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Dr. C. Everett Koop was once asked by a reporter how he earned the medals on his uniform.
He answered, “The top row is for what liberals did to me, the bottom row is for what conservatives did to me.”
Indeed, few public servants have taken as much flak in recent years as the pediatrician who answered President Ronald Reagan’s call to become the U.S. Surgeon General, a position he held from 1981 to 1989.
Prior to his time in Washington, Koop had invested more than three decades at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital pioneering ways to save premature and physically compromised newborns. He was passionate and outspoken about his faith in Christ – particularly as a pro-life advocate – and arrived in the nation’s capital as the darling of America’s evangelicals. Here was a man who embraced all the right opinions about all the most crucial social and theological issues.
What awaited him was a grueling Senate confirmation process that lasted nine months.
Those on the cultural Left threw up roadblocks, questioning his character, integrity, and even his sanity. The New York Times ran an editorial that labeled him “Dr. Unqualified.” Others simply called him Dr. Kook. The American Public Health Association, for the first time in its 100-year history, actively opposed a nominee. “We’d be better off with no Surgeon General than with Koop.”
For Koop, those nine months of waiting turned out to be a gift.
He spent the time developing a kind of roadmap for the years ahead: “I decided I would use the office to espouse the cause of the disenfranchised: handicapped children, the elderly, people in need of organ transplantation, women and children who were being battered and abused.”
He was a doctor. He would not stand by and watch people suffer.
In truth, there were few expectations for the role of Surgeon General. President Richard Nixon had never even bothered to appoint one. One of the archaic traditions associated with the office is that Koop, after he was narrowly confirmed, immediately became a three-star Navy admiral – but without a boat. As a way of bringing attention and decorum to his position, he decided to wear the long-neglected formal uniform with its decorations and epaulettes. With his white goatee, he could have been mistaken for Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab.
No one, including Koop himself, could have foreseen what happened over the next eight years.
The Surgeon General quickly came to the conclusion that smoking is the number one health issue in the United States, and committed himself to eliminating it. This irritated those in North Carolina who had helped elect President Reagan. When AIDS swept like a plague across the country, Koop led an educational effort that included delivering an informational booklet to every American household – the largest mass mailing in history. In the LGBT community, he became a certifiable hero – the first national figure to attend their gatherings and take their concerns to heart. Many conservative Christians were shocked at such compassion for gays.
When Koop retired, Dan Rather called him “the best Surgeon General in history.” The American Public Health Association did a complete 180, honoring him with their highest award for excellence. Evangelicals, meanwhile, felt confused and even betrayed. Columnist Cal Thomas suggested than an atheist would have done a better job serving conservative interests.
In 2001, author and journalist Philip Yancey wrote a book called Soul Survivor – intimate portraits of 13 individuals who had helped sustain his belief in the Way of Jesus. C. Everett Koop is spotlighted in one of the chapters. Yancey asks a crucial question: Is it possible for a person of faith to enter the public arena and hold it all together? Can someone serve Christ and serve the common good at the same time?
Koop, for one, answered Yes. He insisted that he had never flinched in his commitment to Jesus – even if some of those evaluating him from a distance were offended by the company he kept.
He declared, “I am the Surgeon General of the heterosexuals and the homosexuals, of the young and the old, of the moral and the immoral.”
He added, “The American ideal is not that we all agree with each other, or even like each other, every minute of the day. It is rather that we will respect each other’s rights, especially the right to be different, and that, at the end of the day, we will understand that we are one people, one country, and one community, and that our well-being is inextricably bound up with the well-being of each and every one of our fellow citizens.”
When the people of Israel were overrun by the Babylonians and dragged into exile in 586 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah did not bring a word from the Lord that they should hunker down in a special enclave or form a holy huddle, cutting themselves off from their Babylonian neighbors. Instead:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Koop’s choices in the public arena were echoed by Billy Graham, who came alongside Bill Clinton during the darkest days of his presidency.
That rankled a number of Christians. Why should anyone help that man? Graham memorably responded, “God’s job is to judge, the Spirit’s job is to convict, my job is to love.”
You may not be in a position right now to directly shape public policy, legislation, or societal ethics.
But if you leave your house or apartment today, it’s a certainty you will find yourself in the presence of people who think, pray, and vote in ways that are different from your own.
What should be done about that?
Our job is to love.
The Public Arena
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