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Frank Wolf reflects on 34 years in Congress

The religious liberty advocate says the United States is failing on China, foreign policy

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Frank Wolf reflects on 34 years in Congress

Rep. Frank Wolf was first elected to Congress to represent Virginia’s 10th District in 1980, the same election that put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Like Reagan, Wolf is a staunch conservative with a 100 percent score from the pro-life group National Right to Life and a zero percent voting record from the American Civil Liberties Union and the pro-homosexual group Human Rights Campaign.

But Wolf, 75, is perhaps best known as a champion of religious liberty, both in this country and around the world. He fights for the underdog and has more than once put his own life in harm’s way to travel to dangerous parts of the world to show solidarity for those persecuted for their religion. For these reasons, WORLD named Wolf its Daniel of the Year, someone who, in the spirit of the biblical Daniel, courageously speaks God’s truth to power. These are the last weeks of Wolf’s extraordinary political career. After 34 years in Congress, he chose not to run for reelection for an 18th term. I had this conversation with him in his office on Capitol Hill last week, with boxes stacked all around.

I understand there was an episode in your life in 1984 in Ethiopia that was a defining moment for you. In ’84, there was a famine in Ethiopia, and Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, who was a good friend of mine, called me and said, “You have to go to Ethiopia.” So I jumped on a plane and went to Ethiopia and got waylaid in a camp up in Alamata, a camp run by World Vision. Next to it was Mother Theresa’s camp. What I saw there was a life-changing experience. I had never seen it before. People died every day. Then in ’85, I went to Romania, which was darker than probably Moscow, in kilowatts and evil. Ceaușescu was the president. They were bulldozing churches and arresting Christians. So those two trips … really changed a lot of what I did in Congress.

I wanted to talk to you about your relationship with Tony Hall, because, as you said, he was a Democrat. You are very conservative, yet you also have a reputation for being able to work across the aisle. Tony and I, with two other members, were part of a small group, a Bible study that still meets. In fact, we met yesterday in the chapel. … We became very close friends. Our wives are very close. His wife and my wife have been in a small group for years. This has gone on now for 32 years. We got away from the whole political thing. Many times we would be in the group, and the bells would ring. We would leave the room, go vote. He would vote one way. I would vote another way.

We knew each other as individuals. When you pray with somebody, break bread with somebody … it’s very difficult to go out and then attack that person.

You’ve been in the Congress a long time now. Do you think it’s easier or harder today to form those kinds of relationships? Harder. Much, much harder.

Why is that? There’s so many reasons, we could do a mini-series on it. I think, one, members don’t live here anymore. Everyone gets in an airplane and runs to the airport and goes. Secondly, when they were living here more, their kids were here. Thirdly, it’s very hot. The media, everything is very hot, very instant. Lastly, people are very reluctant to reach across the aisle. It’s almost frowned upon. It's much, much harder; much harder.

You were adamantly opposed to granting “Most Favored Nation” status to China, and yet the country did it anyway. Do you think you had the right position and the country got it wrong? China is a direct threat to the United States. The Chinese people are wonderful people. More Chinese come in this office than any other office up on Capitol Hill, the dissidents. But today in China there are Catholic bishops under house arrest. There are hundreds of Protestant pastors that are in jail. They have plundered Tibet. …

Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner, is in jail, languishing, not well, and his wife is under house arrest. They’re spying against us. … I can’t get into detail what they’re doing on the military, what they’re doing out in outer space. … China has a more sophisticated spying program today in Washington than the KGB had at its peak.

There are people who say the best way to change China is to engage them and not put up economic barriers. You’re laughing. You clearly don’t buy that argument. No, I don't buy it. … I’ve been in Beijing Municipal No. 1 Prison where Tiananmen Square demonstrators are still in prison. Tiananmen took place in 1989. They’re still in prison. [The Chinese government is] laughing at us. They’re stealing us blind. Many of the jobs that we have lost they have taken away. America is ready to go into decline, economic and moral decline, and the Chinese people look to the West to advocate for human rights, religious freedom. President Reagan said the words in the Constitution were a covenant. They were a covenant with the people in China as well as the people in Philadelphia in 1776.

A lot of people say Frank Wolf is irreplaceable in Congress. No, no. No, I think Frank Wolf can be replaced.

Frank Wolf, when you leave Congress you say you’re going to do something related to religious liberty and human rights. Can you say a few words about the Obama administration’s record on religious liberty and human rights? This administration has been a total and complete failure. Pastor [Saeed] Abedini, who was a convert to Christianity—his wife was up here the other day. Do you know the president will not meet with Mrs. Abedini? She won’t meet with him. Reagan used to meet with people. [Bill] Clinton met with people. Jimmy Carter met with people. This administration has the worst record of human rights and religious freedom of any administration since I've been in Congress.

I talked to some people who know you or who have worked with you, and they tell me that you’re a kind of behind-the-scenes fixer. I talked to a young filmmaker named Laura Waters Hinson, who was doing a film called As We Forgive, about the reconciliation of Rwandan genocide. She said that you were very instrumental in helping her get that film made, getting Mia Farrow, for example, to provide the voice-over narration for that film, which elevated that project. Do you view that kind of quiet behind-the-scenes helping grease the skids for worthy projects as an important part of your job? Yeah. Whenever you can help the cause of issues like that, yeah, I think you ought to do it.

What do you do for fun? Well, I have five kids. I have 16 grandkids. I have a 50-by-50 garden. I cut wood. I live out in the country ... and I love to read. I love history. I’m not worried about filling the space.

What do you want people to say about you? What do you want your gravestone to say? Well done, good and faithful servant.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s complete interview with Frank Wolf on Listening In:

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.


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