Skip to main content

Features

Cowboy Convert

It is a few weeks before the convention in San Diego, and the House majority leader doesn't give the impression he'll be going to any special trouble to look the part of a good Republican.

Sitting back comfortably with his famed black cowboy boots propped atop his desk, his tie is cocked to one side and his hair is tousled and free to do as it pleases. He doesn't suffer from that terrible affliction that ravishes many of his fellow Washington politicians: the carefully combed helmet of hair parted to one side and plastered with enough hair spray to inure the coif against hurricane-force gales. Dick Armey simply doesn't care much for combs or convention. Would Clinton Eastwood's Pale Rider worry about his hair or where he rests his boots?

The question is pertinent, because Mr. Armey sees himself as a modern-day version of that most recognizable American archetype, the cowboy. &quotI'm a man from the West," he declares grandly. He considers this assessment conclusive and comprehensive. His temperament and political take, his attitude toward society and Congress, everything about him, is marked by the frankness and grit commonly associated with the cowboy. &quotI don't believe anyone should have to spend five minutes listening to me talk if I can't say exactly what I think," he explains somewhat impatiently.

But lately, Mr. Armey has experienced a change of such import that he finds it difficult to describe in his usual Katie-bar-the-door manner. Ask Mr. Armey about taxes or education and you'll get a booming response. Ask about his recent conversion to Christianity and the brusk Texan succumbs to a pensive reverence. &quotI guess the way to describe it would be an old, stubborn, prideful guy coming to terms with humility," he says in a soft voice. He looks up. He appears somewhat nervous. He had expected to be asked a few questions about his general understanding of life, a tall enough order, but not as difficult a line of inquiry as questions concerning salvation. &quotI guess I just came back home," he says.

Mr. Armey grew up in Cando, North Dakota, enjoying all the benefits of small-town life. And while he was not reared in a Christian home, his parents sent him to church every Sunday. &quotThe streets were safe in those days, and my parents sent me off to a Church of the Brethren. Otherwise, I didn't get much religious instruction at home. I was the most religious person in my family."

Later, while he attended graduate school (he earned an M.A. from North Dakota University and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma), his devotion began to wane. &quotReligion wasn't fashionable in the graduate schools of the '60s and '70s unless it involved praying in a strange position," he explains. Not one to pray in strange positions amidst wafting incense, Mr. Armey embraced his study of economics and moved on with his life. He did battle in the academy, brandishing the works of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman as if they were medieval torture devices. &quotMy dean in graduate school said I wasn't diplomatic enough," Mr. Armey reveals. He wasn't a Christian, either; he was a &quotFriedmaniac." Mr. Armey smiles. &quotThat's what they used to call me. I was crazy for Milton Friedman."

When Mr. Armey went into politics, he went to work attacking the politics of meaning with the politics of confrontation. &quotI don't like confrontation," he insists. &quotBut confrontation is a tool to be used when appropriate. You cannot appease the left. There is no end to their thirst for power. The Democrats' idea of a compromise is them getting everything they want." In Congress he became known for his bluntness and zeal. He advanced quickly, helping Newt Gingrich lead the charge that brought about the Republican victories of '94 and the legislative victories that have followed. And now, sitting in the majority leader's office in the nation's capital, he can be proud of his accomplishments.

&quotYou have to remember one thing. I wasn't a desperate man looking to escape the pressures of life," Mr. Armey says of his conversion. His eyes are level. When he talks politics, he's serious, too, but conversation is laced with humor and emphasized by a soaring delivery. Back on the subject of his faith, his voice lowers, and he is adamant that every detail be rendered accurately. &quotIt just wasn't like that. I had been thinking about things for a while. I had been thinking about the Bible. Like that old radio show 'Back to the Bible,' I wanted to get back into the Bible."

The defining moment, he says, occurred this year as he sat on a New York bound airplane. &quotI was supposed to get on a plane to go to D.C., but I got a note from my staff saying I had to be in New York. Sitting on that airplane, I started to think: How can I trust people so much that I will change my plans and go to a place I don't want to go and yet not trust God to get me to a place I want to go? It was pretty clear to me at that point." Mr. Armey goes quiet for a few seconds, then adds: &quotI decided that Jesus knew more than a typical college professor." He smiles and looks away. It seems he would rather talk about something else.

Mr. Armey is reticent in talking about his faith. The political world he inhabits is a world of grandstanding--a world of sound-bites and public-relations angles, where matters of the heart are trumped up and paraded about for political gain. Realizing conversion stories make for dramatic press, Mr. Armey is more than a little uncomfortable. He is not ashamed of his faith, but he appears to be not in the least interested in sullying a commitment of ultimate importance by publicizing it. Here is the quietude of the cowboy faced with a deeply personal subject. Cowboys are known to love their mamas, for instance, but they don't want to talk about the fact overmuch because they fear such chatter suggests insincerity. Mr. Armey hints here and there that he doesn't want to trivialize what has happened in his life.

But there is also this: &quotI'm still a little profane." His reputation for being rough-and-tumble clearly makes him uncomfortable when squared with his faith.

The truth is, Mr. Armey is possessed of the contradictions that have historically dogged America's Western hero--is he outspoken, or a quiet man of action? Is he a good team player or too much the renegade to bother with other people? Archetypes come in all types, and anyone who considers himself to be a man of the West is bound to exhibit a little of each these characteristics. With Mr. Armey's decision to walk the straight and narrow, life has become more peaceful, but it certainly hasn't become less complicated.

When it is pointed out that the great reformer Martin Luther could himself be a bit coarse at times, Mr. Armey latches onto the fact. He seems delighted to learn of Luther's earthiness. It is as if he is searching for territory for his own outsized personality within the domains of Christendom. He relaxes somewhat, and when more information about his faith is sought, he is forthcoming. &quotUnderstand one thing," he says, &quotI was brought up to believe you got what you earned. You had to earn everything. Nothing came free. The gift of salvation is incredible for a guy like me. Jesus loves me so much, I get this free, no matter how bad I am."

And then Mr. Armey is rolling again. Reaching for terra firma, he describes the economics of salvation: &quotNow with the market it's quid pro quo. With the family, everything is based on need. But with Christ, it's free. And there ain't no end to it!" He raises his brows archly. &quotSalvation does not have a condition of scarcity."

As for what is most important to Mr. Armey, that is easy. &quotWhat I attempt to do in Congress is pretty straightforward. My job is to prevent government from destroying our freedom. But the most important work to be done is for a person to come to terms with Jesus. That's my advice for anybody."

Like the thinkers he admires most, Mr. Armey acknowledges that society cannot survive without faith and strong moral values, but he argues that the best thing the government can do, for the most part, is protect freedom. &quotIndividual liberty is my highest value in every respect. And liberty must be earned. Armey's axiom is, if you love peace more than freedom, you lose both." Surveying his tenure on the Hill, he believes his assessment of government prior to taking office remains valid. &quotI think my view of government has been reinforced. Things are worse than I thought." For Mr. Armey, being a congressman and now a majority leader means primarily one thing: reducing the intrusiveness of the federal government.

Of course, most politicians realize that practicing politics means dealing with questions of faith, no matter which side of the aisle one hails from. One doesn't have to be in Congress very long before those questions come into play. Mr. Armey recognizes this. There were rumors of late that the most significant flight of Mr. Armey's life, the one from Texas to New York by way of Calvary, was politically significant as well. It was suggested that he had been rerouted to New York in order to campaign for pro-abortion Republican Sue Kelly in her reelection bid for Congress. Rep. Kelly is being challenged by Joseph DioGuardi, a pro-life conservative who served as national finance chairman for Newt Gingrich's GOPAC. If that was Mr. Armey's glory fight, the bliss was not uninterrupted. Things turned ugly.

Washington Post columnist Robert Novak reported in a July 1 column that Mr. Gingrich and four other Republican leaders, including Mr. Armey, signed a letter urging Mr. DioGuardi not to run. The letter, Mr. Novak reported, did not even include a &quotDear" in its salutation. No, it went straight to the point, which was basically, run and risk our wrath. The letter claimed Mr. DioGuardi was &quotdoing the party a great disservice." It stated that his campaign was &quotill-timed."

Mr. Novak was not terribly impressed with the Republican strategy. Conservative activist Paul Weyrich wasn't either. He fired off a heated letter to Mr. Gingrich on Mr. DioGuardi's behalf. Freshman Republican Steve Largent, an Oklahoma congressman, saw it as a case of people putting expediency over principle. He stated that he could not endorse Rep. Kelly, who, among other things, voted against the partial-birth abortion ban and against the gay marriage bill. Here was a high-noon scenario, and Dick Armey was right in the middle of it, guns blazing.

Mr. Armey doesn't say whether or not the flight to campaign for Rep. Kelly was the flight during which he committed to follow Christ. But he has plenty to say regarding the suggestion that he sold out or that he somehow violated Christian principles.

&quotIf someone could show me that Joe DioGuardi could win in that district it would be different," he says heatedly. &quotBut my ideology is not so precious to me that the team doesn't matter. It is believed by people in the marine corps and by people who want to become marines that the marines never leave their dead or wounded behind. People want to join the marines because they know the marines take care of their own. The bottom line is that this team moves the ball in the right direction. We have to stick together."

Mr. Armey argues that it's a pretty simple political calculation. Sue Kelly isn't strong enough to take the party to the left. She can only help the party. Mr. Armey is confident that he and the other Republican leaders, along with the House freshmen, can ensure that the party maintains its conservative commitments. That being the case, better to have a moderate-to-liberal Republican in Congress than a Democrat. &quotListen, I think about this often. And I am not going to be an ideological purist and a loser--my children deserve better."

&quotMaybe we didn't handle everything as well as we should have," he says. &quotWe probably made some mistakes. But here we are."

Like the first cowboy in American literature, James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo, Mr. Armey is a complicated case. He is shy about his faith and then, suddenly, loquacious about it; a simple man of the backwoods and then, surprisingly, an upstart theologian. He is in many ways a champion of the frontier virtues Cooper lauded in his novels and outlined in his political work, The American Democrat. To be fair, Mr. Armey is not the environmentalist Cooper was, but his renegade's passion for liberty would make Cooper proud.

While Mr. Armey's sense of political strategy is certain to cause angry objections, his acceptance of God's grace is unqualified good news. And for those who relish the boldness and unguarded passion of such Christian greats as the Apostle Paul, Tertullian, and Luther, Mr. Armey's cowboy conversion has other benefits. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is no denying the pleasure of hearing from a politician who calls himself a Christian and who doesn't believe &quotanyone should have to spend five minutes listening to me talk if I can't say exactly what I think."