Prayer, politics and those pesky hot-button issues

21 Mar
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Phil Roe enjoys his new job. The U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s First District, a retired physician, wanted to join the debates in Washington over health care, and here he is. And if politics were baseball, he just moved to the major leagues.

But Thursdays are good days because that’s when he gets out of the Capitol Hill routine. In the evenings he usually flies home to Johnson City for the weekend. Before that, in the mornings, he joins other House members for an hour-long nonpartisan prayer breakfast.

“We all check our politics at the door,” Roe said during a phone conversation this week. “I really try to guard that time. We meet and get our week straightened out.”

Roe came away inspired from last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama spoke, but Roe was most impressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism soon after leaving office in 2007.

“I had never heard him share his faith,” Roe said. “That was the best event I’ve attended (in Washington) so far. I left with my jaw hanging down.”

While his own faith is important — he and his wife, Pam, are members of Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church — Roe favors the language of “values” and “morals” when discussing his work in Congress, perhaps sensing that too much religious vocabulary is easily misunderstood or potentially divisive.

In political office, “you rely on the values you grew up with, (such as) just telling the truth,” he said. “You look at that in the totality of your lifetime.”

But it seems inevitable that such conversations will turn to hot-button topics such as abortion, which Roe adamantly opposes. That issue marked one of his first big Beltway moments.

He delivered a brief anti-abortion speech in the House on Jan. 21, the day between the presidential inauguration and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Afterwards, he was asked to “say a few words to a group of people” the following day. Expecting a relatively small gathering, he found himself addressing more than 200,000 people in the National Mall for the annual pro-life rally.

As an ob-gyn specialist Dr. Roe delivered thousands of babies, and he would like to see abortion debated and put to an up-or-down vote in Congress, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Supreme Court decisions.

He was troubled by last week’s order by President Obama to lift former President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Roe considers the research unnecessary and the surrounding political drama a distraction. He chooses his words carefully.

“A human embryo is how life begins, and that comes back to one of those core basic values: Do you consider this a human life or not?” he said. “That’s an argument that personally took it off the table for me. Where do you stop on the slippery slope?”

Obama set limits when he signed the federal funding order – prohibiting cloning embryos, for example – but Roe still thinks the president needlessly re-opened a door.

“To show you how creative people are, all the great breakthroughs have occurred with adult or umbilical-cord stem cells,” he said. “Science came right along and made breakthroughs. People feel strongly about the issue, and we didn’t need this.”

Given the current economic crisis and his own conservative politics, it’s no surprise that Roe talks about taxes and government spending in moral terms. He calls his belief in “smaller, leaner, more accountable government” one of his core values. (“My head is spinning with all the spending that goes on here.”)

A member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, he considers it “a moral obligation to take care of the people who make us free.” Low taxes, he said, attract businesses to the state, which ultimately provide new jobs that can help people get out of poverty. And “the worst thing you can do” to people living on a fixed incomes – including the growing numbers of retirees in Northeast Tennessee – is to raise their taxes.

“I can’t do that to them,” he said. “When I was practicing medicine, I knew people who watched their spouses die and struggle to make payments. I would get afghans and apple butter. I have to look these people in the eye.”

Johnson City Press, 14 March 2009.

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