When Faith and Politics Collide


Dr. C. Everett Koop


In an interview this week with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop for another writing project, I took a few moments to talk faith and leadership with one of the most controversial public figures in the 1980s. Leaders who stand strong for their convictions in the public square amidst certain ridicule fascinate me. Dr. Koop has more experience in this area than any one man should.

When Dr. Koop was nominated for U.S. Surgeon General in the spring of 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, a nasty eight-month confirmation hearing commenced. He entered office hated by liberals and left despised by conservatives. Yet he never changed.

What behavior and policies did Dr. Koop adhere to that caused this 180-degree shift among those who held a favorable view of him? The answer might surprise you: Christ-like compassion.

You see, initially it was his deep-seeded faith that drew the ire from liberals – Dr. Koop was an outspoken advocate for the pro-life position on the abortion issue. Then those same strong convictions earned similar anger from conservatives, including those in Reagan’s cabinet, for the way he approached the AIDS epidemic – Dr. Koop was concerned with stopping the spread of the disease (even if it meant talking about condoms in school) and helping those who had contracted it get well, not in demonizing people for their lifestyle.

In his final lecture last month entitled “The Early Days of AIDS, as I Remember Them,” Dr. Koop said this:

Conservatives said I had changed, and they were angry. Liberals said I had changed, and they were pleased. But I hadn’t changed at all. All the fuss surprised me. I just did what I had always done as a doctor. My whole career had been dedicated to prolonging lives, especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children, baby does, and people with AIDS.

I asked Dr. Koop how he felt about the public ridicule – or if he even paid attention to it (Listen here for a 6-minute portion of my interview with Dr. Koop):

… Nobody had a good word to say about me. … I used to go [into work] in the morning and on the edge of my desk was the Bible and I would look out the window and there was the flag flying over the Capitol. And I said, “For God and Country,” and got to work.

Dr. Koop inspires me not to play to the court of public opinion. In leadership, there will always be trying moments where we must make unpopular decisions. It’s during these times – when the decisions are often agonizing to make – that we must hold fast to the Apostle Paul’s reminder to the church in Colossia:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. – Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

When I’m 94 years old, I hope I’m as sharp as Dr. Koop. But more importantly, I hope that also like Dr. Koop I will leave a legacy that proved my faith in Christ remained firm even when my faith put me at odds with the popular ideals of the day.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ll be writing more about my discussion with him next week, too.)

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