A ‘Missionary’ for Religious Liberty
I found out yesterday that my friend Hunter Baker, a political science professor at Union University in western Tennessee, has decided to run for Congress. He will be seeking Tennessee’s Eighth District seat being vacated by Stephen Fincher, retiring after three terms. Baker is an Evangelical. Last year, when I visited the Union campus, Hunter and I had serious discussions about the threat to religious liberty. When he told me he was running for Congress particularly to fight for religious liberty, I asked him if I could send him some questions. He said yes. Here’s our short interview:
1. Why are you running for Congress?
The answer is basically spiritual in nature. I feel called to run this race. I have a great life (at age 45) teaching and writing. My life goal was to write books. I’ve done that. I’ve given endowed lectures and spoken in some great settings. There is really no itch that I’m trying to scratch. The reality is that winning would be a challenge to me in terms of re-ordering my existence and making the whole thing work from a family perspective. But I realize that the seat in our district is a special seat. The voters want a conservative candidate who shares their values and is capable of articulating and defending them. I am committed to doing that at a high level in hopes of generating greater respect and appreciation for our point of view.
In addition, I think we need a person who doesn’t see Congress as a career or wealth-building opportunity. With my yes being yes and my no being no, I will tell you that I will not go to Congress only to become a lobbyist and influence peddler when I’m done. I will go to defend life, religious liberty, and to moderate the appetites of the state so that freedom and self-government remain.
2. Is there something about this particular political moment that inspired you to make this decision?
The issue that has compelled me to make this run is religious liberty. I have been waiting for years to see the Obergefell shoe drop. I knew that if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, it would create a perfect path to undermine Christian institutions and Christians in public and professional life everywhere. We need as many people dedicated to preserving religious liberty as possible to run for office and to contend for this Christian and American ideal.
3. I have to tell you that I have no faith in Congressional Republicans to stand up for religious liberty. They’re owned by Big Business, in my view. Am I wrong?
Big Business is a serious problem for religious liberty. Few people adequately understand that Big Business and Big Government go hand in hand. Corporations don’t like localism and various exemptions aimed at respecting rights of faith and conscience. They just want a monolith that they can understand and work with in a turnkey fashion. I have no interest in being the corporate candidate. The business executives of the world need to understand that when they undermine our liberty as people of faith, they are ultimately undermining liberty of all types, including economic liberty. I will fight for the soul of the party on this issue, just as many have bravely fought to keep the party pro-life.
4. I was talking the other day with a well-known social conservative, an academic, who agreed with me that most American Christians have no concrete idea how threatened their religious liberty really is. Do you agree?
The realization is slowly dawning. A few years ago, I don’t think Christians worried much about religious liberty unless maybe they were homeschoolers or were being marginalized in the public schools. Now that they see many persons being threatened in terms of their businesses or professions because of their beliefs, they are getting the message. Gay marriage, civilizationally-speaking, is a neck-breaking turn. But for most secular liberals, the line from the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement is a straight and unerring one. They will not feel they’ve met their goal until they’ve won compliance with their vision. There are ways in which it will be illegal to be an orthodox Christian if we don’t counter the wave.
I mentioned the pro-life movement before. I have been sensitive to rights of liberty and conscience because I learned about those things during summers at law school when I worked at the Rutherford Institute and then Prison Fellowship. But I saw it up close when my wife’s residency program tried to require her to spend time at a Planned Parenthood clinic. She refused. It is important that people have that right.
5. Do you have the support of the party establishment where you live?
I don’t have anything against the party establishment, but this race isn’t about that for me. I’m running as a Republican because I am one, but there is part of me that is repulsed by the idea that you need to visit this local powerbroker and that resident warlord to gain their support to run. I want to take my case to the kinds of people who live in this district and offer myself as a champion for their cause. If they want me to be their advocate, I will. If they don’t, I will happily stick with my academic life and not having to juggle D.C. with local living.
6. Why should voters take a chance on a college professor of political science with no legislative experience?
I’m old enough to have learned not the disdain experience. I respect it. No question. But I would make two points. First, my opponents would have state or local experience, not federal legislative experience. The two things are different. We should have a sharper sense of the difference in terms of jurisdiction. I have to believe that as a person who has achieved a strong academic pedigree with studies in economics, political science, public administration, law, and church and state, I am about as well-prepared in terms of knowledge as anyone out there. Second, I have had legislative experience outside of holding office. I have testified before committees (including going up against Planned Parenthood in Georgia), written policy memos for office-holders, personally lobbied legislators and staff, and have a lot of experience as a writer and speaker. There is nothing about being a legislator that is really alien to me.
But I will tell you one thing. If I am elected, I will not be there to create a career in Washington. My goals are clear. I will be there to do the work of the people of this district. Walter Rauschenbusch once said that if business were an island, we would send missionaries to it. I feel that way about Washington, D.C. I want to go leaven that loaf on behalf of the people of West Tennessee.
This is significant. To the best of my knowledge, Baker’s candidacy is the first one inspired by a reaction to Obergefell.