ask me how they could pray. Pray that I'll be obedient to and understand what I'm called for. I think a lot of people run for office for a lot of good reasons, but I think the best people are the ones who actually have no fear of losing at all, and understand standing up for doing the right thing is an honorable way to lose an election.

TM: You said a moment ago that you don't respect many of the people you have worked with up there. How is it possible to love people whom you don't respect?

TC: Because I'm commanded to. And here's the difference. As I recognize my human frailty I recognize my unworthiness. My judgment about some of their aspects of unworthiness—they're probably more worthy than I am, so therefore I can work with them because we've all fallen short. I can't stand in judgment.

What I can say is I have no respect for the decisions and positions that are taken because I don't see a trail that's based on truth. One of the things Jesus said, and to me—20 years ago I learned this—Jesus said, "When I leave I'm going to send a helper, and the helper will guide you in all truth." Most believers haven't grasped hold of what that means. That means you can actually know what you're supposed to do and be settled spiritually about your actions. And the second thing, which is probably even more important, is Jesus said, "The helper will remind you of everything I've taught you." The big key for Christians today is number one: They don't know what Jesus said – all of what he said—so they can't be reminded. So we've failed through the church body to address that knowledge deficit so the Holy Spirit can remind them.

So when you're interacting with somebody you don't have respect for, but then you recognize your grace need is greater than probably theirs is, you can in fact listen to the Holy Spirit and know how to interact. So that's not hard. And once you've learned to depend on the Holy Spirit to interact with people and to love them the way we're commanded, all of a sudden you kind of get on autopilot because it's you following the lead of the Holy Spirit, not you, Tom Coburn, acting on your own without any consideration of what your faith actually means in truth as you interact with people.

TM: It seems impossible in a divided legislative arena to accomplish your principles—particularly the principles of social conservatives who believe in the absolute dignity of human life and God's definition of marriage. What's the use of trying to work toward those principles if you can't achieve them completely?

TC: Well, the opposite of that is, "Let's quit trying." We should never quit. We're commanded not to quit. We're commanded to live in a way that protects human life. The recognition of those commands are built into our founding documents.

It's not about whether we accomplish it; God will decide whether we accomplish it. There's no promise that this nation will be blessed by God. Our past blessings no doubt have been because the vast majority of America was obedient and faithful to God's commands. I don't think that's true anymore. But the most important way to try is not in a speech on a legislative floor; the way you try is how you treat people when you're not on the legislative floor. How you interact with them, how you give them consideration.

We can't be intolerant of somebody and love them at the same time. You can be intolerant of what they espouse—and what we've done is mix some of that being intolerant of the person instead of what the person's spoken idea is.

After Hurricane Katrina, I was on a mission to change spending in Washington. I saw an opportunity to make an object lesson—the Bridge to Nowhere. Here's this great big earmark, and I lost that vote. I had 13, 14 people vote with me on that. That was the seminal moment because we tried. But even though we lost, we really won because that's what changed and eliminated earmarks at the federal level, or that vast majority of them.

So God calls us to be obedient; He didn't necessarily call us to win. How you carry your fight is just as important as what you're fighting over. But there's no guarantee that you win but He is in control. And that's why knowing who you are and why you're in office and why you're running for office is so important—because if you're running for the wrong reasons you'll never meet the call.

TM: A lot of pro-life people say any political office holder who compromises on any single unborn life is not truly pro-life, and you can simply leave that up to God.

TC: I just don't agree with that. As an obstetrician who's delivered 4,000 babies, there are people who would say what I've done is wrong when I've had two or three woman in my career who were definitely going to die had I let their pregnancies continue. Those people would say I'm no different than a regular abortionist. The question is, how pure is pure? The question is, what does the heart say? This is not about having flexible morals; it's about doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason and being guided by great moral principles that come from our faith.

I've had lots of opposition because I've terminated two pregnancies to save a woman's life, and both of them had massive congenital heart defects and would have died at three or four months of the baby's gestation. And they were already in heart failure by the time we had to make that decision. So it's not always black and white. God's principles are black and white; man's reasoning isn't always black and white. I think it goes back to a paraphrase of Martin Luther King: Vanity asks, "Is it popular?" Cowardice asks, "Is this expedient?" But conscience asks, "Is it right?"

Where does conscience come from? Is that just an outside source or is it based on your faith, being guided by the Helper to know all truth and be reminded of what Jesus said? So I have no problems doing things that somebody in the majority might think is wrong if I feel comfortable that the Holy Spirit has guided me to that position and is not in conflict with the teachings of Jesus. Otherwise all of us are robots. The reason we're valuable to God is we have a free will, and we get to choose whether or not we're going to respond and be in relationship with Him. Their position is, "Everybody is a robot and you will go X, Y, Z." That throws out the Holy Spirit, that throws out the fact that maybe we can know truths from the Holy Spirit and that we can actually apply Jesus' teachings at a mini-second as we're interacting with somebody or making decisions as a legislator or as a father or as a husband or as an employer or employee.

The fact is, faith works if it's applied and you use the Holy Spirit to help make you make decisions. The other key to that is you've got to surround yourself with people who believe in the Holy Spirit and also understand the teachings of Jesus. Otherwise ego takes you away.

TM: Learning the rules, reading the bills, detail work. How important is that?

TC: The rules are very important. As a member in any legislative body, you need to have one person work for you that knows them inside and out, and you need to know them inside and out. Nobody else will, so you'll have a leg up—and when things are actually happening on the floor, if you know the rules and other people don't, then you can exert real influence, have real power.

TM: A state legislator would say, "You've got staff to help you read the bills—I don't have anybody."

TC: Here's my answer to that: If you haven't read a bill and you're expected to vote on it, you better be voting no. It's dishonest to vote on a bill if you don't know what's in it—to me you're either lazy or you haven't taken your oath seriously. And if it means you have to stay up all night to read it, you better have read it. I didn't personally read all the bills because there are so many, but I knew what was in every bill that ever got to the floor; I knew it inside and out and I could speak on it on the floor.

TM: In your farewell speech to the Senate last December, you said that you had stolen a term that most conservatives run from and that is compromise. It's hard to marry the idea of standing for one's principles with compromising in the arena. Tell us about that.

TC: Let's go back to your earlier example on pro-life issues. I don't think there's anyone more pro-life than me in the Senate. Are you compromising if you vote on partial-birth abortion knowing you can't eliminate Roe v. Wade this year? Is that a compromise? Yeah, it is. That doesn't mean you're no longer pro-life.

So the question becomes how do you give room for people who have a different position than you to move and not undermine your principles, your core values, and still accomplish something? Most of the time you won't accomplish a great deal, but you can move things that are better for the people you represent.

Every time I did a hold, I wrote a letter to the author of the bill and to the Senate saying, "Here's why I'm holding this bill. There's either a constitutional reason or it's not paid for." There was a reason why I was doing it, and I was not afraid to stand up and say, "This is what it is." But we also said, "If you want to try to fix , we're happy to try and accommodate you by moving some things around and making it either constitutional or limiting its scope, and then we'll lift our hold." About half the Senate would work with me. The other half just said, "Phhht, I don't want it." Which tells you they weren't that interested in it in the first place—they were passing a bill so they'd look good at home rather than actually believing in what they were doing. That's why we're not getting great outcomes—they're there for the wrong reasons and it's not for the best interest of the country, in my estimation, a large number of them. It's harsh. I know it's harsh, but my observations are my observations.

© 2015 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the November, 2015 issue of Citizen magazine.