A Calvinist Politician

A seventh generation Mississippian, Haley Barbour hails from Yazoo City. His father died when he was two years old, and he was raised by his mother. He grew up in the First Presbyterian Church, and later was elected a deacon. He and his wife have two boys.

Mr. Barbour became a lawyer. Though he has been in private practice, he has mostly worked in politics, including service as director of White House Office of Political Affairs under Ronald Reagan. In 1993, he was elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and the next year oversaw the most sweeping 20th century victory of an out-of-power party in off-year elections, as the GOP, for the first time in forty years, captured both houses of Congress.

We interviewed Mr. Barbour in his office at RNC headquarters in Washington, D. C., on April 12, 1996.

What is the role for the Christian in politics? "Well, . . . we've been blessed with religious freedom as one of the original tenets of our country. But part of that religious freedom is that religious people can be actively and effectively involved in politics and government. Let's face it: government is the most pervasive force in most people's lives. You know, if you look around this room, there's not anything in here that the government does not tax, regulate, or subsidize. And this is not a government building! So Christians are always in contact with government or things that government regulates, taxes, or subsidizes. The average American family pays more in taxes than it pays for housing, food, and transportation combined. The average American family pays 38% of its income in taxes. So government is with us. And the Christian Americans, or Christian people, should be active voters that try to make sure that government acts in the best interest of people, that government's actions are based on the traditional American values that have come down to us through one of the great legacies we have and that's our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is very important that America never becomes a theocracy. Very important that people understand that you don't have to be a Christian to be in politics, to be elected, but it's equally important that Christians be every bit as involved in politics as non Christians. We must remember it was in the Soviet Union that people had to choose between being a Christian and being in politics."

What is your own personal political philosophy and how did you arrive at it? "I'm a Reagan Republican, because I believe both from the way I was raised, and from its consistency with the teachings of the church, that individual freedom and personal responsibility are preferable to more government power and government responsibility. Our party was founded on the idea of freedom. And freedom includes economic freedom, political freedom, personal and even religious freedom. To me, those things come together on the political level as smaller government, lower taxes, less spending, fewer regulations, genuine welfare reform, education reform, tort reform, entitlement reforms, and government reforms like term limits and a balanced budget amendment. Because if you look at each one of those things, they all give more power to people and less power to government. And where we have government taking a role, we should follow the Catholic Church's doctrine of subsidiary, with which our church has the same view, that social action should be taken at the closest level to the people. Catholics think of it in terms of the parish first. That's the same way the Presbyterian form of church government is, that the local church is controlled by the local Session, and that's where we believe action should be taken. Well, government should be the same way. If government does it, we should look first to local government. And only if local government can't do it, should we look to state government. And the federal government should be the last resort. But before you ever look to government, you should look to people. Because, what we have proven in government is that freedom and responsibility are intertwined, and if government starts taking over every role, we end up with the kind of problem that's evolved in regard to the welfare state. All the wrong incentives lead to all the wrong conduct, and all of a sudden the people the government intends to help are trapped instead. I mean, they're trapped in a life of dependency and illegitamacy, really a life of despair. And part of that is a result of government trying to do for people what people do better for themselves. . . . That's my political philosophy, and I think it is very consistent with people who hold our [Calvinistic] beliefs."

Did you arrive at it because of your religious views, or did you arrive at it independently? "I guess I arrived at it as I became more knowledgable about politics and government. But, you know, . . . everything you learn is based on the context you come from. I became interested in politics when I was a teenager and older. A lot of my broader views had already been set, and a lot of them by family and church."

Do you believe that conservatives, and especially conservative Christians, are portrayed accurately or fairly by the media? "No. If you define the 'Religious Right' as people who attend worship services two or more times a month, who consider themselves conservatives, and who believe that moral decline is a very important issue in America, that's a majority of the people in the United States. The media tends to think of Presbyterians as what they'd call a mainstream church. But, of course, we're an evangelical church. The media has portrayed evangelical Christians as some narrow, extreme, peculiar people, when in fact evangelicals and other conservative Christians are just the people that live down the street, the people your kids go to school with every day. They're a gigantic percentage of Americans, millions of families. Yet I think there has been a concerted effort by the left to marginalize conservative Christians by trying to portray them as extreme or out of the mainstream. And I think that has had more success in some parts of the country than others. But, in fact, conservative Christians are very much in the mainstream, and the majority of the views held by conservative Christians on political issues are the majority view. . . . I think the media was floored when USA Today did a survey and reported that a majority of Americans said they prayed every day. You know, that just kills them at the New York Times! Because, you read the liberal Eastern press and watch the networks, and they try to portray conservative Christians--or, it's not just Christians, we're talking about Orthodox Jews, we're talking about a lot of people who aren't Christians, like Orthodox Jews, who are religious conservatives. The media try to act like that's the nutty fringe, and then they get slapped in the face by the fact that most Americans pray every day, and most Americans profess to believe in God."

How do or how should Christian values and ethics affect one's politics (e.g., views on abortion, attacking one's opponents, church/state issues, Sabbath observance, "big tent" party)? "Your political beliefs ought to be based on what you think is right. Politicians ought to be for what they're for. Be for what you think's right. Be for what you think's in the best interest of the country, the community. Your beliefs are bound up in your religious beliefs. These are not two separate things. Your views, most people's views, about work, personal responsibility, individual accountability, freedom, freedom's limits and freedom's responsibilities, all come from their moral values, which are very strongly affected by their religious views. I said earlier, one of the great legacies that we have as Americans is the culture of America. We are not a multi-cultural country, we're a multi-ethnic country, but we have one culture. It's a culture built on traditional American values that spring from the Judeo-Christian heritage that's been handed down to us for generations. The United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are based very much on the religious beliefs and the moral and social principles of the founding fathers. It's impossible to separate their religious views from what they put in these two fundamental documents of America. And it's the same with us. One's religious views on abortion have to affect your view on the political issue. Now, there's hardly any issue where that's the only consideration. I will say, I'm pro-life, and I make no bones about it. I campaigned when I ran for Senator as a pro-life candidate; I supported our platform the three times I was a delegate. But I do know that there are religious pro-choice voters, whose principal difference with me is that they do not believe life begins at conception. Now, I'm neither a physician or a theologian. And I don't know when life would begin other than at conception. So I believe that life begins at conception. That is fundamental to my opposition to abortion. I believe this is not about a woman choosing what to do with her own body because there is another life involved--a life in being that deserves protection. But there are people who believe life begins at quickening, that life begins at some other time in pregnancy. And so, I accept that there are religious people whose religious beliefs are as strong and good or better than mine, who are pro-choice, but it's because they believe that life begins at a different time. And we have to be tolerant that people can have different views and still be good people. Because their religious views may be totally consistent with you, but there may be some other variant that they see differently. But a political party in America, in America's two-party system, is necessarily a coalition. Both political parties are coalitions. The Republican Party is the conservative party of the United States, the Democratic Party is the liberal party of the United States, but neither party is monolithic in philosophy. There are Democrats who are more conservative than some Republicans, and there are Republicans who are more liberal than some Democrats. That's the nature of the two-party system. And so I don't tend to use the term 'big-tent' because I think some people have given it a bad connotation. But our party is a broad, inclusive party; and as Chairman, I am not only tolerant of the idea there will be people who will have different views, I think that's one of our strengths. You don't have to agree with Haley Barbour on everything to be a good Republican. And I think that's very important for people to understand. Just like you don't have to be a Christian to be a good Republican. I mean, there are Jewish Republicans, there are Muslim Republicans, and I'm sure there are Republicans who have no religious beliefs at all. But they don't have to agree with me. And there are people in our party who disagree with this issue or that issue. But, Frank, in a party big enough to elect 31 governors, it's silly to think everybody's going to agree on everything. . . . I find personal attacks, ad hominen attacks, intolerable, and usually ineffective. On the other hand, I think it is very important that campaigns let the voters know the differences between the candidates on issues, including the other person's record. And so, so-called negative or comparative advertising, where you talk about your opponent's record, I think is not only fair game--I think it's important voters know the differences. Why should I be for Bob Dole and not Bill Clinton? If you say we're not going to talk about their differences, well, people are not going to know why they should be for one and against the other. But when you talk about the differences, it should never be personal, it should always be factual; and beyond that, we teach our candidates that you have to be able to document it. Do we have candidates that sometimes say things that aren't true? Sure. And sometimes we have candidates that think things are true because they got bad information or whatever. But that shouldn't keep people from talking about the issues and making the public aware of the differences between the two. But it should never be personal and it should always be civil. Ron Brown [Secretary of Commerce] was just killed last week. I knew Ron Brown. We had a friendly relationship. We weren't close friends, but always an affable and pleasant relationship. Well, one of my predecessors, Lee Atwater, and he were very good friends. And when Lee Atwater had a brain tumor, and lay in a hospital here in Washington, dying, Ron Brown, without anybody knowing it, with no publicity, making no spectacle, on a number of occasions went over and sat with Lee and read to him. Now, I think that's a very human, nice thing to do. And as I say, Ron didn't do it for political purposes--nobody ever knew it--which I respect him for. So you can have a friendly relationship, and I think must have a civil relationship with the people on the other side, even if you disagree on every issue. Chris Dodd, the Democratic National Chair, and I have a very friendly relationship. His predecessor, David Wilhelm, and I had a very friendly relationship. But you've got to have at least a civil relationship. The body politic deserves that."

Is there any moral or social issue that should form a litmus test with regard to the Republican Party? "Well, as I said, both parties are coalitions; and there should be no litmus test. There should not be any one issue that is erected so if you don't meet this test, you can't be a Republican. Anybody can be a Republican who thinks he believes in the views of our party more than the views of the Democratic Party. Anybody! This is not my party. You know, I don't have any right, don't ever want a right to say, 'I'm sorry, Frank, you're not good enough to be a Republican.' You know, 'we don't like what Scott thinks on this issue, so we're not letting him be a Republican.' Everybody has a right to be a Republican. But we have to be upfront about what we're for. And, if you disagree with this, this, and this, then you have that right. You don't try to compromise on principles, but you tolerate the fact that not everybody's going to agree on everything."

Should Biblical principles be applied to the civil government, and if so, which ones and to what extent? "Well, so much of our heritage, even a lot of our form of government, springs from what happened in Israel, what happened in the religious-based governments of Western Europe. I mean, remember a lot of our state governments were founded theocratically. You know, Virginia had a state religion. Massachusetts had a state religion. So, people don't think in terms of these being handed down from the Bible, because they've been involved in government for so long. But in fact, a lot of what we do in government can be traced to its roots back way through history, even back to the Bible. The republican form of government of the United States of America is a Presbyterian form of government: representative democracy. It's how we elect the Session, it's how we elect the Congress. But do Americans do that because it's the Presbyterian form of government? No, we do that because that's the way government has developed over the last 2500 years."

Is there anything else you'd want to share with our readers? "We have to be vigilant on two very important points as Christians. One is that we never let the First Amendment--freedom of religion--be perverted into freedom from religion. The left, time and time again, has tried to drive religion from the public square. And religion and religious people have a role in the public square. At the same time, we have to be very, very sensitive that we never let government get control of religion. Remember, the First Amendment--freedom of religion--wasn't to protect the government from the Christians, it was to protect the Christians from the government. Never, never forget that. The left today wants to act like the separation of church and state is a device to protect government from the views of religious people. The separation of church and state was to keep the state from taking over the church, from creating a state religion, from dictating a state prayer. You know, I'm for voluntary prayer in schools, but I am powerfully against a state prayer. . . . I do not want the state to teach [my Presbyterian children] how to pray some homogenized prayer. At the same time, I don't want Catholic children or Jewish children or Muslim children being forced to pray what Presbyterians believe. But that's why we have the First Amendment. The other thing that's very important is, in our society there are many people who have fine things to contribute to government who are not Christians--many people who are strong political allies who make a gigantic contribution. Pat Robertson said in a speech, 'Don't confuse a political party with a church: a political party is not a church.' And this political party, no political party, is a church. We have to always be inclusive and tolerant, because everybody's American. Everybody should have an opportunity for his voice to be heard. And to that end, I'll close with a great Ronald Reagan quote: . . . 'Never forget that a fellow who agrees with you 80% of the time is your friend and ally, he is not some 20% traitor.' And we always have to run our political party and our political lives remembering that."

Mr. Haley Barbour, Chairman
Republican National Committee
310 First Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003