By ANNE MARIE COX
The Catholic Mirror
As Gov. Terry Branstad prepares to leave Iowa to become U.S. ambassador to China, he took a few minutes recently to share with The Catholic Mirror, official newspaper for the Diocese of Des Moines, how he’s been able to practice his faith while in public service.
Branstad, the first Catholic governor of Iowa, converted to the faith after going to Mass with his future wife, Chris, and her family before they were married. They sent their three children to Catholic schools, have been involved with charitable efforts and have been active members of their parishes whether living in Lake Mills, Boone or Des Moines.
Branstad was first elected governor in 1983 and served until 1999. He was re-elected and became governor again in 2011. He is the longest-serving governor in American history.
The following is an edited version of the transcript. For the full interview, visit dmdiocese.org.
Q. Pope Francis speaks of the seamless garment, the entirety of the pro-life teaching of the church, from conception to natural death including the provision of education, health care, work at a family wage, care for the poor, full respect of human rights. How would you categorize your record as governor on this?
A. I have recommended and approved a number of pieces of legislation designed to protect human life and provide support and assistance for those that are threatened. I’ve tried to be (consistent). A lot of issues come up when you’re governor. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions but I’ve tried to live my faith as best I can and be supportive of church and charitable organizations that provide assistance to people in need.
This year we passed a couple of significant profile bills in the legislature. One restricts abortion for 20 weeks, and another changes family planning funding to only go to organizations that don’t provide abortions. These are two of the more significant prolife bills, and the three-day waiting period, which is presently on hold because of the court decision.
Q. What do you advise providing for nonpublic students in grade and high school in terms of state financial assistance? What responsibility does government have for providing education that meets educational standards?
A. It’s a very delicate area because of the whole issue of separation of church and state. We need to provide assistance directly to students and families. We can’t directly provide assistance to religiously related institutions but we can and have supported things like the tuition grant that helps students go to Catholic and other Christian schools (administered by the Catholic Tuition Organization in the Diocese of Des Moines).
I was in the legislature when we started transportation and textbooks for nonpublic students. We also provide other auxiliary services. We have a modest tax credit that’s also available and the biggest thing, the tuition assistance program that provides financial assistance to families below 300 percent of poverty who want to send their children to Catholic or other nonpublic schools. It’s been a very successful program. It provides a 65 percent state tax credit for people that contribute to it and I’m proud to say my wife and I contribute to it each year. I think it’s been a great program. During the time I’ve been governor, I think we increased the cap on that from $6 million to $12 million.
Q. What role does faith play in your personal life, which has impact on your professional role?
A. I appreciate all the people that are praying for me and, in this new role, it’s going be even more important. This is a job you can’t do by yourself. You have to really seek God’s guidance. I think it’s a very important to pray about the kind of decisions that have to be made… But I also think having a strong faith foundation helps keep me grounded, and recognizing that really I need to be serving somebody much higher than myself and making decisions that are in the public interest and doing what Jesus would want us to do.
Q. As you reflect on religion, how will it enter into your service as ambassador to China?
A. China is a country that still has significant restrictions on religion. My hope is that, because I have a personal relationship and friendship with the leadership of China, that I can convince them to be more open and more willing to accept religious freedom. We live in a country where we take it for granted and yet there are threats to religious freedom in this country. Obviously my wife and I want to continue to practice our Catholic faith in China. We don’t want that to be interfered with and we don’t want other people’s faith to be interfered with either.
Q. What is your advice regarding religion to young politicians?
A. I think it’s important to be true to your faith and not be intimidated by those people that try to tell you that you cannot practice your religion… I just think people in public service and people who want to run for public office should not be afraid or intimidated because there are people who will criticize them and try to discourage them from actively participating. It’s important to live your faith and not be afraid. I also try to be very understanding and treat everybody with respect and dignity whether they have faith or not.
Q. How could the church better engage with public servants for the common good?
A. The more interaction the better. I just think it’s important for the church to look for opportunities. I think the bishops have done that and have come to meet with me and the legislature and things like that. The more interaction and understanding there is, the better.