Congresswoman Capps serves her nation and her God in the U.S. Congress. She views an effective democracy like an effective church — they both receive their strength from and work best at the local level, the seedbed for transformation.
Note from author Jeff Favre
Lois Capps didn't envision herself as a member of the United States Congress. But that's what California's 23rd District representative has been doing for more than ten years. The Lutheran pastor's kid grew up to be a nurse, a public health advocate, and teacher.
But when her husband of nearly four decades, Walter Capps, died in 1997, less than a year after taking office as the Congressional representative from the 23rd District, Lois had a decision to make. She could let her husband's work fade and his loyal staff disband. Or she could accept a new calling.
Capps won a special election in 1998 and has been reelected five consecutive times. She's a veteran politician now. But at heart she remains a pastor's kid and a nurse.
How does she reconcile her work with her faith? Lois Capps tells her story.
I come from two generations of clergy. My father was an American Lutheran Church pastor, and I married someone with a big interest in religious studies. My husband, Walter, taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Religious Studies department for more than 30 years. I'm steeped in religion and theology.Congresswoman Lois Capps (left) shakes constituents' hands at Voto Latino. Credit: Office of Lois Capps"Run, Lois, Run"
My father loved coming from Wisconsin to the state of Washington, where he had a parish. He found it freeing to be in a nontraditional environment where not many people knew about the Lutheran church. He was a big canvasser, going door-to-door.
I went to high school in Montana, and then attended Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. And I became a nurse. While my husband was in graduate school at Yale, I got a master of arts and religion, after having worked a couple of years full time as a nurse.
Then my husband decided to run for Congress. It wasn't surprising if you knew him, but he wasn't a traditional politician. He was elected to serve in 1996, and in a little more than ten months later he died in office.
And that is when I had to look in the mirror and ask, do I want to run for his seat?
A lot of people said, "You're just a nurse, and just a woman."
I gave myself three weeks to make the decision. I had to lean a lot on others during that time. How God's grace works in people was very visible to me.
In the eulogy at my husband's funeral, Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist and pastor, said, "Run, Lois, run."
And former Senator Bob Kerry, who was a good friend of my husband's, told me, "You have to look in the mirror. You can't run for Walter. You have to do it for yourself, because it's your name that's going to be on the ballot."
That was really sobering, because I knew that you can't be halfway about running for office.
That's when my faith came to the forefront. I'm a traditional Scandinavian Lutheran who never wore my faith on my sleeves.
But I believe I was prepared by being a preacher's kid, by watching my father make home visits to his parishioners. He was of the school that said that you should call on people in their homes and get around to visiting every member of your congregation every year. That rubbed off on me. I couldn't have won the Congressional seat without a big grassroots effort.
What I've learned is that this is a calling. I may have been reluctantly called, but that's the same for a lot of leaders.
Martin Luther once said to send your good men to ministry and your best men into public life. Of course, he should have said men and women.
Most of us in Congress, whether or not we vote alike, bring our faith with us, because it's a challenging road we go through. You can see the level of religious sensitivity right below the surface, and a lot of times it spills over, sometimes appropriately and other times not. But I think we bring with us the gifts and strengths we have.
I come to it with a background of my father practicing his sermons on Saturdays in front of my mom. He tried to strike a balance of law and gospel, but he also was careful not to put politics in the pulpit.
The separation of church and state runs strong in immigrant churches that came from a state church in the old country.
Most of us in Congress, whether or not we vote alike, bring our faith with us.
Yet my faith needs to be a part of all I do, not just while making certain votes about gay marriage or abortion. Lately, we've needed to talk about the budget as a moral document. That's where our faith informs how we view the world.
Humility and Trust
I still struggle about whether I'm making the right decisions. My major interest in Congress is on health, and we have such a broken health care system. But rather than my nursing background being a liability, as many people said it would be, it has turned out to be an asset.
Being a nurse has given me perspective on what we should be focusing on in life — and our priorities in Congress. And if we can't make health care more affordable and available, then what are we?
Very few votes are black and white. A lot of times we vote on issues that are problematic because different agendas are involved. And that is also where I feel my faith informs me in terms of how well I can think things through. I ask God for strength and vision to see a path through the murkiness.
One could feel lost, and I have. But what is good about a democracy is that it's never one person. I have to trust the people around me. I have to humble myself and ask for help, to ask for money to be able to run. Then once elected, I must always remember that I am there for my constituents, not to further my agenda. There are all kinds of pitfalls. That is why I pray for grace and wisdom every day, because you can fall off on so many issues.
Running a congregation is so similar to politics. It only works at the local level. All the things that happen in the Capitol make sense only when translated to a community level. The same holds true in the church. The church gets its strength from its membership. I know it's challenging. But when there is movement in congregations, it can transform the larger organization.
One of my favorite things to do in office is to award medals for heroes in war who didn't get their Purple Heart or Bronze Star. A second favorite thing is when school kids raise money to take a trip to Washington, D.C.. I talk to them for a few minutes and my staff gives them a tour. I tell them that one of the best things about a democracy is that you can learn from your mistakes. We may be the world's oldest democracy but we're not perfect, not by a long shot. That is a humbling thing to know. But we try to make progress.
Lois Capps, a lifelong Lutheran and ELCA member, has spent more than ten years in the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 23rd District. Jeff Favre, a freelance writer, lives in North Hollywood, California.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).