Rep. Tim Walberg on holding fast to convictions
The pastor-turned-congressman says everyone should decide what they won’t compromise on
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., is something of a rarity in Congress. He has both an undergraduate and a graduate degree from Christian colleges, and he spent 10 years as a pastor before getting elected to the Michigan legislature. He also had other jobs in Christian ministry, including a tenure on the senior leadership team at Moody Bible Institute. Walberg’s story is even more unusual because of the district he serves, Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, often identified as one of the most competitive in the nation.
He was first elected to Congress in 2006, but in 2008 he didn’t win reelection. Walberg regained the seat in 2010 as part of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives during the midterm elections. Walberg has a 100 percent voting record with the group National Right to Life and a 94 percent conservative rating from the American Conservative Union. Those high ratings are despite the fact that he serves in a moderate district. Walberg is on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. He also is a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee as well as the tea party caucus. We had this conversation in his office on Capitol Hill, where he has Harley Davidson paraphernalia spread about.
Tell me about your upbringing. I was raised, thankfully, in a Christian home, and that goes back now centuries, so that was a privilege. Raised in the South Side of Chicago in a blue-collar family, immigrant family. It was that early age that I finally came to realize, after thinking that because my family was so Christian that I was, and hearing a minister say this specific statement, “Folks, there are no grandchildren in heaven. They’re all children. You have to link up to the family through faith in Jesus Christ yourself.” … I accepted Christ as a young boy and then saw growth opportunities to this very day.
Did you go to a Christian college? I went off, initially, to Western Illinois University, majoring in forestry and land management. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel any compulsion to do anything other than that. I was at Western Illinois University during the Vietnam War, the Kent State massacre, all of that going on at that time in the late ’60s. For the first time on my own, I got the opportunity to decide whether to follow my faith and carry it out on campus or go the opposite direction. I’m glad I chose to carry on my faith. It was a strengthening time to have to defend my faith and answer questions relative to the war. How could God allow this to go on? … I became enthused with campus ministry through organizations like Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Navigators, and a local church that I involved myself with on that campus. I ended up feeling the call to a ministry and left Western and went to Moody Bible Institute. That’s where I spent the next three years of my life in training for, I thought, campus ministry. I ended up being called to pastor a church, and while there at my first church in the New Haven-Fort Wayne, Ind., area I completed my degree at then Fort Wayne Bible College, which became Taylor University Fort Wayne.
You went back to grad school as well, didn’t you? I pastored for five years and felt a real need in the area of communications. So I left that church and went back to Wheaton College grad school with a wife and two kids at that time. I graduated with a master’s degree in cross-cultural communications. Then I was called to a church in, of all places, Tipton, Mich., and that’s what brought me to Michigan.
When did you decide to go into politics? I never had a desire to go into politics. That was the thing. I’d ask my congregation to be salt and light, to find a place where you can use your faith and the sphere of influence that you have, whether it’s a Kiwanis Club, Boy Scouts, you name it. If that means that you have to relinquish some responsibilities at my church, Sunday school class, whatever, in order to truly be a minister where you can be in a unique way, then do it.
My wife and I felt we ought to get involved, and we got involved, with the right-to-life cause in our county. From that, for the first time, I went to a state capital to lobby on an issue with my fellow right-to-life supporters in the community. And from that, I was asked to consider running for the state House. I ran like Jonah away from that initially, saying, “I’ve been a pastor. I love the pastorate. I’ve only been at this church for 4 1/2 years now. It’s starting to go, it’s starting to grow, we’re having a ministry. Why would I want to change?” Ultimately, through some good counsel and a lot of prayer on the path for my wife and myself, we ultimately had peace that we couldn’t not move forward, at least walk through the door, whether we were elected or not.
Michigan has a full-time legislature, so you had to leave your job as a pastor. What was that like? It was a big move. It was a big move in the mind, as well, to just get my mind wrapped around the fact that I was not in a pastorate anymore. I had a broader perspective of people to concern myself with. As I said in my first announcement speech, and I’ve said to everyone since then, while I will not flaunt my religion, I won’t hide my faith. To do that, I had to consider how I dealt with representing a broad cross-spectrum of people, even representing people who disagreed with me totally, would never vote for me on a bet. That was a unique experience.
You have a master’s degree in cross-cultural studies. Did you just treat the liberal media and the folks that disagreed with you as a different culture? I learned in survey research at Wheaton College that you had to know your audience, so take the time to know the audience and know those who would be putting you in front of the audience as well. That was a unique experience. I also learned something from a longtime politician in Grand Rapids who came across me. It’s a long story, so I’ll just shorten it.
He challenged me to know my convictions. I had never written down my convictions before. Most of what I said to him, initially, was opinions. He said, “No. Convictions are those things you will not only live for but you’ll die for. What are those?” I wrote those down. There are nine convictions that I have, and I carry them on a card in my wallet to this day. It’s been over 30 years I’ve carried those convictions. If I can carry out my oath of office to uphold the Constitution and also not violate my convictions, and the Constitution doesn’t violate any of my convictions, then I think I will have represented my district well. That was a process that was life-changing, not only in politics, but in the way I live my life.
I’m tempted right now to ask you to pull that card out and read it, but you’re reluctant to do that. I’d be delighted to pull the card out and show it, but, to read it, I won’t do it. For all these years I have not done that, specifically because the gentleman who told me to develop my convictions wouldn’t do it for me. He said, “No. These have to be yours. You have to wrestle with those things you will live and die for.” I think people who know my record probably can pick a good number of those nine convictions I have, just by the way I have voted, the way I’ve lived.
Those are important, and I tell high school students and college students the same thing. I say, “You need to write those down. Wrestle with it. Ask yourself will I die for those, and on what basis would I die for those? How firm are those convictions? Do they have a background in something stronger and fuller and more complete in truth than just my own opinion?” Opinions will change, they ought to, but convictions, if they’re truly convictions, will live forever.
At what point did you decide that maybe you wanted to practice your craft on a bigger platform and think about running for Congress? That was not something I contemplated much. When I was term-limited after 16 years in the statehouse, I thought, as well as my wife, we had added that to our resumé, we had done the best we could. That was a page that was closing in the life and we looked further, now what would we do? I spent a couple of years as president of a private operating foundation working in the areas of education and community development in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Then I was asked to consider coming to Moody Bible Institute, my alma mater, and start up a new division there called Strategic Partners, major gifts, dealing with specific visionary projects of then President Joe Stowell at Moody. … I spent 5 1/2 years doing that. Loved it. I thought, hey, I found a place that I’ll retire from and then Sue and I will go on and do what we still long to do in the future, and that would be short-term missionary work supporting missionaries around the world. We could be self-supporting and could carry on that ministry. Then I got a call from a number of organizations to see if I would run in an open seat, opening with the retirement of my congressman for that seat.
You lost your first primary bid, but won on your second try in 2006. That was 2006, and a tough year for Republicans. … It’s a swing district, true swing district. I was there for two years, and then I was turned out of office, defeated in 2008 in the Obama landslide. [I went] home again, questioning, what was that all about? One term and out. That does show that people can term-limit their own legislators. The next two years were years filled with controversy, Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul of the nation’s financial system, cap and trade, the stimulus, all of that stuff. Again, I ran to regain my seat in 2010 against the one who defeated me, and I defeated him that year after a tough primary, as well, in order to get that opportunity to come back, and I came back in 2010.
I looked at your voting record. Even though you’re in a swing district, you trend conservative. You’re 100 percent on life issues, according to the National Right to Life. I have a ] 94 percent conservative rating, lifetime rating, which is pretty good for a swing district.
How can you maintain a conservative voting record in a moderate district? No. 1, it’s just hard work. We spend a lot of time in the district. I go home every weekend. In the weeks that we are there, we have multiple town halls. I’ve done 150 live town-hall meetings during the course of a term, multiple tele-town halls here from my office in a conference call-type setting back with my district. It’s a lot of hard work. Communications are huge, marketing is huge. Changing people’s perspective by giving them information as clearly as I can and in many ways as possible, going to all of the special interest groups, to the African-American community, to the union community in my district. I don’t divorce myself from those entities. … Secondly, I think people know where I stand. Regardless of what some media might say about spinmeisters, I think it is a positive that people, whether they agree with me or not or even like me, they at least know where Walberg’s going to come down. No.1, he’s going to be rational, reasonable. He’s going to do his homework. On those convictional areas and the areas he’s told you he’ll stand on, he will be there.
How would you like to be remembered when you’re gone? If I can enjoy the outdoors, that’s where I love to be. My wife will tell you that to see me indoors, other than doing my job, is a rarity. If I can get out on my Harley Davidson and get a 50-mile ride in—I don’t consider anything less than 50 miles as a full ride. If I can get that in the Irish Hills, which I’m blessed to represent, around literally hundreds of lakes, lots of country, farmland, forestland, those type of things I enjoy.
What do you want people to say about you? In Acts 13:36 it says, “After David served his generation according to the purposes of God, he died.” If the people would say, “Walberg served; he served us according to God’s purposes,” that would be all I’d want.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Tim Walberg on Listening In.
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