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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Saved by God's Gollums

Biography | Reporters on an ideological warpath mercifully cut short my yearning for the Inner Ring

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

In June 1995, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) decided to yank the license of a Christian group, Teen Challenge of South Texas. TCADA wanted the alcohol and drug rehab center to use state-licensed counselors. Teen Challenge said no, because it relied on former drug addicts whose lives had changed through the gospel, and who wanted to help other addicts.

I learned about the threat while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and editing WORLD. I headed to San Antonio to report on a protest by 300 Teen Challenge supporters in front of the Alamo, that potent symbol of Texas freedom. After my articles appeared in WORLD and later in The Wall Street Journal, readers deluged the office of new Governor George W. Bush with mail protesting TCADA's actions.

Soon a call came: Could I meet with the governor and explain what's going on? Of course-and quickly Bush came out in support of accommodating religious groups like Teen Challenge so they could continue their good work. The experience was exciting: I began to see that even a small magazine could have outsized influence. Other invitations came: A lunch with the governor. A dinner.

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I liked Bush and was flattered that he wanted to run with my concept of compassionate conservatism. He took me onto the balcony of the governor's mansion, overlooking the lit-up state Capitol building, and talked about sitting out there in the evening listening on the radio to Texas Rangers games. When he started running for president in 1999, I agreed to chair a campaign task force about the role of "faith-based" groups.

At this point the issue was not so much government dollars but the need for equal treatment. Why should government place obstacles in the paths of religious groups? Why, for example, should a secular homeless shelter be able to get access to surplus food when a religious shelter could not? Our group came up with a plan to set up an office in the White House that would help religious charities get a fair shake.

When Bush's stump speech outlining compassionate conservatism included my ideas about charity tax credits, all the better: Taxpayers would regain some authority, and Bush emphasized that "their support won't be filtered through layers of government officials." Maybe, just maybe, compassionate conservatism could shrink government and restore the once-prime role of charities and ministries.

Much as I loved WORLD, vocation-adulterous thoughts came to mind: Maybe I'll go to Washington and run that White House office. The thought was foolish: God has given me some talent as an editor but no talent as a politician. But the excitement of being in a campaign, of being valued by a presidential candidate and seen as a guru, grew on me.

During this period one important lesson about what's most important came on a beach in Florida. To protect their privacy I'm leaving my four sons out of these accounts, but one story is too amazing to hide under a bushel. (And the son who's involved, Daniel, has approved this message.)

Over the years I took all four, one by one, to spring training: They would see players and garner autographs, and I would interview players. It was drizzling in Ft. Lauderdale when Daniel and I visited the camp of the Baltimore Orioles, and for an hour it wasn't clear whether the scheduled game would be played. During that time I sat on a dugout bench next to Cal Ripken Jr. and enjoyed hearing him talk about youth baseball leagues (he was starting his own) and Bill Clinton (he was scathing).

The Orioles finally called off the game. Daniel had been stuck in the stands during the rain. We drove up the coast. The rain let up. Since it had been a dull day for him, I thought we could redeem it by going into the ocean. The stretch of beach we stopped at was deserted. A lifeguard stand was a distant, tiny spot. Daniel, almost 15, swam out, while I watched from shore. When he ventured out beyond my comfort zone, I waved at him and yelled that he should come back in. Then he started waving and hollering that he could not, which turned into cries for help.

A rip tide had caught Daniel and was pushing him further out. I desperately looked around: No one in sight. I yelled for help but heard no response. I started out, but my poor swimming offered little prospect of success. Suddenly, a dune buggy with two lifeguards came out of nowhere. One of them ran into the water and instantly outpaced me. Then a figure on a surfboard also appeared out of nowhere. He reached Daniel first, then transferred him to the lifeguard, who helped my tired son get back to shore.

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