The political influence of Tim Keller

After 20 years of life and ministry in Washington, D.C., I am still intrigued by the various means used by God to draw people to himself— including in the very halls of the United States Congress. Members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are complex and nuanced. It would be a mistake to box them in with biased assumptions about their faith.

The recent death of New York pastor Dr. Timothy Keller has caused me to reflect on how the gospel is at work in Washington, D.C. Some years ago, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Steve Preston shared over lunch with me that he had been greatly impacted by Keller. When the Manhattan pastor published the New York Times best-seller “The Reason for God,” Preston gifted a copy of the book to President George W. Bush.

Preston, who previously worshiped at Keller’s church in New York City, reflecting on Keller’s past influence at an important time in his own career, said this:

“Tim broke the mold of cultural Christianity and a Christianity focused on rules and pointed his congregants to a life transformed by and generated out of our faith. He helped us understand how the power of the gospel leads that transformation—and infuses and redeems all that we do. For me, it has informed me as a husband, father, organizational leader, church leader, and supporter of missions. As a result, I have made major decisions in my life that have often seemed counterintuitive, and certainly out of line with conventional wisdom, but with a sense of freedom in the purpose that God has given me.”

In the weeks following Keller’s death, I asked friends, both Democrats and Republicans, if they knew of his writings. Some had never read his works, yet there were several key figures who remain highly influenced by his voice. 

One such example is Sen. Tim Scott from South Carolina, who is making a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Scott grew up in working-class poverty while his mother worked 16-hour days to support the family.

He struggled with his grades in high school but eventually graduated with the help of a Christian mentor. He went on to attend Presbyterian College for a time where he attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting and surrendered his life to Christ — an encounter that set a new foundation for his life.

In time, Scott owned a successful insurance agency before serving on the Charleston County Council. He would go on to serve in the South Carolina General Assembly, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate after being appointed to his seat by then-Gov. Nikki Haley. He still holds that seat today.

Scott, who is South Carolina’s first Black U.S. senator, holds many politically conservative positions on everything from small government to second amendment rights to a pro-life stance on abortion. During the years that former President Donald Trump was in office, Scott supported the Republican president 97.7 percent of the time. 

Years ago, Scott spoke at a dinner forum at my home and shared that he was becoming a student of Keller’s writings. I was a bit surprised since much of the senator’s faith background would lend itself to more non-denominational faith leaders. But the senator was serious about learning from the reformed presbyterian pastor from New York.

Scott was eventually able to meet and spent time with Keller one-on-one, and upon Keller’s death, he issued the following statement:

“Heartbroken to learn of the passing of a dear friend, spiritual mentor, and teacher, Tim Keller. I met Tim when I was first elected to Congress, and his thoughtful approach to teaching and sharing the gospel has shown the love of Christ to every corner of the world. His mentorship has guided my time in public service and has helped me develop habits to fully live a faith-filled life. Ultimately, Tim’s life and faith remind us to keep the main thing the main thing as we pursue our purpose in life.”

For some reading this, the expectation of a Republican senator being influenced by Keller might not be striking, but Keller’s political influence was a bipartisan one.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) spent her childhood in Albany, N.Y. She attended the Catholic all-girls Academy of the Holy Names before entering the prestigious Emma Willard School in Troy. In her biography, “Off the Sidelines,” the senator describes her earlier years as a stereotypical 1970s middle-class existence living in a “Brady Bunch house.” Warmly she writes about her grandparent’s love and commitment to the Catholic Church and daily prayers, which she shares.

After graduating from UCLA School of Law, Gillibrand worked in New York City, where she began to address what she called “bad relationship patterns” by turning to her faith. For the first time, she attended a weekly women’s Bible study and a progressive evangelical church whose pastor she found insightful and encouraging. 

While in Manhattan, she also met Hillary Clinton who influenced her sense of calling into politics. Gillibrand eventually won a seat in the House of Representatives as a “Blue Dog Democrat.” She was later appointed to replace Sen. Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate, where she still serves today. 

In an NPR interview when running for president in 2019, Gillibrand shared that she attends two bipartisan Senate Bible studies in D.C. and was clear about how she defined her relationship with God.

“I have very strong faith that guides me. But I think the Catholic Church can be wrong on many things. And I don’t agree with their views on reproductive rights,” Gillibrand said, adding that she also disagrees with the church on LGBTQ equality and restrictions on the priesthood. “I think they’re wrong on those three issues. And I don’t think they’re supported by the Gospel or the Bible in any way. I just — I don’t see it, and I go to two Bible studies a week. I take my faith really seriously.”

One pastor who influenced Gillibrand’s life and faith formation was New York City Pastor Tim Keller. In February 2022, Gillibrand co-chaired the National Prayer Breakfast. As a means of encouraging other members attending, she gifted them a copy of Tim Keller’s “God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life.” 

Keller was uniquely gifted as a pastor, theologian, writer and missionary. His personal relationship with Christ overflowed to others, and few had the ability to speak to the spectrum of people, views and cultures as Keller. The difference in political and theological perspectives and voting record of Sens. Gillibrand and Scott could hardly be greater. Yet, they both continue to be influenced by Keller’s life and ministry.

Keller’s mission isn’t over. My prayer is that it will have a growing impact on the political leadership in our nation and around the globe — not as a means to further the name of Tim Keller, but instead to further the name of Christ, who calls all to surrender to himself and his rule. 

Rev. Chuck Garriott is executive director of Ministry to State.

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