Joe Loconte is a 47-year-old journalist who has produced numerous articles and books on subjects such as provision of social services and the religious left's appeasement of Hitler-but, with graduation time coming next month, this interview is the fourth in a series on careers. For many years Loconte wrote journalistic articles under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation and then the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Now he is a visiting research fellow at The King's College, New York City.
Q: Did growing up Italian-American in New York help you to become a journalist?
We have some terrific storytellers in my Italian family, and I'd like to think there's a little bit of that in me. That lends itself to wild exaggerations; bodies winding up in trunks, faces winding up in the minestrone soup, those kinds of stories.
Q: Beyond the minestrone, why this career?
In the 1970s a lot of young people, including me, were caught up in the idea of being a reporter and bringing down the Nixon presidency. I also had a journalism teacher in high school who encouraged me. He used to start the class out by reading excerpts from The New York Times and then throwing the paper up in utter disgust. So I went off to journalism school at the University of Illinois to change the world.
Q: You changed spiritually at Illinois. How did that happen?
Two people were very instrumental. One was a girl I was dating at the time who was getting serious about her faith. To her credit, she realized I wasn't and dropped me like a hot potato, which was the right thing to do-that got my attention. I also had a Muslim friend from Pakistan who had become a Christian. He wrote a long letter to me after I came back from drinking too much one weekend, which is what you did at the University of Illinois-he wrote about his relationship with Christ. The combination of those people who I really liked and respected really got me thinking. I embraced the gospel and became a Christian believer.
Q: Lots of students who will be graduating next month are wondering what to do next. Why did you go to Wheaton for a master's in Christian history and theology?
I wanted to help shape how people think about crucial issues, and I knew that as a young guy I didn't have the grounding in Christian theology to do that. So I decided to take some time, step back from the professional track, and get some good theology under my belt. I didn't want a seminary degree because I wanted to be more engaged in the political life and public policy issues-but from a position of intellectual strength. I wanted to learn what the Christian tradition said about certain issues over time.
Q: And after Wheaton you went to Washington. Would you recommend that for young evangelical conservatives?
The great thing is you have a lot of Christian churches, a lot of different fellowships going on, a lot of small group activity on and off Capitol Hill. One of the great things about Washington is that it's not that difficult to meet with people during the week in their homes. For example, I host a monthly discussion called "Lewis and Linguini": I cook a little pasta, we have people bring desserts and wine, and we have a good dis-cussion about a great C.S. Lewis essay that has contemporary application. That kind of thing goes on in Washington.
Q: You worked at the Heritage Foundation . . .
I worked with a great editor, Adam Meyerson, who gave me incredible latitude and freedom to chase issues where I could. If we violated conservative orthodoxy that was OK, as long as we did it with integrity. I had that oasis of protection for quite a while at Heritage-real freedom to say some sober things about the importance of religion in society, but also the importance of keeping government out of religion.
Q: Has it been hard being an evangelical conservative in Washington?
One of the untold stories in Washington, beginning with the Republican revolution in '94, was the significant numbers of Christian conservatives, a lot of them evangelicals, coming into government at high levels. They've been either in the Congress as legislative aides, legislative directors, communications people, or in various government offices in the State Department. There was a quiet revolution, a cultural change in Washington, with Christian conservative influence at the agency level, which really matters at the end of the day given how these government regulations play themselves out.
Q: But hasn't that changed with the Obama administration?
One friend of mine recently referred to this time as a sort of diaspora . . . like when the Christian church was persecuted in Acts and Christians went out from Jerusalem. It can be a very healthy thing for those Christians to be forced into other positions. They may have stayed in Washington longer if there was a Republican administration, but they'll have to find other work and maybe that's a part of God's good will, to move them into other positions into think tanks or the NGO [non-governmental organization] world.
Q: What happened after you left Heritage?
After being in a place for a while you start to think about your calling again. I've learned you're not going to have laser beam clarity about what God's calling is on your life. Most of us aren't wired for that clarity. We blunder along with the grace of God and the prayers of others, we get a sense of our giftedness, we have a sense of what those opportunities are, we have friends who speak into our lives, and then we take steps of faith and we test them out-we gradually discover what our calling is.
After being in this journalism and public policy business for a while, leaving Heritage was a chance to step back and think, "What do I want to accomplish with the second half of my vocational life that I think is going to be more interesting, more fun to do, closer to what my heart is?" You think through the whole calling issue again in a major way.
Q: In a sense you're in the same place as a lot of college seniors.
The process is not that different. In principle, it's the same sets of issues you're going to face: thinking through the sense of calling, the next steps, the practical decisions you have to make. But also, especially when you're young, you have to chase your dreams. There are some dreams I'm going to have to let go of at some point; they're just not going to happen on this side. But youth forbids you to start tabling dreams.
I've been reading a book by John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is a great collection of his sermons. He makes the point about Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water. We tend to think about Peter as the impetuous one: He acts before he thinks, he's not deliberate enough, he's not careful enough. But Ortberg's point is that there are 11 guys who never got out of the boat. What about those guys?
Peter had the experience of walking on water, think about that. It didn't last very long, but he had an experience that no other human being has had. The guys in the boat were warm, safe, and dry but they never had that experience. That to me is a powerful story about pursuing your calling before God. And I'm facing the same questions, issues, and challenges. I'm pursuing a Ph.D. at this stage in life and I probably should have done it 20 years earlier, but I'm doing it now.