John F. Kennedy, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Profiles in Courage," highlighted the political life of John Quincy Adams. Adams lived by the same principle of Puritan statesmanship that his famous father, patriot and second president of the United States passed on to him: "The magistrate is the servant not of his own desires, not even of the people, but of his God."
This undaunting commitment to principle was demonstrated over and again by John Quincy Adams, even at great expense to himself. But it was never better demonstrated than when Great Britain was seizing American ships and confiscating their cargos. President Jefferson called upon Congress to retaliate with an embargo.
To halt British aggression, Adams courageously supported the measure and was the key to its passage - despite the fact his own political party was against it - and the economy of his home state, Massachusetts, would be injured by it. Nevertheless, Adams argued that private interest must never be in opposition to the public good.
Today there is another aggressor pilfering from Americans and seizing a precious cargo of life and health. Big Tobacco produces a host of products killing more than 400,000 citizens each year and racking up nearly $100 billion in health care costs. And though there are warning labels on cigarettes, every day another 1,000 children take up the habit of smoking.
This aggression could be stopped now if the U.S. Senate votes - before it adjourns this year - on pending legislation (H.R. 1108, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act) granting the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products.
The bill has overwhelming, bipartisan support and passed the House of Representatives with a veto-proof margin. But even with strong support of both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, the bill faces an uphill climb if North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr delivers on a promised filibuster. This extraordinary lifesaving measure shouldn't be blocked by an obstructive legislative tactic. The bill prevents tobacco companies from marketing to children, requires disclosure of the contents of tobacco products and authorizes the FDA to require the reduction or removal of harmful ingredients. It prohibits terms such as "light" and "low tar" from ever being used - misleading smokers into thinking such products are less harmful. And it forces the tobacco companies to scientifically prove any claims about "reduced risk" products.
Burr cites concerns that adding tobacco to the regulatory task of the FDA would sidetrack the agency from its mission of making sure food, prescription drugs and medical devices are safe. Yet the legislation would, in fact, completely finance the FDA's regulation of tobacco products through new fees paid by tobacco companies, ensuring the FDA's new tobacco-related responsibilities don't impede or take resources from its current mission.
Christian teachings, as well as the traditions of other religious faiths, typically hold that one should avoid practices harmful to the body and that government has a responsibility to vigorously protect life. Thus Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently testified before Congress in support of the FDA tobacco bill: "Congress has the means to cure the cycle of allurement and addiction, of disease and death, caused by tobacco. They owe it to the families of America to do just that, and to do it now." That indeed is exactly the moral commitment Congress is ready to make - Burr would do well to get out of the way.
At this critical juncture in history, America needs a senator in the Tar Heel state like John Quincy Adams - a man of courage, a man so principled that he does not consider himself, his political career or even the industry of his own beloved state above the greater good of the nation.
Like Adams, history will vindicate the actions of such a great man. More importantly, God will judge the public servant righteous who lives in the light of that great truth: "The magistrate is the servant not of his own desires, not even of the people, but of his God."
This op-ed was first published in the Raleigh News and Observer, September 9, 2008.