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I don't like 'Christian politics,'" the late Mark Hatfield said in 1996, a few months before ending his 30-year career in the U.S. Senate. "I don't want to assume that somehow I have the right to take a very sacred word, the word Christian, and have that applied to a specific set of political issues."

It was a refrain Hatfield had uttered throughout his political career. Decades before the rise of the Religious Right, even before Jimmy Carter, the Oregon Republican was the most prominent evangelical in national politics—and his most constant target of criticism was civil religion.

"There is a theological 'silent majority' in our land," he lamented in 1971, "who wrap their Bibles in the American flag; who believe that conservative politics is the necessary by-product of orthodox Christianity; who equate patriotism with the belief in national self-righteousness; and who regard political dissent as a mark of infidelity to the faith."

At the same time, Hatfield just as strongly decried evangelical withdrawal from politics and never shied from making his faith known. As governor of Oregon, he became known for pulling his car to the side of the road and kneeling in prayer. Hatfield spoke publicly not just about God, but also about the saving work of Jesus Christ. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, he famously called John Birch Society members (many of whom were delegates) bigots, then declared the Republican Party "the party of faith—a faith that believes in the basic eternal moral values of the Judeo-Christian faith."

It's not that Hatfield was a contrarian gadfly eager to be unpredictable. When he talked about getting angry letters addressed to "Dear former brother in Christ," he did so with pain, not pride. ...

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October 2011

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