A rising young member of Congress comments on faith and politics.

Bill Armstrong is a first-term Republican senator from Colorado who earlier served three terms in the House of Representatives. He chairs the Senate subcommittee studying solutions to the severe problems facing Social Security and is earning respect as a leader. The Wall Street Journal says of Armstrong: “[He] has moved ahead of the pack of bright, young conservatives elected to the Senate in the past three elections.” Armstrong, 46, is the owner of a radio and television station and formerly owned a newspaper, the Colorado Springs Sun. While he was a member of the House of Representatives. Armstrong became a committed Christian. He was interviewed in Washington recently by CHRISTIANITY TODAY editors.

If you had the choice of 50,000 Christians becoming either better Christians or getting involved in politics, which would you choose?

I don’t see those as being mutually exclusive. I frequently talk to people individually about their spiritual lives and about Christ. I think that is one of the most important things I can do. But I don’t see that as being in conflict with politics. In fact, sometimes they go together. Because I’m deeply involved in politics, I am thrown together with other people in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. A colleague recently called me for three reasons. He first asked for two political favors. After we were done talking about that, he said. “By the way, can we get together some time? I want to talk about religious things.” I sense he might be ready to give his life to Christ.

Virtually every denomination and large church group emphasizes organized political action. Jerry Falwell has been prominently identified with that recently. That is largely because he has been the pastor to, and spokesman for, probably the largest group of those who stayed away from political activity over the last 25 years. Virtually all of the mainstream denominations teach that it is an aspect of religious leadership to play their part in political action.

If I had to say what is the most important thing a believer can do. I’d probably say to tell people about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important that they pray or that they register to vote. Would people who say that political activity is not a proper role for Christians also say that William Wilberforce shouldn’t have run for the British Parliament to put an end to the slave trade? It just doesn’t hold up.

On the other side of the coin, there is a danger when believers get deeply involved in political activity that they will try to put the mantle of Christ over their cause. They might try to deify that cause and say, “Because I’m motivated to run for office for reasons that are related to my faith, a vote for me is a vote for Jesus.” That’s not right. Even on such sensitive issues as school prayer, there are conscientious believers on both sides of the issue.

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It is terribly important never to let the church see itself as a power bloc. I would resist the church itself organizing as a political force, encouraging individual Christians to do so, and even creating political organizations. Those activities should be separate from the body of Christ itself.

How do you feel about Christians organizing politically to support candidates because they are good candidates, not because they are good Christians?

Members of the church can organize without saying, “A vote for this candidate is a vote for Christ.” What if you have a good candidate who is not a believer and a bad candidate who is? My view is that each case has to be resolved on its merits. I do not think it is proper for a believer to support another believer only on religious grounds. I would not refuse to have a nonbeliever do brain surgery on me in preference to a believer who is not as well qualified. It limits the power of God to say that only a believer can function effectively in brain surgery or in public office. Scripture teaches that God can raise up sons of Abraham out of stone. There are men and women in Congress who are not believers, but they still are doing God’s will.

There are a number of Christians in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. How does your Christianity influence what you do and how you vote on issues?

It makes all the difference in the world. My conception of what a senator is hinges on what his world view is. Scripture tells us to perform any vocation as if unto the Lord. When my staff and I gather for our weekly legislative meeting, we begin with prayer. Sometimes we pray specifically about the substance of legislation or about how we will handle a matter. One of the recurring attitudes in our office is that as we deal with people with whom we disagree, we will be sensitive to their point of view. We want to recognize that they could be right. We feel that relationships with other members of Congress are important. Those relationships transcend whatever the political issue is.

Another level at which we pray specifically is for guidance. A lot of the important questions defy human understanding. I’ve got some idea of what we should do about the economy. But the truth is that nobody knows for sure. Even the most brilliant of our economists are baffled. The same is true with issues of war and peace, drug abuse, pornography, and law enforcement. The things that we really care about, for the most part, are those issues on which human understanding isn’t sufficient. So prayer for wisdom is a recurring theme.

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My faith really does affect relationships in the Senate. There is a spirit of brotherhood among a number of us which goes beyond political questions. For two years I’ve been meeting with a group of senators on a weekly basis. We are growing closer together in ways that include our official responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean we’ll all be on the same side of a particular issue. Frequently we are not. But we’re growing together in brotherhood and unity, which I believe is consistent with the sort of brotherhood Christ would have us seek.

Are there more Christians in Congress today than in the past?

That’s hard for me to measure since my interest in spiritual things began after I arrived in Washington. Instinctively my answer is “yes.” I think it is easier today for those in public life to be open about their faith than it was a few years ago. Much of the credit for that belongs to former President Jimmy Carter. He was up-front about his faith, and in so doing he opened the door for a lot of people in less-prominent positions to do the same. For a long time there were only a handful of political figures who were prominently identified as believers. That’s much less true today. There are many men in public life today who are serious about their faith.

Is it harder for a President to lead the country these days?

There is almost a total breakdown in the ability of anybody to lead the country. The results of leadership seem to be deteriorating rapidly. It is almost impossible for any President to fulfill his historical task. The last successful President we had was Eisenhower.

What is the cause of the decline in our Presidents’ ability to lead us?

We have raised the expectations of leadership to a level that is awesome for anybody to fulfill. In addition, we subject our leaders, particularly Presidents, to a degree of scrutiny that makes it impossible for them to have time for reflection. The reaction times are so quick, and there is so much harrassment in the media—not in the ideological sense, but in the sense of the speed with which Presidents are forced to react.

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Here’s a typical example: The President’s budget was leaked to the news media before Congress received it. The details were published in newspapers around the country. The opposition in both parties had already analyzed and dissected the budget and had begun to critique it before the President even had an opportunity to present it. The reaction time has become so quick, and the criticism by the media has become so instantaneous, that it makes it very difficult to be a leader.

The breakdown in respect for authority is another reason for the decline in the ability to govern. You see it on campus, and you see it in politics. People ignore the leaders of Congress. It used to be that the top two or three men in the Senate and in the House would virtually control the outcome of legislation in their chambers. That’s no longer true. And it used to be that when the President cracked the whip, everybody would fall in line.

Are we expecting more from one another than we are capable of delivering?

I think that is true. If you put people in positions where they have vast authority over other human beings, where they are subjected to temptations, where they are cut off from the kind of accountability most human beings have, and then expect them to exhibit anything other than corruption it’s totally unrealistic. We put our leaders in that kind of situation. It especially affects the President, but it’s not just the President. It affects heads of corporations, and certainly senators. We surround them with people whose task is to flatter their egos and open doors for them. We deprive them of the experiences and self-correcting mechanisms that would make them balanced human beings. If you want to create the worst atmosphere for policy making, give people a lot of public adulation, separate them from their families for prolonged periods of time, and force them to work late night after night. Then, on weekends, take them away from their families and send them to visit their constituents. That’s exactly what we’ve done to those in public office. The wonder is that we’re doing as well as we are.

How would you reverse that and make the best possible situation?

I’ve been encouraging people to pray that there will be an end to the night sessions in Congress. We keep a bunch of men and women [members of Congress] away from their families until late at night, night after night. Then we punctuate that with all-night sessions of Congress. It gets to be a routine that they’re never home for dinner. They’re never with their families under ordinary, relaxed circumstances. That’s going to produce divorce. I think statistics would show that Congress is a divorce factory for its members and also for the staff, of which there are several thousand.

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How do you handle that kind of pressure?

When I travel. I’m on the telephone every night with my family. Second, my wife travels with me some. Third, when I’m home. I meet with my family at 6:45 every morning for prayer and Bible study. A lot of times that’s the only time we are together.

My son and I are trying to start a tradition that one weekend every year he and I will spend two days skiing together. We believe that the quality of the time is more important than the quantity. I must admit, however, that if you get the time cut down too far, no amount of quality will compensate.

It’s terribly important that men and women in public life have regular access to the kind of Christian fellowship that I’ve been fortunate to have. The greater the pressures, the more that need exists.

Is there a specific place and time you can recall when you became a Christian?

Yes. I had been a nominal churchgoing Christian suburbanite all my life. But I accepted Christ as my personal Savior in the Joseph Martin Dining Room in the Capitol after I was elected to Congress 10 years ago.

Some people are led to the Lord as a result of tragedies. That was not my experience, but just the opposite. I had dreamed of certain kinds of success: making a lot of money, being elected to public office, and so on. I had achieved those things at a rather early age when I discovered they were fundamentally empty. Instead of being filled and satisfied. I was feeling kind of desperate. Just at that point I was converted by a Christian layman who shared the gospel with me in a very direct way. I came to the realization that although I had been a church member, I wasn’t really a Christian in the sense of trusting Christ for salvation and for the ultimate questions of life. So sitting there in this little dining room, we discussed the gospel. He said, “Does this express the desire of your heart, to accept Christ as your personal Savior and let him take charge of your life?” I said, “Yes, it does. Let’s pray.” It was just about in that matter-of-fact manner.

Why has abortion not been outlawed, particularly after all the outcry?

I think we are in the process of winning the battle. There is a much greater sensitivity to the issue, and a much greater understanding of the moral question involved. Federal funding for abortions is unlikely to be reinstated. But I think it is unlikely that we are going to take the next step—outlawing abortion—any time soon, although I think we should. There are a lot of people who are like I used to be. They simply do not understand the ramifications of it, the moral gravity of abortion.

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What are your conclusions about another moral question: the nuclear arms race?

We are in an intellectual cul-de-sac. I basically affirm the doctrine of deterrence, and I affirm the idea of the just war. On the personal level, I respect people who argue for pacifism. But none of those ideas give me much sense of optimism for the future. I have reached the conclusion that the Lord will give us better approaches if we can get out of the intellectual rut we’re in.

From a moral standpoint, our present nuclear doctrine, nuclear destruction, is absolutely bankrupt. It is contrary to the teachings of pacifism and it is contrary to deterrence, because it won’t work. It is contrary to several of the main premises of the just-war theory. It does not direct itself to combatants or to keeping civilians safe. It is not proportionate by several of the hallmarks of the just-war theory. Clearly we need something different. Our country has become, by virtue of the doctrine of nuclear destruction, the first major nation to decide that we’re not going to defend our homeland upon attack. Instead, we are relying for safety on our threat to kill millions of people, such as Soviet citizens if the Soviet Union makes a hostile move against us. I believe that policy to be impractical.

There is a growing body of scientific thought and military strategic thought that we could come up with a purely defensive system. It would not have offensive capability. One of the most promising of those ideas is called “High Frontier.” It is a system that relies partially on space-borne defensive site areas. And I stress, it has no offensive capability. It wouldn’t be a threat to another country. That has a lot of practicality, and I believe it is more scripturally sound.

I attended a conference in Pasadena called “The Church and Peacemaking in the Nuclear Age.” I urged the people there to think about Nehemiah when he rebuilt the wall. He didn’t threaten Sanballat with nasty retaliation or with mutual destruction. He didn’t negotiate with him. He just rebuilt the wall. And he did a lot of other things. He put through a number of civic reforms, including lowering taxes and freeing the slaves. I think that’s the kind of leadership that we need to provide the country with.

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What is it about the pacifist argument that you think is fundamentally wrong?

I think pacifism is completely honorable and proper at the individual level. But as John Stott has said, Scripture clearly distinguishes between the role of the individual and the role of the state. The magistrate is not only permitted—but may well be required by the state—to use force to protect the innocent, to restrain evil, and to punish wrongdoing.

At the national level, Scripture teaches that it is proper for leaders to bear the sword in self-defense or to defend an innocent third party. So pacifism on a national level is not scriptural. And it doesn’t respond to practical reality.

Some might say that it’s better to give in. I sense that there is in some people almost a desire for the United States to be subjugated so that we can test out and live our faith in captivity. One of the most articulate of the pacifist spokesmen at the Pasadena conference even admitted that there were some circumstances in which he would be willing to resort to violence—in defense of his life or the life of his family. So I don’t think pacifism is the answer.

So far as the nuclear freeze is concerned, I think that’s an idea that has run out of steam intellectually. It doesn’t stand up under rigorous examination. The reality is that the United States has had a nuclear freeze for 12 years. It hasn’t affected the Soviet Union in any particular way that I can tell. By the same token, I think the mindless expansion of the arms race clearly is not the answer. How many weapons are we going to end up with? That’s why I’m looking for ideas like High Frontier.

How do you regard the Moral Majority?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Moral Majority has both helped and hurt. On balance it has been enormously helpful. Many of the people who criticize the Moral Majority for taking moral stands are the same individuals who have been taking moral stands for decades, but from a different perspective. The criticism I hear against the Moral Majority is from those who simply disagree with its political positions.

Whether it’s the Moral Majority or the National Council of Churches, any Christian who approaches a political subject should do so with a degree of intellectual humility and should clearly distinguish the gospel from the political issues. There are no political positions on which salvation hangs. Your citizenship in the kingdom does not depend on your position on a balanced federal budget, nuclear disarmament, or even on abortion.

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I think I can demonstrate to the satisfaction of most impartial listeners that our form of government is vastly preferable to Marxism. But that doesn’t prove that Christ would be a capitalist. I think Christ is indifferent to issues of that type, with one exception. I think he would approve of those institutions of government or economy that foster human liberty. So I take it for granted that Christ would not approve of the arrangements in Nazi Germany or in the Soviet Union. There are some political and economic features in our own country that don’t seem as hateful to me as to some, but that Christ wouldn’t approve of either. The point is that there is a risk that the church or a religious group would see itself as a power bloc. That is not scriptural in my opinion.

Such groups may unwittingly tend to limit the Lord’s power by assuming that the only way God can accomplish his purposes is through political ends. Now I think political service is worthy and that Christians should wade into politics with both feet. But in the end the Lord is not bound by political considerations.

We are really in danger of throwing the mantle of Christ over any lesser cause. I think it’s perfectly proper for Christians to be in the used-car business. But I don’t think you can say, “This is Christ’s used car lot.” By the same token, I don’t think you can say, “This is Christ’s legislative program.”

The right approach for any Christian in politics is to ask, “Does this actively honor Christ?” If it does, the rest will take care of itself. If it doesn’t, no matter how right it may be on a particular political issue, it’s out of bounds from the Christian perspective.

There are about 184,000 Christians who read CHRISTIANITY TODAY. If you could address them all at once, what subject would you like to speak on? What are a few of the main points you would make?

Christ told how the world would know that Christians belonged to him. He said, “If you have love for one another,” that would be the sign [John 13:35], I think one of the greatest needs in Christendom is that Christians rise above their disagreements over economic issues, political issues, even the most serious issues of war and peace. We should emphasize the overriding significance of our unity in Jesus Christ.

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I attended the peace-making conference in Pasadena with some sense of tension. I agreed to make the trip because I felt a deep need to learn about the issue of nuclear war. I wanted to be receptive to people whose views were quite different from my own. But I prayed about the conference for months. My church even prayed that whatever the disputes about policy were, that Christ would be honored. And to a large extent that was true.

When I got back, I was talking to a colleague in the Senate about the experience I had. He said it would be a shame if we let anything become more important than our brotherhood in Christ. And he is a senator who holds quite a different viewpoint from mine on the nuclear issue.

I told some of the people in Pasadena that politics supposedly is very rough and tumble. We are supposed to be tough guys, professional advocates in a sense. But I have never seen the kind of brutal personal relationships between senators that occasionally crop up among leaders of the church. A very deep need of the church is for us to emphasize our unity—not to say we shouldn’t argue. I think we should. I appreciate the contribution made by the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their pastoral letter on nuclear arms. Even though I may not agree with their conclusions, it’s good to have those kinds of intellectual disputes. We can honor Christ if the spirit is right.

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