“Saint Mark”: An Appreciation of Mark Hatfield

Earlier this summer, Michael Lind suggested that Barack Obama ought to run for the presidency in 2012 — as a Republican.

Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dwight Eisenhower meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders - Eisenhower Presidential Library

His (satirical) argument was that Obama’s domestic (if not foreign) policies hearken back to the golden years of liberal-moderate Republicanism (think Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller), a time when being fiscally conservative (but not opposed to the core of the New Deal) and socially progressive did not seem so odd a couple as they do to most GOP primary voters in 2011-12.

Reading Lind’s piece, I thought of one of my senior colleagues at Bethel, who loves to read for his students the 1960 Republican platform, which had a lengthy section on school desegregation and other civil rights reforms, called for the doubling (“at least”) of immigration, and promised expansion of unemployment insurance, worker’s comp, and the minimum wage. I have no idea for which party this colleague tends to vote nowadays, but I do know that two of his favorite politicians are center-left Republicans who happened to be devoutly Christian: former Minnesota governor Al Quie and former Oregon senator Mark O. Hatfield, who died this past Sunday.

During his five terms in the U.S. Senate, Hatfield defied conventional categories: both as a Republican and as one of the first self-identified evangelicals to rise to such heights in American politics (preceding Jimmy Carter, the first “born-again” president). The obituary in the Los Angeles Times (which compares Hatfield—appropriately, I think—to the great British evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce) is an excellent introduction to the paradox that was “Saint Mark”:

Mark O. Hatfield
Mark O. Hatfield (1922-2011) - U.S. Senate Historical Office

Hatfield, the bedrock of Oregon’s once-robust tradition of moderate Republicanism, was a devout evangelical Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and for years managed to negotiate common ground among the contentious environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty opponents, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents in a state famous for its rollicking political diversity.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations during two terms, Hatfield infuriated his party’s leadership by opposing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and cast the deciding vote in 1986 against a proposed balanced budget amendment, while championing such typically “liberal” issues as handgun control and family medical leave. In the midst of the shrink-government era of Ronald Reagan, Hatfield said he saw his appropriations chairmanship as a golden opportunity for “sending dollars to social programs in desperate need.”

He angered conservationists by insisting on timber harvests from the state’s storied old-growth forests but crowned his legislative career in 1996 by preserving as wilderness the majestic 500-year-old Douglas fir and hemlock trees of Opal Creek in the Willamette National Forest as a sanctuary for nature lovers and the threatened northern spotted owl.

“He has voted according to his conscience, without regard to the politics of the matter. That by itself is unusual,” said former Oregon Gov. Victor Atiyeh, the state’s last Republican governor, an office Hatfield himself held from 1959 to 1967. “He harkens back to a period of time when people would say, “I didn’t agree with him on that, but I’m sure he had a reason for it.’ Instead of, ‘I didn’t agree with him, and I’m going to get him next time,’ which is what happens now.”

Mark Hatfield speaking in 1986
Hatfield speaking in Portland in 1986 - Creative Commons (Steve Morgan)

I wonder how many current members of the Senate oppose both abortion and capital punishment (and, one could add, are nuclear pacifists). Christianity Today adds a mention of one of Hatfield’s finest moments, when he rebuked the radical right-wing John Birch Society (“bigots… who spew forth their venom of hate”) in his keynote address to the 1964 Republican convention, the same event whose nomination of Barry Goldwater marked the beginning of the end of Republican liberalism (or, at least, the beginning of the beginning of the end of it).

Charting this kind of political course became increasingly difficult in Hatfield’s latter years. Interviewed for the CT obit, historian David Swartz sums up Hatfield’s dilemma in terms familiar to many evangelical Christians, myself included: “Partly because evangelicals inaccurately became synonymous with the Religious Right, he was just dismissed as an anomaly. He was left politically homeless, left behind by the secularist push of the Democratic Party and by the Religious Right.”

Frankly, I didn’t know much about Mark Hatfield before this week. He decided to leave the Senate the same year that I first voted in a presidential election, and he doesn’t show up often on my European/diplomatic historian’s radar. But as I’ve read tribute after tribute, I’ve found myself grateful for the reminder that American voters—when given the option that Democratic and Republican activists seem intent on denying them—are willing to entrust their governance to complicated persons rather than political dogmas.

And that one can resist the idolatrous temptations of all such ideological systems and instead (as the Times obit paraphrased Hatfield’s conversion account) “offer his entire life to that service [of Jesus Christ].” Peace be to the memory of Mark Hatfield, and glory be to the Lord he loved and served so faithfully.


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