'Teach them correct principles': Gospel influences life, outlook of freshman member of Congress

Before a crowd of cheering supporters last Nov. 3, Ernest J. (Jim) Istook Jr. basked in victory's glory, having just won a race for Oklahoma's Fifth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This was the second-best election day of his life, he told admirers.

The best election day was 20 years earlier, in 1972. That was the day he met his future wife, Judy Bills, in person.

The two had already conversed by telephone. He was working as a news reporter for KOMA Radio in Oklahoma City, covering the state Capitol beat. She called the station on the news line to request a song; she had not been able to reach the disc jockey on the request line.

The conversation led to their first face-to-face meeting on that election day, which was fateful in more ways than one.

Judy was a lifelong Church member. As for Jim, his only noteworthy exposure to the Church had been the occasion during his youth in Fort Worth, Texas, when he heard two Mormon missionaries speak to a youth group at his church.

Judy's Church membership, of course, sparked his interest, and he began receiving the missionary lessons. He was an unusually inquisitive investigator, but ultimately gained his testimony by following the promise in Moroni 10:3-5.

"We had double the usual discussions," recalled the 42-year-old congressman during a telephone interview from Washington D.C. "For each scheduled discussion, we would have another session in which we would discuss the things I wanted to discuss. As I would read the Book of Mormon, I would make notes about something I had a little trouble believing, or something I thought conflicted with the Bible or conflicted internally with other parts of the Book of Mormon itself."

He would bring up his concerns during the sessions with missionaries, but the elders never got a chance to explain them.

"They didn't have to," he said. "As I would read the passages again with the missionaries, the Holy Ghost would bear witness to me the proper understanding of them, and I could experience how each doctrine did fit in the gospel structure and that it was the word of God."

He read the entire Book fo Mormon before his baptism, but early on, his reporter's curiosity drove him to skip ahead to the account of the Savior's visit to the Nephites.

He came to the incident in 3 Ne. 17, when Christ is about to depart until the morrow, but gazing at the tear-filled eyes of the multitude, He has compassion on them and decides to tarry with them a while. He invites them to bring their sick to Him to be healed and their children to be blessed.

"That chapter spoke to me," Brother Istook reflected, "and to this day, that is the most sacred chapter to me in the Book of Mormon, because it moved me so greatly. I can never read it to this day without crying. It brings tears to my eyes now as I speak to you about it."

He and Judy were married in August 1973. That same week, he began working for a different radio station and taking law courses at night. Law and politics had been his ambition since attending Castleberry High School in Fort Worth, where he was newspaper editor, was involved in speech and drama and was voted "boy most likely to succeed" among the graduating seniors of 1967. (He said he is the first person on his family tree to graduate from college.)

After he earned his juris doctorate from Oklahoma City University School of Law and bagan his practice, Gov. David Boren appointed him to head the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, prompting comment in some quarters about the irony of placing a Mormon in that position. But he served responsibly enough that Boren appointed him to his staff for a time.

Shortly afterward, he ran for state Senate, losing in a primary run-off election. Later, he was appointed to a vacant seat on the city council of Warr Acres, the Oklahoma City suburb where the family resided. (The Istooks are members of the Oklahoma City 3rd Ward, Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake.) Service as chairman of the local library system and the Warr Acres/Putnam City Chamber of Commerce broadened his experience in public service.

Early in 1980, disillusioned by what he described as the "liberalization of policies" in his own Democratic Party, he became a Republican. Six years later, he ran an underdog campaign and won election to the state House of Representatives.

His service there gave him a base of support that launched him on his recent U.S. congressional campaign.

"Oklahoma is not by any means an area where Latter-day Saints predominate," he noted. "We're in an area where, politically, some people see it as a disadvantage rather than an advantage to be LDS. And certainly, there was some opposition to me on the basis of my faith. But I never worried about it. I think my faith has been and always will be a positive because people are concerned with whether you live by the standards that you promote. And I think it's kind of exciting, or it has been to many Church members, to have a member of the Church elected from a state that is not heavily LDS in numbers."

Cherished values are apt to influence one's political outlook and Rep. Istook said that is true in his case.

"I always think of the counsel of Joseph Smith: `Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.' [Paraphrased from George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 529.] And the problem so often in government is the abandonment of that principle; that is, teaching people that their future should be dependent upon what the government will do for them rather than developing self-reliance and independence and the ability to care for themselves as well as to govern themselves. When it comes to the various social welfare programs that predominate government so heavily today, I tell people that I take care of my conscience [in relation to caring for the poor and needy] on my own time and with my own money and my own effort, without imposing a requirement that somebody else be taxed to ease my conscience."

Thus, the new congressman advocates voluntary efforts and contributions through religious and charitable organizations as opposed to government compulsion and taxation.

His leisure activities have centered around the Church. Until the start of his congressional campaign he taught an early-morning seminary class. (Son Chad, 16, and daughter Amy, 14, are seminary students. His other children are Butch, 18 and a BYU freshman; Diana, 13; and Emily 11.) Other Church positions he has held include high councilor, bishop's counselor, high priests group leader, ward mission leader, elders quorum president's counselor and Sunday School teacher in gospel doctrine and youth classes.

The scouting movement has been an important part of his life. He has been a Scoutmasterr and has been involved in stake trips to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico for training.

Though grateful for the support he received in the recent election, his recent trip to the nation's capital for the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 5 involved family rather than campaign supporters. The Istook entourage included his wife, children, father, stepmother (his mother is deceased), sisters and members of his wife's family.

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