Interview with Rod Roberts

Rod Roberts

By Brad Dupray

Rod Roberts, a gubernatorial candidate in Iowa’s recent Republican primary, has served in his state’s House of Representatives since 2000. All the time he has served as a part-time legislator (four months of every year), he also has been executive director of the Christian Evangelistic Mission (CEM), planting churches in Iowa. CEM organized the church in Carroll, Iowa, in 1985 and hired Rod to be its first full-time minister. This came after Rod and his wife, Trish, had worked for five years establishing a church on Long Island, New York, under the direction of Go Ye Chapel Mission (now the Orchard Group). Rod and Trish still reside in Carroll and are blessed with two children and four grandchildren. Read a longer version of this interview at www.ChristianStandard.com.

Why would you want to be a politician in today’s political environment?

This is an area to serve and live out my faith. I’ve always believed that Christian people are engaged in influencing their culture and I’ve always understood that every area of culture should have Christian people involved in enhancing their witness and influence in representing Christ. I’ve been fortunate that opportunities have presented themselves where I could do that.

Can you take a partisan political stance and still stay faithful to your Christian convictions?

Obviously you have this dual role of being involved in government, but you run with a party affiliation and that’s where politics, in most people’s minds, comes into play. I may be a state representative, but I affiliate with a party. There is that element of politics along with serving in public office. I just have a strong belief that Christian people should be engaged in the public arena and their ideas should be made known there as well.

What do you see as your purpose as a legislator?

The task is to make law. The legislature is the lawmaking body of our system of government. So it’s very important that a legislator is a lawmaker first and foremost.

Are you a Christian legislator, or a legislator who is a Christian?

A legislator who is a Christian. And that is an important distinction. It’s a public trust I’ve been given. The voters send me to Des Moines to represent them and make decisions on their behalf. My faith certainly influences and informs my decision making as a lawmaker.

Do your constituents expect you to disassociate your faith from policy making?

They know, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am an evangelical Christian. My constituents understand that my faith will help and inform me in decision making on their behalf. A campaign has a way of vetting somebody. People get to know exactly who that individual is and that’s very important. At this point in my public service people know exactly who I am.

Does it make you uncomfortable to have every detail of your life aired before the public?

A few weeks ago we had to publicly disclose what was in our 2009 tax return. You talk about being fully exposed! By the time you travel the state and meet people and speak, a lot is revealed about you. It’s not always just a discussion about policy, but “Who are you?’ “What area of the state did you come from?” “Where did you grow up?” They’re very interested in personal details.

How can a legislator participate with integrity in a political environment that seems to reward those who lack integrity?

You just have to be very thoughtful every day of who you are and whose you are, understanding that you’re performing a task and you have a job to do as a lawmaker. There are times when it’s a unique challenge to live in that kind of arena, and you have to remember where you’re grounded. No matter what you do as your profession you live that out day to day in your workplace. My working at the Capitol is no different than someone who works in the bank or on the farm or in a plant. It’s always about trying to live my life in a way that’s a fair reflection of my faith in Christ.

Your role is a little more visible than the average worker, however.

It’s always about casting your vote. You must be present with others to cast votes. You can have all the discussion and debate, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about voting, so you protect that vote and you think very thoughtfully about how you make that vote.

Do you ever get so frustrated with political opponents that you just want to sayForget it, I can’t deal with these people!”?

That’s the arena. It’s the battle of ideas. Whose moral point of view will prevail as law? As proposals become ideas and decisions are made to make law, each legislator figures out how to deal with that kind of work. It’s a physically demanding experience, and you have to learn to deal with that environment.

Can you legislate morality?

On the floor of the statehouse in Des Moines there’s a quote from an 18th-century British judge named William Blackstone, who is acknowledged as the father of English common law: “Law is the embodiment of the moral sentiment of the people.” There is not a moral vacuum when it comes to the work of the legislature. You have two buttons on your desk to push—green for yes and red for no. There is no amber-colored button to push. You get one of two choices. I’m either voting for or against.

The issue for me is, is that moral or is it immoral? Is it right or wrong? Is it some shade of good or bad? A lot of people have a hard time comprehending that. I don’t buy this idea that I can’t impose my morality on someone. A lawmaker has to make a judgment and cast a vote for or against. The prevailing side will think they’ve done the right thing. The other side may say that’s immoral, and that’s where you have the tension in lawmaking.

So moral judgment can hardly be divorced from legislation.

I have always contended that at the core of the law there is some degree of moral judgment being made.

Ultimately, though, you have to answer to the voters.

You’re always going to have to explain why you voted the way you did. If it’s the right thing to do, you’re saying that’s the moral thing to do.

There’s a lot of mistrust of government these days. How should Christians react when they disagree with their government?

This is where people should be engaged in what’s going on. For a long, long time people have just sat on the sidelines. The contemporary church in America has become somewhat complacent in its mission to engage the culture. People should be engaged in what’s taking place in the public arena of government. For some it may mean running for office; for others it may mean voting. In a republic, with the idea of voting for someone who makes decisions on your behalf, people should take the time to find out about candidates who represent them.

Are there issues where Christians simply cannot compromise?

I think we’re approaching a period of history where people will say, “I do not agree with that law, or that prevailing position,” and we will work to change it. In our day and age, whether it’s a life issue or a family issue, Christian people are going to hold fast and they won’t accept what civil law says if there is conflict with what God says. The difficulty will become if we ever reach a point that people believe that the government is no longer responsive through these channels by which we operate. This is a significant moment in our country for our future direction. I’m no advocate of those who go outside the bounds of how we participate as citizens, but I know some people feel they have to contend differently.

At what point does the church draw the line between politics and religion? Or, what is the church’s side of the “separation of church and state”?

What the nation’s founders intended is that we not have any official state- or government-sanctioned church, like what we saw in Europe when people came to this country. The founders were concerned about having a specific church affiliation with government. I don’t believe they ever intended for religion not to have an influence in the public arena. They fully expected people of faith to be involved in the discourse within the public arena. Some people have tried to wall off religion and said it’s not to be exercised here. I don’t believe the founders believed that.

What is the government’s side?

So many of these things tend to be decided on a specific set of circumstances. The Declaration of Independence states that our rights come from God, not the government. We have the First Amendment right that was intended for people to practice their religious beliefs. There should be more latitude for people to express themselves and their religious thinking and not be apologetic about how they express themselves.

At what point does the church compromise its mission by getting involved in political issues?

One thing I’ve always been concerned about is when people of faith try to organize themselves outside of the church, rather than being a grassroots kind of influence where Christians engage in public discourse. When we associate ourselves in an organized way and we allow other people to become leaders of an organization or a movement, we need to be very cautious. We don’t want the organization becoming a surrogate or substitute for our personal Christian worldview.

Isn’t there greater leverage from a larger organization than from individual Christians?

When we allow somebody else, through an organization, to take control, I don’t know if that’s the best way for Christian people to participate. We assume that will take care of our obligation. That’s where the church needs to rethink how we engage culture, even in government. Individual citizens must be getting involved at the grassroots level. That’s very powerful, and I think that’s a far better witness of our faith. When I first ran for office, the Moral Majority was a prominent organization. I’ve never been comfortable at all with organizations like that trying to represent God or Christian people in politics. The church works best when the church encourages people to get involved. It might be someone’s call to run for office or to support a candidate. Being the salt and light Jesus called us to be has a much more profound effect than a group of people who go into the arena to fight.

As a legislator, doesn’t that large group have a significant influence on you?

In the hierarchy of what’s important, the individual who comes to me has tremendous effect. There are a lot of things I’ve concluded after 10 years in the legislature that I couldn’t have known beforehand. What moves you more, having 100 signatures on a form letter or a couple of personally composed letters? The person who has put thought into what they say has a lot of influence on me.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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