Running for Liberty and Virtue - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Running for Liberty and Virtue

Most candidates for the U.S. Senate are of a type: Congressmen and governors, other leading officeholders, wealthy businessmen, and noteworthy personalities. Alas, these are more qualifications for campaigning than governing. Which helps explain the low quality of decision-making in Washington today. Attempting to break the conventional mold is Michigan’s Gerald Zandstra. Jerry is a personal friend of mine, which alone sets him apart from every sitting Senator. But he’s also an ordained minister, think tank executive, and real estate entrepreneur. He’s the perfect candidate for voters who want to live in a free society, but who also want people to exercise their freedom responsibly.

Jerry’s target is Debbie Stabenow, a conventional liberal who narrowly defeated Spencer Abraham in 2000. Stabenow is for abortion, against tax cuts, for restricting campaign free speech, and against energy development. Moreover, she has vilified entrepreneurial processes — free trade and drug development, for instance — which have delivered so much beneficial economic innovation. Today she seems to be in a strong but not invincible position, polling in the high 50s against most any Republican opponent.

Republicans are attempting to recruit a name candidate. Former Gov. John Engler isn’t interested; Abraham’s wife, Jane, is considering the race, but doesn’t even live in the state. Also thinking of running, with the primary set in August 2006, are Secretary of State Terri Lynn and former Rep. Nick Smith.

Keith Butler, a former Detroit City Councilman and minister, has announced. So have a county sheriff and industrial engineer. A businessman, county prosecutor, and real estate developer, all equally unknown, are talking about running. And there’s Jerry.

JERRY ZANDSTRA IS AN affable 41 year-old who is first a good husband, father, and neighbor. He has been married for 19 years and has three sons; his 98-year-old grandfather attended his campaign announcement. His uncle, after whom he is named, has spent years ministering in an evangelical church in Kuwait.

Jerry has been pastoring churches since 1989. He also has served as chaplain for a fire department. He takes his personal responsibilities seriously: I’ve seen him fly back early from weekend Acton conferences to make family events or preach in a Sunday service.

Although he is ordained by the Christian Reformed Church, Jerry has long worked in an ecumenical environment. Acton was founded by Roman Catholics; Acton conferences bring together a broad range of faiths, from fundamentalist to Coptic. Moreover, Jerry greatly admired Pope John Paul II. Before the latter’s death, Jerry lauded the pontiff for promoting “the culture of life…which upholds the dignity of life in the context of freedom.”

He will soon add a Ph.D. in Public Administration to a Doctor of Ministry. He has taught at university and over the last five years has been Director of Programs with the Acton Institute, which has a unique mission of promoting a society that is both free and virtuous. Although Acton has never been involved in partisan politics, it has achieved a high national profile in the policy world, addressing such issues as welfare reform, environmental protection, open international markets, and business regulation.

What sets Jerry apart from the other candidates for the GOP Senate nomination — as well as from Sen. Stabenow — is that he articulates a political vision that emphasizes private virtue. That is, he speaks passionately of those who are disenfranchised and denied justice. But he recognizes that they are most often victimized by government policies advanced in their name. The best way to help those with the least is to expand opportunity through a vibrant civil society.

“This thing is not going to be driven by polls,” he said when he announced in Grand Rapids in May. “It’s going to be driven by ideals. It’s going to be driven by principles.” The three themes that he articulated were economic competitiveness, moral culture, and international engagement.

First, to be competitive in today’s global economy he pointed to the need for tax reform, control of frivolous litigation, and improved education. His message in these areas is eminently practical. For instance, he noted that educational reform “isn’t about teachers’ unions,” but “is about the choices parents have available to them for the sake of the future of their children, state, and nation.”

Second, he advocated “a culture that respects life and doesn’t cheapen it, make it an inconvenience, or a commodity.” But Jerry went further than the usual issues of abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. He pointed to the need for people to live virtuously, “upholding our responsibilities in our communities, our neighborhoods, and our churches.”

Businessmen, too, need to act ethically rather than attempt to simply skirt the line of legality. It is simply impossible to “separate a moral and life-honoring culture from our ability to compete economically,” he said.

Third, Michigan, and the U.S., cannot escape the world. Competition is tougher than ever before, but protectionism and isolationism would fail and wouldn’t “address the real issues,” he said. It’s a brave stand to take in Michigan, where foreign imports are routinely vilified. But, notes Jerry, the issue “is more than economics.” There is so much to learn from others. We all will benefit culturally as well as economically.

THE MIX OF MORAL AND economic creates a satisfying brew for anyone who values both liberty and virtue. Jerry’s intellectual integrity is evident from the articles offered on his website. One headline runs: “The Moral Case for Free Trade.” In it he asserts that trade “has encouraged our citizens to exercise God’s gift of creativity and to develop new products and services that succeed in the global market while improving the quality of life.” Indeed, freer markets advance international peace as well as prosperity.

In another article he warns churches against being coopted by radical environmentalists. Christians should not be “silent about God’s wonderful gift of creation,” but “economic growth is the engine that has and will drive environmentally friendly goods and services.” In short, environmental protection is a matter of balance.

Poverty, he explains, is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. We have important moral oligations to those around us. Writes Jerry: “Working people who are not earning enough to provide for their basic needs are an appropriate target for concern.”

But concern for the poor does not translate into regulatory micromanagement and big spending by government, whether at the state or federal level. To the contrary, he argues, measures like the minimum wage are counterproductive, an example where policymakers and clerics often “lead with their hearts and ignore what their heads ought to be telling them.”

Jerry obviously is an unusual candidate, consistently speaking truth to the public as well as to those in power. Poverty results from a combination of bad decisions and unjust structures; both must be addressed. He terms the frequent call by liberal clergy for new welfare programs as “using a kind of soft socialism combined with moral language and biblical quotations” to promote the sort of statist “solutions that have failed the poor the world over.” In contrast, he points to mechanisms to increase private solutions, such as tax incentives to encourage volunteering by professionals.

He applies the same lessons overseas. When rich musicians were pushing politicians to tax poor people to fund more foreign aid, Jerry put out a blunt statement entitled: “Why Your Tax Dollars Won’t Fix African Poverty.” Indeed, international poverty has become a particular passion of his, as he has visited not only Latin America but also Africa numerous times.

He has repeatedly pointed out that such factors as defensible property rights, control of corruption, competitive markets, and international investment are necessary for prosperity. He explicitly defends the role of multinational corporations throughout the Third World. In contrast, he writes, too often “government-to-government aid only results in more destruction.”

But as important the role that business plays in society, which Jerry believes to be both moral and essential, he emphasizes that entrepreneurs and managers must help form a society that is virtuous as well as free. Federal regulation “might prevent some unethical acts, but it will not be able to morally shape people.” But shape them we must, and that “is a matter of the development of our culture and society.” Business must not be anything goes.

OF COURSE, FINE CHARACTER and policy smarts usually aren’t enough to catapult someone into the U.S. Senate. And Jerry understands the task ahead of him: he figures it will cost $3 to $5 million to win the primary and $20 million for the general contest. But through his duties at Acton he has worked with political and business as well as religious leaders, developing a personal network that extends far beyond Michigan. There is scarcely a conservative intellectual who doesn’t know of the Institute — and Jerry. This network may help him raise the money necessary to make a winning Senate run.

Much is at stake in the 2006 election. To most Washington politicos, the Michigan Senate race is important primarily through its impact on the body’s overall partisan balance. The Democrats will have to hold this seat to have any chance of regaining Senate control.

But Jerry’s candidacy adds another dimension to the contest. He is the complete candidate, someone who recognizes that freedom is essential to what we are as human beings, while virtue is necessary to inform us how to use that freedom.

He actually gives people someone to vote for rather than against. If he bests his long-shot status and takes office in January 2007, Jerry will have an opportunity to play a genuine statesmen.

After all, no one can deny the importance of the issues at stake. As he said when he announced: “This campaign is going to come down to what we believe about human beings — about ourselves — about the kind of society we want to live in — about the kind of state and nation we want to be.”

Doug Bandow
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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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