WASHINGTON – Roscoe Bartlett was a tea partyer before the tea party was cool.
But that doesn’t mean that the Republican congressman from Frederick is confined to the agenda of the fiscally conservative movement. His religious roots and scientific background also influence his political perspective.
The 10-term congressman sounds like a tea party true believer when he quotes former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to describe the ideal role of government: “to deliver my mail and protect my shores and otherwise let me alone.”
The loosely organized tea party movement pushes a legislative agenda focused on budget cuts and reduced spending. Bartlett’s political philosophy aligns with many of the tea party principles.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” said Daniel Palazzolo, political science professor at the University of Richmond.
Though the 84-year-old congressman is not at the center of movement, “his views converge nicely with the tea party,” Palazzolo said. In 2010, he signed on as one of the founding members of the newly formed Tea Party Caucus.
While some congressmen struggle with their relationship to the tea party, Bartlett is “predisposed” to the movement, Palazzolo said. At the same time, he is not afraid to assert his independence, even on issues where his views align with the tea party.
Bartlett opposed extension of the Patriot Act because he sees it as an unconstitutional encroachment on civil liberties. Asked if his membership in the Tea Party Caucus influenced his vote, he quickly notes that he held these beliefs before the tea party.
“I was there long before the tea party was there,” he said. “I’m happy that they signed on to my agenda.”
Bartlett represents Maryland’s rural Sixth District, which stretches nearly border-to-border across the top of the state and is distinct from Maryland’s seven other districts, most of which encompass a slice of metropolitan Baltimore’s urban population.
“His district is obviously very different than all the rest in Maryland and is probably most in keeping with at least some elements of the tea party,” Palazzolo said.
Following the 2010 midterm election, tea party coordinators wrote an open letter urging Republican congressional leadership to focus on reduced spending and fiscal responsibility and “resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes in order to appease the special interests.”
Bartlett — one of only two Republicans in Maryland’s congressional delegation — maintains fiscally conservative views but also takes a stance on controversial social issues the tea party avoids like abortion and evolution.
“We recognize the importance of values but believe strongly that those values should be taught by families and our houses of worship and not legislated from Washington, D.C.,” tea party organizers wrote.
But unlike those tea partyers, Bartlett’s political agenda is influenced by his house of worship, the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“I choose to believe in a very personal God who is concerned about me and what I do,” said Bartlett.
Bartlett’s religious roots extend back to his youth. He majored in theology and biology at Columbia Union College, now known as Washington Adventist University, and considered a career in ministry.
“I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but if you ask me, I will tell you where I am,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I am avidly pro-life.”
Bartlett’s independent streak is apparent in his belief that life begins at implantation rather than conception — a concept not generally accepted by the pro-life camp.
Asked if his faith informs his policy-making, he said it does and he cites the Golden Rule.
But for Bartlett, “doing unto others” is the responsibility of individuals in the private sector, not the government. He opposes a minimum wage and supports tax incentives for private philanthropic organizations.
“You have to be a dreamer to think that minimum wage can help,” he said. Bartlett believes wages should be determined by competition.
Even on issues where faith is not at the center of the debate, Bartlett inserts a religious bent. Speaking about the renewal of the Patriot Act, he refers to civil liberties as “God-given rights” that must be protected.
His faith extends beyond his political viewpoints and influences the way in which he conducts his work.
“My first advanced degree was in theology where I learned to love the sinner and hate the sin, which has served me very well by the way,” he said, “because I can genuinely like people whose political philosophy I cannot support.”
Evidence of Bartlett’s convictions is plastered across his office in the Russell House building. On the wall of the waiting area, two marble-like plaques list the 10 commandments. A large framed drawing of “The First Prayer in Congress” hangs over the waiting chairs and above the door to the conference room, a framed plaque reads, “In God We Trust, National Motto of the United States, July 1956.”
Bartlett has little trouble reconciling his scientific training with his profound faith in God.
“I’m a scientist and unlike many scientists, I am convinced because I am scientist that what I see could not have happened as a result of any evolutionary or natural selection process,” he said.
That combination of faith and science has led him to some contrarian views, such as his support of ethical embryonic stem cell research — a divergence from traditional conservative ideology. “You’d be amazed at the pushback I had from a well-intentioned but ignorant right-to-life community,” he said.
In many ways, Bartlett is a party of one. Though he champions causes close to both the tea party and the GOP, he is not afraid to be independent.
In the 2012 election, Bartlett will seek his 11th term in Congress. So far, he faces only one official challenger, Joseph Krysztoforski who ascribes to tea party principles.
But Bartlett understands his political decisions are only part of the electoral equation.
“Time and circumstance — I wouldn’t be here except for that, that’s obvious,” he said. “But you need to be prepared so when the door opens a little, you’re there.”