Cover Story

Profiles in public service

"Profiles in public service" Continued...

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Through another committee assignment, Mr. Souder also has become a leading authority on national parks. He thinks conservatives ought to be the leaders of the conservation movement, and he claims for his side the leading Christian intellectual in American history, Jonathan Edwards, a pastor, theologian, philosopher, and evangelist to the Indians. "The root word is conserve," he says. "Jonathan Edwards was an early environmentalist who believed we should be stewards of what God created. John Muir, the founding influence on national parks, was an avid evangelical and quoted Bible verses all the time."

Another favorite topic is helping inmates prepare to leave prison and find a job and new way of life. It may not win him more votes with conservatives, but he sees it as part of a way to reduce crime and be a real compassionate conservative. "What are we going to do with them?" he asks. "I don't have an easy answer. But we have to make an effort. We can't control crime in America if we don't."

Mr. Souder has the freedom to tackle the less popular issues because his district is conservative and his credentials as a conservative Christian are about as secure as they come. He grew up in the kind of world that some homeschoolers and conservative Christians have tried to recreate in recent years for their families. Grabill, Ind., was a small town dominated by a Christian consensus, even in the 1960s. His great-grandfather, Henry Souder, started a general store, which is still owned by the family and is now restored in 1890s style as part of a historical renovation.

Mr. Souder looks back on the small-town upbringing and sees advantages. "It was a very religiously based small town," Mr. Souder said. "When others were arguing about marijuana, we were arguing at the school about whether to have a sock-hop school dance." From the town fathers, Mr. Souder learned civic responsibility. "When that bank went broke, five businessmen got together and made sure that we had a bank. It was civic responsibility, caring about your community, believing you had obligations beyond your own self."

Mr. Souder's Christian faith runs across the generational lines of Grabill as well. Some of his ancestors were Amish. Yet his faith is not something inherited: It gives him a set of fixed principles, which can get in the way of a move into leadership in the House or higher office in Indiana. "Sometimes his philosophy, and his strong adherence to his philosophy, get in the way of compromise," says state Rep. Jeff Espich, another Republican from the northeast part of the state. "It does interfere with his ability to be seen as a bigger player in some arena."

One predecessor in Mr. Souder's House seat, former vice president Dan Quayle, went on to the Senate, then the vice presidency. Another, Dan Coats, went to the Senate, then to a term as ambassador to Germany. But Mr. Souder seems content to work on issues that don't attract big headlines but matter in the lives of people.

"What propels you into political life was different for Mark than what propels most people into the level of a member of Congress," says former Indiana secretary of state Ed Simcox. "Mark is fundamentally an intellectual. Most members of Congress are politicians first instinctively. They rely on research and preparation by others. They come into politics because they are political animals. But Mark Souder's intellectual curiosity is what really led him into politics."

His work for Messrs. Quayle and Coats gave him experience in making others successful, getting him ready to serve in Congress and to give the spotlight to others in order to advance his ideals. He loves the political process as well as the policy issues. That characteristic endears him to some of his political opponents.

In 2002 the most serious primary challenge of his career came from fellow Republican Paul Helmke, a former Fort Wayne mayor. Mr. Helmke was a guest of Mr. Souder at a subsequent political event. Mr. Souder left his other guests, greeted Mr. Helmke, got tickets for him and wanted to show him an expansion of his political button collection. "He should have been talking to constituents," Mr. Helmke recalled. "Mark is unique. He is not a typical politician. He knows how to play hardball. But he's more of a student of politics. He loves the give and take. He loves the behind-the-scenes part of it."

Though clearly a part of the Christian conservative movement, Mr. Souder does not follow a movement or party line. He voted against three of the four impeachment charges against President Clinton because he thought the president acted immorally but not impeachably. Back in the 1980s, as an aide to then U.S. Rep. Dan Coats, he helped Mr. Coats develop the notion that Christian conservatives need to compete with liberals in offering better ways to help people in need. Later, Texas Gov. George W. Bush would call it compassionate conservatism and take the idea all the way to the White House.

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