When legislators gather officially in some states, their day starts with a prayer. Some members take it to heart. But truth to tell, for many of them, it’s just a brief ritual, something quickly forgotten as they move on to the business at hand.
When roughly 30 legislators gather one week in late July, however, it’s not about going through the motions.
There, each morning starts with worship and devotions—a solid 45 minutes’ worth. The study leader, former U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), focuses on biblical figures such as Daniel, Esther and Joseph, all of whom had to maintain and live by their faith while dealing with pagan government authorities.
It’s an apt beginning for the Statesmen Academy, sponsored by Family Policy Foundation and held this summer on the Focus on the Family campus in Colorado Springs. Teaching Christian legislators to function faithfully and effectively in secular government is what the gathering is all about.
Now in its second year, the Academy is headed by its director, Tom Minnery. His name is likely familiar to many Citizen readers: Minnery is the founding editor of this publication, and he spent decades working in public policy, first as Focus on the Family’s senior vice president for government and public policy, then in a similar role at CitizenLink—now known as Family Policy Alliance (FPA), a sister group to the Foundation and a public-policy partner of Focus on the Family.
When Minnery retired from CitizenLink/FPA in 2015, he knew his work wasn’t quite done yet.
“We’re in an era where legislators holding Judeo- Christian moral beliefs are facing ever-more hostile
media and highly divisive politics,” he tells Citizen. “There will be more and more establishment pressure put on these legislators to shed principles–particularly those legislators who could emerge as leaders themselves and carry on the fight for godly values.”
Minnery’s vision: Create a training program to equip newcomers in state legislatures—those who’ve taken office in recent years or who are running—with the knowledge, wisdom and inspiration of public-policy veterans.
“We teach them the legislative art of patience and persistence, unwavering principles and passionate, respectful advocacy,” he says. “In short, we’re training politicians in the practice of effective politics.”
A valuable partner in finding “students”: state-based Family Policy Councils (FPCs), whose staffers have an idea which legislators might have an interest in the Academy and benefit from it. FPA hosts the FPC annual conference at the same time as the Academy—functioning on separate tracks, but overlapping at times—so the legislators and their in-state allies can share the event.
This year’s Academy speakers included Alberto Gonzales, a former U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush; former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.); U.S. Rep Daniel Webster (R-Fla).; and Pitts, who spearheaded the founding of the Values Action Team, a group of pro-family congressional members. Speakers also included numerous others less well known on the national level, but packed with relevant experience on the state level.
It’s all about meeting the attendees’ needs, says FPA President and CEO Paul Weber—from lawmaking experience to policy expertise to historical perspective.
“Each speaker was carefully selected with specific purposes in mind,” he tells Citizen. “You can see it in the presentations—the information, the passion, the personal examples to bring their points to life.”
Prudence and Principle
Part of the Academy necessarily is inside baseball—knowing legislative rules and procedures, shepherding bills, working with other elected officials, communicating with constituents.
But the Academy also deals with big themes. And one of them, running through multiple presentations and discussions, is the challenge of how to be both practical and principled.
Minnery lays out the issues on opening night: “When things get done in the legislative arena, how do they get done? When do you swallow hard and accept less than your principles require?” In his experience, “When hard things get done, they get done bit by bit—incrementally.”
That’s a point speakers expand on in the following days. Like Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for Americans United for Life—a leading group both in defending pro-life goals in court and in developing bills that tend to survive legal challenges.
Forsythe cites numerous laws states have passed over the years which have saved lives, protected health and upheld respect for families and parental rights. Among other examples, 40 states have laws requiring that parents either be notified or give their consent before their teen daughters can have abortions; 33 have enforceable informed-consent laws, including 27 requiring a mandated reflection period before getting an abortion; 24 have ultrasound requirements; 32 plus the District of Columbia limit taxpayer funding of abortion; 20 limit abortion after 20 weeks; and 48 protect medical workers’ rights of conscience.
And remarkably, 38 have fetal-homicide laws—30 dating back to conception—that could set the stage for a future U.S. Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade. These laws allow those charged with the murder of a pregnant woman to also be held accountable for the death of her preborn child.
Forsythe cites these as examples of the benefits of a strategy of prudence—always pursuing principles as best you can under existing limitations while never losing sight of the work that remains to be done.
“Prudence is not pragmatism,” Forsythe stresses. “Pragmatism is just ‘getting things done.’ Prudence is oriented toward the moral good. It’s not just skirmishing and tactics.”
Such a strategy has a long history in the United States, says Matthew Spalding, associate vice president of Hillsdale College. In fact, there wouldn’t be a United States without it.
Spalding analyzes how the Founding Fathers were forced to tolerate slavery in the beginning, but sought to limit it and saw it as an evil that would die out in time. And he reviews how Lincoln—disdained by abolitionists in his time—sought the most effective practical ways to resist slavery at any given point, while drawing the line at compromises that would lock it in place permanently.
“There were certain places he wouldn’t go and there are certain places you can’t go,” Spalding says. “You can’t accept a compromise that puts you in a position where you are in full cooperation with the thing you are opposing.”
While supporting incremental change, Spalding also warns against what Martin Luther King called “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”—getting comfortable with a slow pace until you’re walking in place.
“Incrementalism means incremental movement toward something,” Spalding says. “If it’s not getting there, it’s not incrementalism.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Just as important as maintaining your principles is how you treat people who don’t share them, the speakers stress.
“You have to learn to build relationships not only on your side, but also on the other side,” says Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. “Building relationships is everything.”
“You don’t have to compromise your core principles to work with people who disagree with you,” says Coburn. “If you approach people with contempt, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Coburn has credibility when he says that. While in the U.S. Senate, he was known for taking strong conservative stands when some others in his party were inclined to go along to get along. Yet he also prayed regularly for colleagues with whom he disagreed—and that influenced both his attitude and the way in which he expressed himself.
“If you’re down on your knees praying for someone, it’s hard to come out and criticize them (personally),” he says. “Your tone totally changes.”
Gazelka can relate to that.
“I told all my senators, ‘I want all of you to be statesmen and stateswomen,’ ” he says. “People are going to notice we’re different. We’re not going to be the ones who are constantly cutting people down. We’re going to disagree (with them) and fight (for issues), but we’re going to do it in a way that’s honoring.”
A servant mindset and two-way communications skills are musts both with voters and colleagues, says Webster—who, prior to Congress, spent 28 years in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, two of them as House Speaker. And that means talking with people, not at them.
“The key is listening,” he says. “You can’t serve people without knowing what their needs are. It’s impossible.”
While many political differences are vast and perhaps unbridgeable, it’s even possible to find common ground with people in the other party at times, former Indiana state Rep. Eric Turner has found.
“It seems like there’s nothing the ‘good guys’ can agree on with the ‘bad guys,’ ” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. The opposing party is not the enemy.”
Turner cites a case where he worked with the late state Rep. Bill Crawford to sponsor a bill to expunge criminal records after a suitable period—if the sentence is served and no other crimes committed afterward, and if the crime is a misdemeanor or a nonviolent, nonsexual felony. Both men agreed that permanent records were too much like a life sentence, forever denying people jobs and a chance to re-enter productive society.
“I’m a conservative, rural, white Republican (teaming up) with a liberal, inner-city, black Democrat,” Turner says. “We were very much the odd couple.”
It took 11 years for the bill to pass, starting by facing overwhelming opposition before gradually building a majority. When Crawford died in 2015, Turner learned he had tried to pass the bill every year for four decades.
“That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Turner says.
Food for the Soul
As the week winds down, participants have covered a lot of ground. There’s history—the Founders’ intent for politics, Lincoln’s handling of emancipation, the progress of the pro-life movement. There are practical politics—what works and what doesn’t when dealing with
social-issues legislation, how to move bills with help from pro-family groups, how to rise in leadership. There’s
social-science research—what passions and priorities motivate different generations from Baby Boomers to Millennials, and what kinds of challenges and opportunities each of these presents.
Through it all, there’s always a Christian emphasis. Rising in leadership means not sacrificing your faith, but living by it and treating others according to it. Functioning in a secular environment is a question not of whether to maintain your Christian identity, but of how to do it wisely and productively.
And worldly success must never become an idol. You have to count the cost of taking a stand. “If you’re a principled legislator who has a strong Christian faith, you will be persecuted,” Turner says. And important as legislative victories are, “winning is knowing Jesus,” Coburn says. If you don’t, “everything else doesn’t count.”
A lot of legislators—current or aspiring—would have liked to attend the Statesmen Academy this year. Most of them didn’t get to do it. Out of 200 potential participants considered, just 30 were chosen—a reflection of how deep the talent pool of pro-family new blood is, and a hint of how many contenders are in the mix for future years.
“The quality of this class of Statesmen was terrific,” Weber says. “We looked at a lot of good people, and these 30 rose to the top.”
Weber’s enthusiasm for this group is only magnified by the enthusiasm he’s heard them express.
“I gauge their response not only by their comments—which were exceptionally positive and generous—but also by their engagement in the sessions,” he says. “I think that comes from the fact that they’re in a relatively intimate group with their peers, listening to spot-on advice from incredible leaders who’ve walked right where they’re walking. That’s a powerful combination.”
It’s not hard to find legislators who show what Weber’s talking about.
“We had great, thought-provoking speakers,” Idaho state Rep. Priscilla Giddings (R-White Bird) tells Citizen. “It was encouraging to be surrounded by like-minded legislators who are working diligently to get our country focused back on Godly values.”
At the final dinner of the week, a few participants tell the crowd what the event has meant to them, including West Virginia state Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Harpers Ferry).
“I have learned so much in the last few days,” she says. “There’s no way I could summarize it all—the historical lessons, the tips on being a better legislator and how to follow your faith as legislators, the wonderful devotions—all these have been wonderful food for the soul.”
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.