From Sunday school to secretary of state: Mike Pompeo details faith journey (interview)

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks in the Press Briefing Room, at the Department of State on March 25, 2020.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks in the Press Briefing Room, at the Department of State on March 25, 2020. | State Department/Freddie Everett]

There has arguably never been a secretary of state who has been more upfront and vocal about his faith in Jesus Christ than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman and former Presbyterian church Sunday school teacher. 

As the nation’s top diplomat, the 56-year-old has not shied away from speaking about how his faith has influenced his life. He has on many occasions spoken at Christian conservative conferences during his time as secretary and even gave a speech last year promoted by the State Department on “Being a Christian Leader.” 

He also brought up his evangelical faith last year during a speech in Muslim-majority Cairo, Egypt, where he said that he keeps a Bible in his State Department desk to remind him of “God and His word and the truth.” In August, he gave his Republican National Convention speech from Jerusalem.

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But with his vocality about his faith comes criticism from political opponents who claim that he is “overtly religious” and have accused him of blurring the lines of church and state. 

On Tuesday, The Christian Post interviewed Pompeo over the phone about his faith upbringing, how he developed a closer relationship with God as a young adult and how his faith has impacted his calling at the State Department.

Below is the edited transcript. 

Christian Post: Can you give us an overview of what your faith was like as a child? You’ve said in the past that it wasn’t really until you got to West Point that you began to take your faith seriously. Can you give me an overview of what it was like as a kid?

Pompeo: I grew up in Southern California. My parents took me many Sundays to the First Christian Church of Santa Anna. It wasn’t, as I recall in middle school and even high school, it wasn’t a central part of my life. 

There was Sunday school and that was about it. I was going to be an NBA basketball player. There was a time when I would have been about 18 or 19 when I was a freshman at the United States Military Academy at West Point when I first began to take my walk with Jesus seriously. 

There were a couple of cadets that were a little bit older than me that brought me to a Bible study and it's a faith journey that I have been on ever since.

CP: What happened in that Bible study? Was there a particular passage that was discussed? What resonated with you there? 

Pompeo: If I remember correctly, it was every Sunday, it was in the early afternoon. There was just a small group of us. It couldn’t have been more than 13, 14 or 15 older cadets and then 10 or 12 of us from the freshman class.

We would get together and there would just be fellowship. We would do some reading from the Bible, talk about what was going on in our life. It gave me the first chance to really step back and evaluate the time in my life when I think I could seriously begin to contemplate what that meant and accept Jesus Christ as my Savior. 

CP: How did your life change at that point? Did your actions change? Did you think more about how you could help others? What were some things that happened?

Pompeo: It’s now four decades on. It impacts everything that I have done, whether that’s the way I have been in my marriage with Susan or how I have done my best to raise our son, Nick, or as a soldier or small businessman or member of Congress now serving in the executive branch as CIA director and secretary of state.

It’s been a central part of my understanding of how human beings should treat each other and the things that He calls us to do in the way we are supposed to behave in this world. 

CP: How did your faith continue to grow after leaving the Army?

Pompeo: I ended up after I got out of the Army [in 1991], I went to law school on the east coast. Three years after that, I headed back to Kansas and became very active in the church there in Wichita — Eastminster Presbyterian Church. I was a deacon for a period of time. Along with my wife, Susan, and another couple, we taught fifth grade Sunday school for a number of years there. 

It was great. It was a chance for us to give back in the same way that those two older students helped me come to understand a little more deeply about Christianity. I was able to try and help fifth graders to get a grasp on it as well. 

CP: Being secretary of state, your schedule is packed on a day-to-day basis. How do you have time to study the Bible, attend church, find time for prayer? 

Pompeo: I am pretty disciplined about it, although attending church has proven to be more difficult in the last year-and-a-half or two as I travel a good deal. The church that we attend here wasn’t open for a good long time during COVID, so Susan and I would watch it online, sometimes watching our home church back in Wichita at Eastminster Presbyterian.

But in every place I have been, I was busy when I was a small business owner, but in every place I have been, I have managed to find a place, whether that is 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of the day or when I am traveling on an airplane to grab some time to read Christian works and writings or to read the Bible itself and take just a moment to pray. 

I think I get to it every day. I always manage to try and find just the set of moments, even if it is just going up in the elevator — a moment to pray and think about it and remind myself of these central understandings of how we have been called to live. 

CP: It’s been hard for you these last couple of years but is there a certain church that you attend in Washington D.C.?

Pompeo: Yes, we have gone to church (a Presbyterian church) in McLean, Virginia.

CP: You have also been part of the Bible studies with other cabinet members. Has that been an integral thing for you while serving as secretary to set aside that time? 

Pompeo: I have done Bible studies for many, many years now. Back in Kansas with friends and businessmen and sometimes a couple of Bible studies. We have tried to do them here in Washington, D.C., as well. I have had less opportunity to do that and be consistent about it as part of the president’s cabinet, just time and distance and travel [is] an awful lot. 

CP: You’ve been one of the more vocal secretaries of state that the U.S. has had in terms of talking about your faith. Some have even accused you of being “overtly” religious. Do you think you have been "overtly religious" as secretary of state? 

Pompeo: There have been those who have criticized me for my faith. I do my best to just focus on the things that matter to America and my constitutional role as the secretary of state and to me as a Christian. As Christian, we always think it is best if we are as honest and candid about who we are.

My faith impacts the way I think about decisions, how I approach problems, that’s for sure. I raised my right hand to defend the Constitution and that’s the first principle but it's always — just as our founders were — always informed by central understandings of humanity. 

CP: You have been at the forefront of expanding the U.S. government’s efforts to promote religious freedom overseas. Do you feel that is part of your calling there at the State Department to maybe change some of the culture there when it comes to advocating for religious freedom? 

Pompeo: The president has made this a real priority and so have I. I know [CP] covered at least one, maybe both of our ministerials that we held here. These were the largest human rights gatherings ever held at the Department of State. We couldn’t do it the third time given what’s going on (COVID-19) but it’s always been important. 

On my trips, you will see I often talk about religious freedom. A lot of those nations that do it, it’s better for their people so that every human being has the right to practice the conscience of their faith in a way that they deem appropriate, and if they have no faith, to avoid it as well. 

We have, at the direction of the president, to then build out a set of structural systems at the State Department to make sure that the idea of religious freedom, that first freedom, is among those that we speak to every place that we go and to every country to which we travel. 

CP: From the big picture perspective, there seems to be an ideological war at play in the world today — kind of the U.S. vs. China or Democracy vs. Communism, individual freedom vs. authoritarianism. What lessons have you learned that everyday American Christians can better understand and pray for this ideological war right now?

Pompeo: It is certainly the case that the Chinese Communist Party [engages in] efforts to stamp out religious freedom every place that they find. … We all know, whether that is the Christians there, the Catholics, the Muslims in the western part of the country, the Chinese Communist Party has a very low threshold for permitting people to practice their own faiths. We think that is greatly to the harm of the country, but we know that it is to the detriment of the Chinese people themselves. 

I would advocate not only for every Christian but every human being to come and understand that nations are better and more successful when they observe the fundamental human rights that are accrued to every human being just by the nature of their humanness. 

We have worked and spoke about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing inside of the country. We’ve talked about other nations that have denied basic religious freedoms to their own citizens at every possible opportunity. We think it is important and we are going to continue to call out nations that do this poorly and to laud those that do it well. 

CP: As secretary of state, whenever your tenure comes to an end, what is the one thing, the biggest thing that you want to have accomplished?

Pompeo: I hope it goes on for some time more. There is still a good deal of work to do. We’ve got challenges with the Islamic Republic of Iran, another nation that denies religious freedom broadly, challenges from the Chinese Communist Party, basic rights that aren’t being granted to citizens all across the world.

I don’t know if there is a single thing. I hope that the team here at the State Department finds itself more prepared and more capable to lead and more capable of delivering on these outcomes even after I leave this place. 

CP: What do you view as the role of the Church in society? Do you see areas where the Church needs to step up? 

Pompeo: I will give you a good example from my recent trip that I took to Rome where I called on the Vatican to exert the enormous capacity it has for moral witness. I know how important the Catholic Church can be when it simply adheres to its principles and speaks calmly and directly about that. It’s very concerning that they have not done that with respect to the Chinese Communist Party. 

I think people of all faiths have a real capacity to impact people’s lives. Governments can do a lot of things, there are lots of benefits that governments can bestow on citizens but no government has the right to either deny basic and fundamental rights to their citizens.

It is also the case that churches, these mediating institutions — I think our founders referred to them as "little platoons" — can do so much good. They are not governments. For that reason, they have the capacity to be very principled and very professional and to touch people in ways that governments can not. 

I think that faith and religious actors all across the world have the ability to have an enormous, enormous impact on the quality of life and the dignity that every human being can observe. 

CP: Why do you think God put you in this position to be secretary of state?

Pompeo: All Christians believe that God always has a plan. I certainly believe that as well. I have been incredibly blessed to have this opportunity to serve as a soldier and have a chance to serve again as a member of Congress, then the director of the CIA, now secretary of state. I have been most fortunate and most blessed. I hope that I do honor everyone around me in the way that I execute each of those tasks. 

CP: As secretary of state, you have to deal with a lot of tough decisions on a global stage. How do you seek God’s guidance in some of these decisions? 

Pompeo: I only laugh because it is not that I turn to Him only when times are tough. I do my best to turn to Him each and every day for sustainment and understanding, wisdom and endurance to execute this mission.

I don’t just come when it is tough. That wouldn't be the right moment. But even when there are difficult questions and very difficult issues that confront us, I know that He provides the ability for us to think about that, the perseverance, the wisdom to deliver the outcomes that are in the best interest of the United States of America. 

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