CT's editor-at-large probes the feelings and aspirations of one of the nation's most colorful surgeons general, C. Everett Koop, who died yesterday. This article originally appeared in the November 3, 1989, issue of Christianity Today, shortly after Koop resigned as Surgeon General. Yancey had profiled Koop in the previous issue.
How did you get nominated for the post of surgeon general in the first place?
I doubt we'll ever know. Ronald Reagan had read my books Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and The Right to Live, the Right to Die. In his typically unorthodox political style, he went to his pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, Don Moomaw, and asked him to get a sense from around the country of what Koop's peers thought of him. Almost immediately I started getting calls from my friends saying the President was interested in me.
You have said that as a surgeon you used to pray over specific procedures and that you had a sense of God being involved in your work. Did you feel anything similar during your time as surgeon general?
Oh, yes. I have frequently said that I could not have been a pediatric surgeon if I thought when I walked into the operating room that I was in complete control of what was going to happen. And when the surgeon general post came up (I had never sought public office), I believed that God plucked me out of Philadelphia and dumped me in Washington. I used to ask him a lot of questions about it! During the agonizing nine months of the nomination process, I would stare at the Bible on my desk, trying to understand what had happened. Looking back now, I thank the Lord for the great opportunity.
I am not a great prayer. But I go to work with the attitude that says, God, you're sovereign. You've given me a mind and I want you to use it today. if I start to do anything against what you want, stop me just like that [snaps his fingers]. I simply acknowledge my relationship to him.
When did you become a Christian?
I was raised in a Christian home, but with no idea what it meant. For a while I went to the Baptist Church of the Redeemer without knowing what a redeemer was. One Sunday morning I walked into the balcony of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church out of obligation to a nurse who had babysat for us. Right away I was impressed with Barney [Donald Grey Barnhouse], who had the most arresting voice and personal style.
That night he was speaking from Hebrews about Jesus being a priest after the order of Melchizedek. As a child I had lived across the street from a church, where on Saturday nights I could watch the priest play poker and drink whiskey out of a bottle until he vomited out the window. It puzzled me that Jesus should be called a priest.
So at first, wondering if this guy Barnhouse was off his rocker, I went back in order to prove him wrong. And I consider this a real miracle: Although I was the only pediatric surgeon within 400 miles, I never had a true emergency that kept me from attending church morning and evening. The day came, and I can't tell you how or when, that I realized I was inside the fold rather than outside.
Is there one "cutting edge" issue of the Christian life for you?
For me, the challenge of the Christian life is to be theologically pure but also service oriented. I do not believe in the social gospel, but I very much believe that the gospel demands social action. The aids crisis is an example, and the response of the church has sometimes disturbed me. I sit at the bedsides of patients dying of aids. They remind me of kittens, so sick and so weak that they open their mouths to cry and no sound comes out. How can you not put your arm around that kind of person and offer support? Instead, to say, "God is punishing them and I support God's punishment"—that attitude is what makes me so mad.