Anytime I hear critics attack Christians for being weak on social justice issues, equality, and human rights, I think of John Wesley and Jack Kemp. With his death this week, America has lost a man whose faith, life, and career are inextricably linked to the best aspects of our national history and tradition. Jack Kemp’s life illustrates the power of integrity and authentic Christianity.
I first met Jack Kemp in 1970 when my husband and I organized his first campaign event in Buffalo, New York — a reception for about 200-300 potential supporters — when he began his political career with a successful run for Congress. A star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Jack led the Bills to championships in the American Football League. As a congressman, he represented western New York for nine terms before running for president (against George H.W. Bush in 1988) and vice president of the United States (with Senator Bob Dole eight years later).
Jack and Joanne were very special friends of Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America (CWA), and her husband, Tim, and the LaHayes endorsed his 1988 run for the presidency. Jack was a very popular speaker at several of CWA’s national conventions. His personality, enthusiasm, and energy made him a dynamic speaker; his personal integrity and deep commitment to his faith made him especially effective when speaking to Christian citizens about their responsibility to be involved in shaping national policy. He was especially effective in challenging Christians to become involved in rescuing inner city youth and rebuilding America’s major cities.
Jack Kemp was a unique politician because of his strong voice and consistent expression of Judeo-Christian values, especially the necessity for the “party of Lincoln” to be as open to minorities as the major league ball teams who depended on unity and teamwork for victory. For him, minorities included blacks, Hispanics and those of the Jewish faith (who, in Kemp’s day, tended to be Democratic rather than Republican). He went out of his way to address audiences that were not typically GOP in order to recruit minorities to his party. He also heartily campaigned for those within his party whose views were diametrically opposed to his own. He had a unique ability to be firm in his own views, but respectful of those with different views. He was a master at building coalitions that reached across traditional special interest groups without compromising his conservative political or religious stances.
With his ebullience and forceful personality, it was not easy for Kemp to play “second fiddle.” He was a champion quarterback on the football field, and he was most comfortable “calling the plays” in Congress as well as when he was running for vice president on the ticket with Robert Dole running for president.
Many commentators are calling Jack Kemp second only to Ronald Reagan in shaping the “Reagan Revolution” and crediting Kemp’s policy recommendations for the prosperity of the Reagan era. Like Reagan, Kemp was an eternal optimist. Like Reagan, he believed in “supply side economics” that focused on economic growth, tax cuts, and smaller government. With his energy and enthusiasm, he convinced politicians and the public that reducing taxes and getting people back to work would lead to more people realizing the American dream. Kemp’s policies were embodied in the bill known as the “Kemp-Roth” tax cut legislation that reduced middle-class taxes by 32 percent, ended double-digit inflation, and, contrary to the stereotypical leftist narrative, increased the proportion of taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans. He proved that entrepreneurship and capitalism are the keys to a strong democracy.
Jeffrey Bell wrote a powerful article for Newsmax.com that describes in vivid terms the “demoralizing decade of the 1970s” from which Jack Kemp’s career emerged. He gives Jack Kemp equal credit with Ronald Reagan for pulling the United States out of the slog of that era and re-shaping the American Dream into a “shining city on a hill.” Bell wrote that Kemp “achieved by far the most positive impact on global economic policy of any legislator of the past century.”
The story that best illustrates Jack Kemp’s integrity was published in the February 16 issue of the Weekly Standard. Kenneth Tomlinson described the situation in 1980 when Kemp faced a crossroads in his career. New York Senator Jacob Javits was ill, and Kemp could have challenged him in the primary and won, but he declined to be “known for ending the political career of this longstanding Jewish Republican.” As Tomlinson points out, conservatives turned to D’Amato after Kemp declined.
Jack Kemp was an accidental football hero. He came to the Buffalo Bills, not as a first draft pick, but as a free agent bought for a mere $100. He went on to lead the Bills to two AFL championships and a “most valuable player” award. He liked to say that his football career prepared him for politics. “When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy.”
Coming from a working class background, Kemp understood the power of the American Dream as well as the strength that comes from faith and family. Perhaps his greatest achievements are not his stellar careers in football and politics but his exemplary marriage to his college sweetheart, Joanne Main, the four children who as adults embody the values and beliefs of their parents as they contribute to their churches and communities, and the integrity, character, and the authentic, personal Christian commitment that make him a role model for anyone today who aspires to make the world a better place. One can only pray that during the current financial crisis and attacks on entrepreneurial capitalism that there is a Jack Kemp in the wings who will lead the nation back to those principles that rescued us in those “demoralizing” days of the 1970s when it looked like America’s best days were behind us.