One of the greatest legacies left by C. Everett Koop, who died Monday at age 96, is his witness to the role of faith in public life. By the time he ended his eight years as Surgeon General of the United States in 1989, he was claimed as a saint by many liberals, but dismissed as a disappointment by the religious conservatives who had supported his nomination. It’s easy to read the obituaries and simply conclude that he was a good man who did what he thought was best. But it’s more complicated than that. Koop’s decisions were not just faith-based. They were also based on his understanding of the role his faith ought to play in different spheres of life.
When Koop took office as the Surgeon General, conservative Christians were his strongest backers because of his work with Francis Schaeffer in the early years of the pro-life movement. This gave Republicans hope that he would support them in other policy recommendations.
Koop is not remembered for pushing a conservative agenda, though. I heard news of his death Monday night on San Francisco radio stations that remembered him as a compassionate and understanding hero in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. In 1986, Koop issued a report on AIDS that angered religious conservatives by advocating for sex-education classes in public elementary schools and condom use for those who would not practice abstinence or monogamy. In a 1989 interview with Philip Yancey, Koop noted that he always held up abstinence and monogamy as the best options for preventing the spread of AIDS, but in his role as the nation's doctor, he was obligated to speak out about health practice rather than morality.
While Koop was clear that he did not believe homosexual acts were moral (he used the term "sodomy" openly), he was still beloved by gay-rights activists for his advocacy and clear, scientific approach to the AIDS crisis. He pushed Christians to discard the flawed theology that AIDS was a punishment sent from God. At the time of the report, I was living in the great mill of misinformation that is late elementary and middle school, and I remember Koop being a calm voice of reason amidst rumors about things like contracting AIDS from toilet seats.
Koop’s decisions were not just faith-based. They were also based on his understanding of the role his faith ought to play in different spheres of life.
At the end of his career as Surgeon General, Koop refused to skew the scientific investigation of abortion's effect on the mother in an effort to sway the Reagan administration. Conservatives were outraged. But Koop, in his role as doctor, felt it was dishonest to present results that reflected his beliefs but had no scientific backing.
In the interview with Yancey, he put it this way: “People talk about knee-jerk liberals. The liberals have no corner on that market ... there are also knee-jerk conservatives. Christians should be involved in politics, and use their Christian principles and ethics in that process. But they shouldn't jump over the process and voice their beliefs as the only possible outcome.”
While I don’t agree with Koop’s every conclusion in theology, ethics or politics, his witness reminds me that I am called to serve God with an integrity that is appropriate to each of the roles I have in my life. I can find no evidence that Koop, a Presbyterian, was ever officially introduced to Abraham Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty. But he might as well have been. He understood that his first allegiance was not to a political ideology, but to God's sovereignty over every part of his life. He made decisions that were influenced by faith, but he made distinctions between the role his faith played in each area. He was a Christian who wrote and spoke about how his practice as a neonatal surgeon influenced his interpretation of the ethics of abortion. He was a doctor whose devotion to the Great Physician called him to radical compassion for every victim of disease and suffering. He was a political figure whose commitment to God's vision of justice led him to guide policy for the greater good and health of society as whole.