WASHINGTON—One of the leading religious freedom advocates in Congress is stepping down after more than three decades in the House: Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who will turn 75 in January, has announced he will not seek reelection in 2014.
“It has been an honor to serve the people of Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley,” Wolf said in a statement. “I thank my constituents for giving me the privilege of representing them in Congress for 34 years.”
Wolf leaves behind a rich legacy of fighting for religious freedom around the globe, and his absence will create a notable void in the halls of Congress. Katharine Gorka, executive director of the Westminster Institute, a think tank devoted to international religious freedom, said she was shocked and disappointed to learn Wolf is retiring.
“It really feels like a loss for the cause of religious liberty, because he has been such a powerful advocate,” she said. “Being an advocate for religious freedom was never something that would win him extra votes, but he did it out of commitment to his faith and his conscience.”
Wolf authored the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). His latest efforts include a bill that would establish a religious minorities special envoy to advocate for people oppressed in the Middle East and south central Asia. The bipartisan measure cleared the House on a 402-20 vote, but it was blocked in the Senate.
Last week, at a hearing for imprisoned Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.—also a vocal human rights defender—credited Wolf for bringing Abedini’s case into the national spotlight earlier this year. In March, Wolf, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, convened a hearing to call on the State Department to act on Abedini’s behalf. The State Department had told Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, there was nothing they could do for her husband, but one week after the hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry, for the first time, publicly condemned Iran’s actions against Abedini.
Naghmeh Abedini said although many lawmakers came to her aid, it was Wolf who first invited her to Capitol Hill and engaged the secretary of state about her husband. “I know from personal experience over the last year that he is one of the true champions for human rights in the United States Congress,” she told me in an email. “I am very grateful for his leadership in highlighting Saeed’s case, and I am very appreciative of his dedication to defending religious freedom and protecting human rights. He will be missed.”
Wolf pointed to former President Ronald Reagan, former Reps. Jack Kemp and Tony Hall, Chuck Colson, and William Wilberforce as his inspiration for becoming a human rights advocate in Congress. He said he plans to continue his efforts after leaving office: “As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom—both domestic and international—as well as matters of the culture and the American family.”
Wolf, a Presbyterian, has a strong pro-life voting record and received a 100 percent voting score from the pro-life organization National Right to Life.
He first ran to represent Virginia’s 10th Congressional District in 1978, narrowly losing to incumbent Democrat Joseph Fisher before beating him two years later. As Wolf discussed with WORLD’s Marvin Olasky last year, his eyes were opened to human rights and religious freedom abuses after visits to Ethiopia and Romania in 1984 and 1985.
Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia Center for Politics told me Wolf’s focus on foreign affairs is an increasingly rare quality in Congress—and something that will be difficult to replace.
“Americans don’t seem to be as interested in foreign policy as they were during the Cold War,” Kondik said. “If Americans don’t care that much about what’s going on overseas, then their members of Congress will probably also be that way. With Wolf leaving, that’s one less voice for American involvement abroad.”
Last year, Wolf was the first member of Congress to call for a Select Committee on Benghazi to investigate the 2012 terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. He has doggedly campaigned for creating the committee—the bill now has 177 co-sponsors—even though it bucks Republican Party leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner.
Kondik said Wolf has proved he’s willing to go against his own party at times, which is another evaporating trait in Congress. He cited the departures of Wolf and Rep. Bill Young of Florida, who died in October, as senior Republicans who will be missed.
After Wolf’s announcement, the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball ratings moved Wolf’s district to a tossup in the next year’s election. Although the district barely went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 (50 percent to 49 percent) and went slightly for President Barack Obama in 2008, Kondik said the timing is fairly good for Republicans.
“It’s always hard for the parties to deal with retirements,” he said. “Republicans would probably rather deal with this now than in two years.”