A friend and neighbor of mine has just been elected a member of the House of Representatives, from the Thirty-third Congressional District of California, in the Ninetieth Congress of the United States. This is no ordinary event, for it is the first time this experience and challenge have come to a Seventh-day Adventist, so far as we know.
How does a Congressman-elect look at his responsibilities after the excitement of the election is past? This is an attempt to share with our readers some of his views. The questions and answers have been distilled from conversation, but constructed as dialog for the sake of clarity.
Mr. Pettis, how do you feel about being the first Seventh-day Adventist to be elected to the United States Congress?
I feel like any Adventist entering a new field of service, like any pioneer ought to feel—a deep sense of responsibility for conducting myself as a Christian in public service, whose ethics, behavior, and record must testify to my convictions. I have had laid on my shoulders the privilege, if you want to call it that, of being a precedent maker, and naturally I want to be a good one.
Do you feel that the disciplined life that goes with being a Seventh-day Adventist will sometimes be to your social or political tlisadvantage?
It will probably appear so at times. Certainly I cannot drink with the boys or make deals with shady characters—the popular conception, or misconception, of the office holder or lobbyist. (Actually, in all my contact with people in the campaign I have never had liquor offered to me. I have on other occasions, and no doubt will again, as we all do who go to conventions of almost every kind, but I ask for orange juice or ginger ale, and time and again people around me have said, "You're smart. I wish I didn't drink." Nobody has ever been unpleasant about it.) If I thought that sort of thing was necessary I would never have consented to run. No, I have confidence in the fairness and good sense of my constituents and fellow Americans, and of my colleagues in Washington, so I have been able to project for myself a behavior pattern consistent with my beliefs and habits.
I would remind you of Walter Judd, former Congressman from Minnesota for several terms, United States representative to the United Nations, a medical missionary and an official in his church, and of Governor George W. Romney, of Michigan, both of whom live according to codes of behavior dictated by their religious convictions. And when the facts are known we find there are many others who have demonstrated that a man can hold public office and at the same time live by a strict personal moral and ethical code. We may even be more respected for it.
When I refer to the Index of the Writings of Ellen G. White I find quite a long list of references to statements advising Adventists against engaging in politics. What do you have to say about this?
I am familiar with these statements, and believe me, I have read them carefully, especially the references in Fundamentals of Christian Education, Gospel Workers, Education, and Testimonies to Ministers. As the context shows, most of these statements are addressed to ministers and educators employed by the church. Who can argue with Ellen G. White's assertion that for the minister to engage in political action is a misuse of his role, a wrong use of his time, and a misappropriation of the funds the church pays him as salary? But let me point out here that I am a businessman, a member of the church in good and regular standing, but not an employee of the denomination, although I look back with pleasure and gratitude to the years when I was employed by the church. My present connection with Loma Linda University, as a faculty member and chairman of the university councilors, is voluntary; that is, I serve without salary.
Mrs. White counsels educators in the schools of the church against using their position to involve, or to appear to involve, their school in political action. This is also the position taken by the State colleges and the university system in our State of California, where these institutions are forbidden to take sides in political argument or in support of candidates for office. I am in complete agreement with these concepts.
There remain the statements by Ellen White which undoubtedly were addressed to church members generally, and there are a number of them. A careful reading shows, in my opinion, that the chief concern of Mrs. White was that political strife should not invade and divide the church, and that church members should not lower themselves to engage in what we, for want of a better name, call "dirty politics." I would deny most vehemently, by the way, that office holding necessarily involves dirty politics.
Some Adventists interpret this counsel differently. How do you defend your position?
Take a look with me at this statement from Education, page 262:
"Many a lad of today, growing up as did Daniel in his Judean home, studying God's Word and His works, and learning the lessons of faithful service, will yet stand in legislative assemblies, in halls of justice or in royal courts, as a witness for the King of kings."
I had read this more than once before it dawned on me that the situation pictured here was not at all like Paul's defense before King Agrippa, in which the apostle stood in chains to testify to his faith. In the history of the church many stalwarts have done this, and have conducted themselves with wisdom and courage, as did Paul on this and other occasions. But that was not at all the experience of Daniel. True, he had been brought to Baby lon as a captive. But once there, under Nebuchadnezzar he became a provincial governor, then the prime minister, faithful friend, and senior consultant to the king. And under Darius he was the highest ranking of the three presidents over Babylon. Daniel was a high official, a member of the government in his own right, who had won the confidence of the rulers because of his integrity and ethics as a true son of God, and in a pagan culture at that. It is this kind of witness in government and public service that Ellen White, by her reference to Daniel, appears to hold up as a desirable role for young Adventists to aspire to.
The statement you have just read is not always so interpreted. Can't you do better than this?
To me, the statement seems crystal clear, but if you want something that can have only one interpretation, hear this from Fundamentals of Christian Education, pages 82 and 83:
"He requires every one of us to cultivate our powers, and attain the highest possible capacity for usefulness, that we may do noble work for God, and bless humanity. . . .
"Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. . .
"Integrity, unswerving integrity, is the principle that you need to carry with you into all the relations of life. . . .
"Balanced by religious principle, you may climb to any height you please. . . .
"But never commit so great a crime as to pervert your God-given powers to do evil and destroy others. . . . It is a fearful thing to use God-given abilities in such a way as to scatter blight and woe instead of blessing in society. It is also a fearful thing to fold the talent intrusted to us in a napkin, and hide it away in the world; for this is casting away the crown of life. God claims our service."
To me, this reads like an imperative to be a person of action, a person dedicated to the service of God and man. If the young Christian has the ability, the inclination, and in his mature years the opportunity for public service, to this the servant of the Lord clearly gives her approval, always with the reservation that his motives must be such as to have God's approval. If Christians are the salt of the earth, they must have enough faith and confidence to be dropped out of the salt shaker and spread over all segments of human society, including government. I am sure I shall find devout Christians in Congress. I have read, as you have, about the Christian fellowship breakfasts the members have from time to time. I am honored to be the first Adventist to join them.
Do current world problems suggest areas of special concern?
Yes, I think that a Seventh-day Adventist must take the larger view on many subjects. Without diminishing in any way his patriotism and loyalty for his own people, he must look compassionately on people everywhere. The enslaved, the hungry, and those, almost without hope, who are seeking something better should be on the mind of any legislator. A congressman should be bipartisan in attitude where stark human need is involved. A Seventh-day Adventist should live and think above the racial strife that threatens the peace and prosperity of our nation and of the world. Genuine feelings of brotherhood should save him from either prejudice or reaction. I believe that his sense of values should be anchored in sound, God-given concepts of divine love and Christian brotherhood.
Thanks, Jerry. This about wraps it up. Now one more question:
Do you feel that being an Adventist will in any way influence your choice of causes to espouse, bills to support or write, casting your vote for this or that—a sort of frame of reference by which you order your life as a member of the House of Representatives? In other words, what will it be worth to you to be a Seventh-day Adventist in Congress?
This gets right to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? I don't have all the answers, at this point I am quite sure I don't even have all the questions, but certain convictions have been forming in my mind.
On more than one occasion during the campaign I have asked my volunteer field men, some of whom were Catholics, some Mormons, some Protestants, and some with no religious affiliation, whether my being an Adventist was any disadvantage so far as they were concerned. Mind you, these were the men who were working for me with the voting public, so their viewpoint was important to me. The consensus they gave impressed me greatly. It went something like this: "We want men of integrity in public office, We may not share your theology, although we have more in common than we have differences. But the important thing is that we know you cannot be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church except as you live by a rather strict code. This is enough for us."
Senator Everett Dirksen, minority leader in the Senate, and a long-time member of that body, whom everybody knows as a Bible-reading and Bible-quoting public figure, put it to me more forcefully when I asked him what my chances were. "Young man," he said, "I cannot see that being an Adventist need be any handicap to you in Congress or in running for re-election—unless you compromise with your principles. If you do, then may the Lord have mercy on you, but don't expect any mercy from the electorate"—or words to that effect.
You know, Keld [his face grew very serious, almost drawn], I have been wondering what I would do if some of the events foretold for our country in prophecy were to begin to happen while I was in Congress. None of us knows just what he will do in the future in a given situation. But my present thinking is to hope that the Lord will give me the wisdom and courage to express the insights that the church has been given, using the advantages of my position in Congress, including the attention and interest of the news media, to get a hearing for the truth.
As I see my general responsibility, it is to serve our country and my district to the best of my ability, according to my convictions, and to walk among my colleagues so they will know me as a Christian. I have a duty to my district to discover its needs and work for them. This is the essence of representative government. Beyond this, I am a free American. I have no commitments to any group or organization, not even to my church, as an organization. Believing as I do, I would be disappointed if the church officially asked me to support this or that bill, or sponsor this or that legislation, or oppose this or that. I have confidence that it will not, for we believe alike in the separation of church and state. I must weigh whatever I do as a Congtessman by my own moral and ethical convictions and on my own responsibility as a Christian and as a member of God's remnant people.
These are the views, as he shared them freely, of the Honorable Jerry L. Pettis, member of the House of Representatives of the Ninetieth Congress of the United States, from the Thirty-third Congressional District of California, who took office in January, 1967, when Congress convened in Washington, D.C. He solicits and he needs the prayers of the church, that his services to the nation may be also a Christian witness to the honor and glory of God.