While the National Association of Evangelicals brings together top evangelical leaders to address pressing public policy issues, we also invest in training young advocates whose influence in both church and society will grow over the course of their careers. This is a commitment we have had for more than 60 years.
Representative, Senator and Ambassador
As a student at Wheaton College in the early 1960s, Dan Coats attended the NAE student conference and listened to representatives, senators and ambassadors speak about the issues of the day. Over the next five decades he would go on to serve his country in all three roles.
After a tour of duty in Vietnam, Coats attended law school, practiced law, and then joined the staff of Rep. Dan Quayle. When Quayle ran for Senate in 1980, Coats ran for and won his boss’ House seat. A few years later, when Quayle was elected vice president, Coats was appointed to fill out Quayle’s Senate term, and was re-elected twice.
President George W. Bush appointed Coats as the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 2001. In 2011 Coats returned for a final term in the Senate, before retiring again in 2016. But he continues to serve his country. He was nominated by President Trump to serve as the director of national intelligence, the highest ranking intelligence post in the U.S. government. While many nominations have been hotly contested, the Senate confirmed Coats on a bipartisan vote of 85-12.
Mission Field: Washington, D.C.
Two decades after Coats, Bill Wichterman attended the NAE conference while he was student body president at Houghton College. When he heard then-Congressman Dan Coats speak about being a faithful disciple in Congress, Wichterman’s career plans changed dramatically. He had been considering going to the mission field, but a short-term assignment abroad convinced him that this was not his calling.
Instead, he went to work as a legislative assistant to Rep. Bob Walker, then became chief of staff for Rep. Bill Baker and later Rep. Joe Pitts, and then served as a policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Wichterman went on to serve as special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy director of public liaison for the White House.
Witcherman remains active in presidential politics and on Capitol Hill as a strategist, and he is the president of Faith & Law, a ministry to congressional staff who seek to integrate their faith in Christ with their calling to the political sphere. Like Coats, Wichterman frequently returns to the Christian Student Leadership Conference as a speaker, inspiring the next generation of students who will follow in his steps.
While some CSLC alumni have served in Senate and congressional offices, the White House, federal agencies, the judiciary, think tanks and advocacy organizations, the conference also teaches that just and compassionate governance is part of our calling in creation regardless of one’s particular career path. CSLC alumni have become life-long advocates for the poor, the unborn, and other causes of importance to evangelicals. They are equipped to pray for their leaders and to participate as informed citizens and voters.
A typical NAE student conference includes presentations by senators, representatives, White House officials, ambassadors, policy experts, advocates, and members of cabinet agencies and the judiciary. Several Supreme Court justices have addressed CSLC conferences, including Justices Samuel Alito, Harry Blackmun, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Potter Stewart and Clarence Thomas.
The 2017 conference, which was co-sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, drew 100 students from 16 colleges to consider the theme “Faithful Advocacy.”
Students heard from Senators Roy Blunt, Sherrod Brown, John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Representatives Trent Franks, Randy Hultgren, and Steve Russell on issues ranging from religious freedom and marriage to poverty and creation care.
Students went on the floor of the House of Representatives — a rare privilege not available to tourists — and heard from Rep. Mark Walker, a pastor who now represents North Carolina’s 6th congressional district. We pray that some of those students will return to the House chamber as elected representatives to pass laws and seek to bless the nation with good governance.
On the last few days of the conference, students visited their congressional offices to advocate on particular issues of importance to them, and many participated in the March for Life.
Stewards of Citizenship
The path from college student to elected representative or senator may be a long one. Many get their start as volunteers on campaigns or interns in congressional offices, and work their way up over years or even decades.
The rough and tumble of political life is not for everyone. Some students who attend the CSLC will ultimately find their calling in other fields. But as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, each of us has the privilege and responsibility to participate as informed voters, to express our views to our elected leaders, and to pray for them as they carry out their responsibilities.
As Wesley Wilson of Southern Wesleyan University said, “The Christian Student Leadership Conference was a week I will never forget. Overall it was an enlightening experience that far exceeded any study I had received in American politics.”
Just as we steward our money and talents, we can be stewards of the gift of our citizenship for the health of the nation and for the glory of God.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.