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Signposts: What I Learned From Congressman Gene Taylor

On this episode of Signposts I reflect on life lessons I learned from serving Congressman Gene Taylor, and how a politician modeled integrity and conscience for me that made a lasting impact.

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Below is an edited transcript of the audio.

This week I was thinking about the fact that it was the anniversary of the day that my old boss was elected to the United States Congress. On that date every year I tend to reflect on him and what I learned from him and I can tell you that I learned a lot about life and leadership from a politician, in a way that I think might be surprising to some people who tend to think of politicians in a really cynical and negative way. But when I think of this man, I have this sense of great gratitude that I was able to learn from him.

Our fifth son, Taylor, is named after him. He is Taylor Eugene Moore, precisely because of the sense of gratitude that I have for him. I started out working for this guy at a really, really young age and he invested in me at a time when, as I look at it now, I think he took a risk on me in a way that I’ve never seen another politician do and if I were advising someone, I would say this is crazy. I started out as a high school student, sstuffing envelopes for him in a congressional race that he was running that he lost, but he lost that election by a narrower margin than what many people were predicting and so he kind of came out of that with a little bit of momentum, even though he lost the race. The U.S. Congressman who did win the race, who was a very good Congressman and a very good man, was tragically killed in an airplane accident eight months later in August of the next year. By that point I was starting college and so I because active and involved in the campaign too on a volunteer basis and working at handing out bumper stickers and doing phone banks and all of that because I believed in this guy. He invested in me, he hired me as an intern first in his Washington office and then put me in charge of his internship program and then put me in charge of communications for his 1992 re-election campaign when I was 19 years old.

I was working for him in one of our offices, Washington and all of our district offices in Mississippi offices, driving all over South Mississippi with him in various places and learning from him. I think one of the things I learned from him is about taking risks on investing in younger people who are able to do what it is that you are asking them to do or who can learn to do what is that you are asking them to do. And so I’ve kind of thought about that, there have been times when in ministry as I’ve been putting people into ministry positions or hiring people for positions, I though to myself, “That person is really, really young,” and then I remember a guy who took a chance on me when I was young and gave me an opportunity to make some stupid mistakes and to learn and to have those skills sharpened.

He taught me to be able to take those changes and to take those risks and to cultivate people, not just to expect people to come into your orbit already an expert in whatever it is that they are doing, but take that raw ability and to let it develop and to teach and to watch—I learned that from him. I think if it hadn’t been for that experience, I probably would not do that. Now, in every case does that work out? No. Sometimes it doesn’t, but in many cases it does and it’s been a great blessing to me in ministry over the years.

The second thing I learned from him is a commitment to the unborn. This was a man who was a Democratic United States Congressman, at that time in the state of Mississippi, there wasn’t really a difference between Democratic and Republican parties on the social issues–most of the Democrats were pro-life and pro-family–but as he was dealing with the national party, I remember hearing some party bosses saying to him, “You might have a future if you didn’t have the position that you have on the abortion question.” And around that time right before that and right after that, you had a lot of politicians in that party who switched on the abortion issue because they knew that they would never be able to make it nationally, not going to be chosen to be vice president, not going to be able to win a presidential nomination. Frankly when you are most politicians who are operating at the national level for either House or Senate, you kind of think that you might be president or vice president one day. I don’t think my boss thought that, but many of them do and my boss just said, as he heard one person say to him,
“Well, if you alter that position on abortion, then you might have a future,” his response to that was to say “Yeah, but then I’d be a prostitute.” I was pro-life before I came to work for him but I don’t think I cared about the issue until I was with him and I saw that for him it wasn’t just a platform issue, it wasn’t just a pro-forma sort of thing, he really cared about this issue, which is why he always mentioned it. I cannot think of a campaign that he ran when he wouldn’t talk about the unborn, not just about life generally, but about unborn children and so I learned a lot from that.

I also learned a lot about integrity from him and, again, that’s going to strike some people as odd that you learn about integrity from a politician but I did because this guy, Gene Taylor, they called him Opie, as from The Andy Griffith Show, because he was kind of clean Gene and there was nothing unethical that you could find on him. People kind of made fun of him really because he was just kind of sparkly clean, no ethical issues, and he was brutal on those ethical questions and so you’d always have these sort of interest groups that would come by and they’d give you things, not big things– I’m not talking about Rolls Royces and Rolex watches or anything like that, I’m talking about the Apple Growers Association brings you apples to your office or the National Cotton Council brings socks or whatever–it’s these little items that would come through, and he was absolutely dogged that none of that was going to be there. None of us were allowed to go with a lobbyist or somebody to eat somewhere. He was really focused on that and he was focused on it not just for political reasons, because nobody would have even known, he just had seen people become bought and sold and he was determined that he was not going to be bought and sold—and neither were we, if we worked for him.

We’d be driving around, and he would also talk about the people that he knew in politics who had made kind of moral compromises, some of them financial, some of them sexual, all sorts of temptations that were there, and he talked about being able to sail through that kind of world without being destroyed by those temptations. That meant he had a plan together before he ever was elected to Congress; he was already thinking how to serve as a U.S. Congressman without falling in the way so many people have. I really learned a lot from that, learned about being proactive when thinking about temptation in ways that apply directly to ministry and to gospel discipleship and raising children and marriage and family, and so many other things.

He also taught me the importance of conscience. This was somebody who was coming under criticism all the time as an elected official, getting all sorts of hate mail all of the time, and it never seemed to phase him. But I remember one time when we were in a meeting with some Democratic activists in 1992. Here was my boss, this really conservative Democrat, more conservative then most of the Republicans in the House, (he is a Republican now, but was a Democrat at the time) and this group of Democratic activists were there and they were upset because he wouldn’t walk the party line on a number of issues and so they are going through saying “You didn’t vote right on this, and you didn’t vote right on that,” and they were really upset because at the time in 1992, George H. W. Bush was the Republican nominee, Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee, and then Ross Perot, the billionaire businessman was running as a third-party candidate and for a while, there was a real question whether that election would be thrown in the House of Representatives if no candidate received 270 electoral votes. There was a real chance early in the year that he would have to cast a vote on who was going to be the next president of the United States, and Gene did not endorse Bill Clinton, his party’s nominee, didn’t even vote for him, and had serious character concerns about Bill Clinton at the time and when he was asked to make a commitment that he would vote for Clinton if it went to the House, he said “No, I’m not going to do that. I don’t trust him, I wouldn’t trust him with my daughter.”

Now, whether you agree with his perception of Bill Clinton or not is irrelevant, that’s not the point that I’m trying to make here. The point is that’s what he believed, and so he said to this group, “That’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to vote for whoever receives a plurality of votes in our district, that’s who I think our people want to be president and I will vote for that person.” That enraged those people in the room that he wouldn’t endorse this candidate, and so they were just coming after him really viciously and I was shaken up, I was tense, I was a 19-year-old or 20-year-old kid and just thrown by all of this. We got in the car to leave and I just was expecting him to be shaken and rattled by this and I said “Man, that was awful,” and he said, “Eh.” I said “Why aren’t you upset about this?” He said, “I said what I believe, this is who I am, this is what my convictions are, and the people of South Mississippi, they elected me to represent my convictions and to be true to who I am and not to lie to them about what I really believe and I’m not, and that’s what I said, I said what I actually believe.” He held to that. He did the same thing in 1991 when President Bush brought the resolution forward to the Congress to authorize the Persian Gulf war and our district was not only one of the most heavily military districts in the whole country–I would later serve a church in which Maria and I were about the only people in the church that weren’t either active duty Air Force or retired military–a very military district, very hawkish. If you had gone through and polled whether or not we ought to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91, I’ll bet our district would have been 92% for that, Gene believed it was a wrong war. He believed it wasn’t morally justified at that point and so he voted his conscience and said I cannot authorize this, and I remember thinking when this happened, “We just lost re-election the next year,” but it really helped me because if he had been primarily concerned about his own re-election, he would have simply said, 92% of my people, 95% of my people are for this, “I’m going to be for it.”

Now, I happen to disagree with him on that. I happened to believe the Persian Gulf War actually was warranted and I think the outcome of it demonstrated that this multinational coalition coming against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was probably the right thing to do, and if it hadn’t happened, Saddam may have well continued to expand out into Saudi Arabia and out into other placed in the Middle East and created a conflagration. Regardless of that, when I saw this guy say, “My commitment is to making sure that we send men and women into harm’s way only after every other alternative has been exhausted, and I don’t care if it cost me re-election,” that taught me a lot about what it means to stand with conscience.

So, the reason I think I’m telling that is to say first of all, you may be learning lessons in places that you don’t expect to learn them that are going to be beneficial to the way that you serve Christ, maybe even from people that don’t even know Christ in your situation perhaps. Also, for those of you who are serving in places that aren’t thought of as ministry, maybe you are a politician or maybe you are a business leader or maybe you are a journalist or whatever it is, it may well be that your example of integrity and honesty and authenticity and commitment to excellence and mentoring, whatever it is, may well be used by God with people who are watching you that you don’t even know they are watching you right now. That’s an encouraging thing to think about.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).