A Christian Commitment to Civil Discourse: G.W. Carlson on Stacey Hunter Hecht

This past Wednesday and Thursday, the family and friends of Prof. Stacey Hunter Hecht said farewell at two memorial services, first at Bethel and then at Stacey’s church. Today and then into next week, we’re going to share some tributes to Stacey from some of the people of the Political Science and History Departments. First up, G.W. Carlson reflects on Stacey’s many accomplishments as a teacher and department chair, particularly emphasizing her commitment to promoting civil discourse.

Stacey Hunter HechtDuring the 2004 presidential elections Stacey was deeply troubled by the experience of a Bethel University student. A young woman was passing by the Bush campaign table and said, “Wrong party.” The students behind the table stated, “Wrong school.” Stacey and other students expressed the need to respond. They supported the effort to create a student organization that would “bridge the gap between people of faith who find themselves disagreeing politically, to equip Jesus followers with information to help them make biblically informed decisions about their voting choices and to provide a safe place for Bethel students to register to vote who do not strongly identify with one political party or another.” Stacey liked two bumper stickers “God is not a Republican or a Democrat” and “Just Politics.”

In 2006 both Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and James Dobson from Focus on the Family came to St. Paul to spread their political and religious ideas. Pam Miller, the Star Tribune writer, called me and asked about these two events. I told her that Bethel political science students were coordinating both of these events and they were friends. Students were encouraged to hear both of the speakers. Miller didn’t believe this because she thought that Bethel promoted a monolithic conservative viewpoint. I put her in contact with both the leaders of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats. What she found out was that Stacey’s understanding of the department’s task on civil discourse seems to have been working.

Stacey was significantly concerned about the polarizing nature of American politics and the need to promote a commitment to civil discourse. At an alumni event in 2012 the political science department featured a dialogue about the fall presidential elections. Stacey organized the event which featured two students supporting different presidential candidates, a presentation on evangelical voting patterns, and an understanding of the diverse evangelical political options. Above all, Stacey wanted to suggest that the purpose of the Political Science department was to allow students to have a mature understanding of their political viewpoints, value civil dialogue with those who disagree and seek the common good.

* * * * *

Stacey began her teaching career at Bethel in 1997. Early she taught in the adult program while she was working on her dissertation at the University of Minnesota, which she completed in 2000. Bill Johnson, John Lawyer, and I came to the conclusion that we wanted Stacey to be a full-time member of the Political Science faculty. Bill Johnson was willing to rearrange some of his teaching load to facilitate this appointment. She served Bethel University in a number of assignments as a political science professor from 1997-2015.

On January 16, 2015 I received a request from arts and humanities dean Barrett Fisher which saddened me greatly. Stacey had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be on medical leave in the spring. He asked if I would be willing to teach her two American Government classes at 8am and 9am. These were hours of the day in which I always wondered whether real learning could take place. And I hadn’t taught this course since 1972 — when the Nixon/McGovern election was happening.

I always believed that my friend Stacey would make it through the awful medical options and be a cancer survivor who would once again do what she did best – to engage the academic minds of students and play an effective role in their spiritual and intellectual development. This was not to happen. I learned last Wednesday afternoon, December 9, that she had died at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. With tears and great grief I was able to interact with several of Stacey’s students and faculty friends, which allowed me to get through the afternoon.

Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences with Stacey and affirm her wonderfulness as a colleague by reading through the emails we had exchanged over the past fifteen years. I am glad that I had not deleted out these emails since 2000. While browsing through the emails I recognized five major characteristics of a colleague I will miss.

First, she was the coordinator of Constitution Day events at Bethel.

Constitution Day celebrations on campus were required by a law passed under the influence of Senator Robert Byrd, who attached the requirement to a spending bill in 2004. Colleges were to establish events on September 17 to commemorate the day in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document. (Byrd was known for always carrying a Constitution in his pocket.)

Stacey at Constitution Day, 2015
Stacey returned to campus briefly this September to speak at the Constitution Day discussion of privacy and national security in a digital age
The Political Science department is responsible for carrying out this assignment, and Stacey was the person who planned most of these events. They were often quite educational and enjoyable experiences. I remember the showing of the film Gideon’s Trumpet. Stacey asked the coordinator of the Dakota County public defender’s office to join the event. A tornado warning and a requirement that all faculty and students seek shelter for almost 45 minutes interrupted the event.

Two other events were part of my memory. One was a reading of the Constitution in the AC Lounge. I wanted to make sure that I could read the First Amendment, the Baptist contribution to the Constitution. A second was the discussion of failed constitutional amendments such as the repeal of the 18th amendment (Prohibition) and the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. Frequently, the department passed out small copies of the Constitution to each student.

Second, she was a political science scholar who took her academic commitments seriously.

Hecht and Schultz, Swing StatesHer earliest accomplishment was an article, “Religion and the Bill of Rights,” in Corwin Smidt’s In God We Trust (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2001). While she was suffering this fall we learned that Stacey and David Schultz (political science professor at Hamline University) were editors of Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015).

Stacey also participated on numerous academic panels and wrote several significant book analyses. Stacey engaged a CCCU National Workshop in June 2008 on the topic “Integrating Our Faith, Our Work, and Our Personal Life.” One of my most memorable experiences was when Stacey chaired a panel in which I participated on the topic “Evangelical Political Ideologies: Can We Agree to Disagree?” for a Community Life Gathering at Bethel Seminary in October 2014.

Third, Stacey was an extremely effective teacher.

Several times I had the joy of writing letters of support for Stacey for promotion or tenure renewal. Her teaching effectiveness was affirmed by the student ratings of her classes. Student evaluations reflected a strong appreciation of Stacey’s knowledge of the material and the methods she used in the classroom. Her students learned that many political issues had diverse perspectives and quality judgments needed to be advanced.

One of her greatest assets was the ability to engage students who needed an adult mentor outside the classroom. She took the time to respond to students whose journeys have not been easy and provided each with meaningful guidance and support. I have already received several phone calls and emails from students who wanted to share their stories with me.

Several times during her tenure Stacey would comment on the number of students who left Bethel and were successful in the world of electoral politics. Sometimes we advanced the idea that the role of Bethel’s Political Science department is to train the next generation of Republican leaders. Stacey also rejoiced at the number of majors who are doing well in other professions such as public service, Christian ministry, non-profit institutions, law and teaching.

Stacey and the 2014 poll sci graduates
Stacey (back-right) with the Political Science department’s class of 2014
One of the students she enjoyed was Chris LaTondresse who worked with Jim Wallis at Sojourners after he graduated from Bethel. Chris was one of the students who was impacted by the 2004 “wrong school” experience and wrote an essay about it in Sojourners magazine. In a recent post Chris noted that Stacey was one of his favorite professors at Bethel because she helped introduce a

young, evangelical, conservative, college freshman to a world of ideas and perspectives that were missing from my worldview: the connections between faith and the common good, the biblical call to social justice, a vision for faithful citizenship centered around enlisting all segments of society (business, government, civil society, religion, education, healthcare) on behalf of the most vulnerable.

He added that his “earliest questions around vocational discernment were forged over coffee conversations in her office while plotting out classes for the next semester and dreaming of engaging the world beyond Bethel. She will be dearly missed by all, but her legacy lives on, embodied in thousands of former students who, like me, are better citizens and better Christians as a result of her influence in our lives.”

Recently, this positive engagement was seen in Stacey’s relationship with Zoe Vermeer, Bethel’s current student body president. Stacey recommended that I use Zoe as a Teacher’s Assistant when I took over her American Politics classes. She wrote: “Zoe Vermeer is my TA extraordinaire, and she can do almost anything, including possibly walk on water. She took the course last year as a first year student, and TA’ed for it in the Fall. Zoe also went to China with me last January, and has been my student in two other classes. She is bright, incredibly conscientious, and on top of it all, spiritually growing and mature… Honestly, she is just amazing and should be able to let you know exactly how I’ve run things, if you want/need to know.” Her advice was accurate.

Fourth, Stacey set high standards for members of the department.

She desired faculty in the Political Science department to have a strong Christian commitment. They should also be concerned about academic excellence, collegiality, and teaching effectiveness. This was expressed in many ways but was most found in the journey the department took, under her leadership, to find replacements for long-time faculty members as they retired: Bill Johnson, John Lawyer, and myself. Now that the change over has taken place, it is interesting to celebrate the birth of new children and see young children playing in the hallways. This hadn’t happened for a long time.

Stacey was determined to hire only faculty that would meet her criteria. It was a long and not easy process. After one set of interviews she wrote that the saga to replace John Lawyer continued: “Tonight I believe I shall order a very large pizza or some such for myself and hopefully the combination of fat and carbohydrates will lull me into some kind of a nice stupor…which I sorely need after this afternoon’s interviews…. Continue to pray that the right candidate would come forth.”

In an email to Bill Johnson, Stacey celebrated the success in finding the right International Relations candidate. She wrote “We have finally hired an IR person!!! Chris Moore, who just defended at Ohio State will be joining us in the fall. His work is on insurgencies, and he also had expertise in Political Psychology, so he should round things out nicely here. He’s a lively and engaging teacher, so we’re anxious to have him fully ‘in harness.’”

Similar issues were addressed earlier in Fred Van Geest’s hiring. When he told Stacey that he expected to move to Minnesota and start in the fall, she could only say one word: “Hallelujah!” Stacey was also really pleased when, most recently, Andrew Bramsen brought his expertise in comparative government and African politics to the department.

Stacey with Fred Van Geest and Chris Moore in 2012
2012 Faculty Retreat: Fred, Stacey, and Chris take a break from helping to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children
Now the crisis for the department will be to address one core question: How do we replace Stacey? Can we find someone who meets the high standards that she had for Bethel’s Political Science department?

Fifth, Stacey was effectively engaged in interacting with the broader public on significant political science issues. In doing so she advocated for and modeled a Christian commitment to civil discourse.

One of the major contributions Stacey made for the larger political discussion was her frequent participation on Almanac. This is a lively news discussion show on public television. Almost every Friday evening a panel was pulled together which included local scholars and politicians to discuss some of the major issues of the day. Humorously, when Stacey notified her father about her first appearance on Almanac and encouraged him to watch it, he responded by commenting on her wonderful hairstyle. Many of us would spend Friday nights listening to Stacey’s humorous evaluation of current political issues. She was a valued participant.

Last Thursday Almanac placed the following statement on Facebook:

Yesterday afternoon we lost a member of the Almanac family. Stacey Hunter Hecht passed away after nearly a yearlong battle with cancer. She headed up the political science department at Bethel University and was a regular member of our political science panel. We will miss her intelligent and witty analysis on the couch, both in the studio and at the State Fair.

Several Sundays ago Cathy and I had the privilege to visit with Stacey. We sat together for about an hour talking about her health, issues at Bethel, larger political campaign questions (i.e. how do you understand Trump?), and the impact of her health issues on the family. She had an oxygen tube and seemed to tire after about an hour. However, she was alert and engaging. She was always politically informed and enjoyed a “civil dialogue” on important issues. I will miss her greatly.

* * * * *

Stacey’s advice and counsel on the need for Christian political science professors at Bethel to be advocates for civil discourse remained a priority throughout her entire tenure. For a 2012 article in Bethel Magazine. Kelsey Lundberg interviewed Stacey, who suggested that the desire to build a sense of community in the United States necessitated a commitment to civil discourse. She referenced the relationship between Republican president Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Democrat. They spent time together off the congressional floor. Stacey suggested that “when the business of the day was over these two Irishmen would sit around together and tell stories. So there was a common community of life in Washington, D.C., that people were part of, a whole lot more than they are now.”

Stacey was concerned that polarization and uncivil discourse had trickled down from national venues to the local level – into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social circles. She argued that “we are no longer sitting down and watching the same six o’clock news at night. We’re not all reading the same newspapers and then having a conversation about it. Instead we have all these hyper-partisan outlets, and the volume is amped up to create this political infotainment.”

Stacey Hunter HechtMy favorite memory of working with Stacey was a joint paper we wrote for a religion and politics conference at Calvin College in May 2002. Both of us were intrigued by the following question: Why do Evangelical Christians worship together on Sunday and vote differently on Tuesday? Entitled “Evangelical Political Ideologies: Can We Agree to Disagree?”, the paper analyzed the five diverse evangelical traditions: Fundamentalist Far Right, Evangelical New Right, Traditional Evangelical Conservative, Evangelical Liberalism and Evangelical Counter-Culture.

Stacey concluded her section of the essay by suggesting that

American religious politics works best when it is derived not out of hatred for America but out of a love for our community. A Christian concept of hope and justice remain prime motivators to a continuation of the dialogue both within the church and between the church and the larger community. Can we agree to disagree? The answer is yes. It is an essential component of American democratic politics and an extension of a Biblical commitment to civility and community. The evangelical community can best advance their agendas through a free church in a free democratic society.

(We completed our journey to Calvin by doing what all good political scientists would do: find time to visit the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. We both commented on the overwhelming tragedy of the Watergate experience and its emphasis in the museum displays.)

In honor of Stacey’s life and witness, let us commit ourselves to a life that values the Christian faith, attempts to cultivate a sense of community, and always values a civil discourse that seeks to find common ground.

– G.W. Carlson

See also the four eulogies shared at Stacey’s Bethel memorial service by colleagues Chris Gehrz, Diana Magnuson, Fred Van Geest, and John Lawyer.

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