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For Hillary Scholten, faith (and Jerry Ford) led the way to Congress

An evangelical who supports abortion? It makes sense, freshman Democrat says

“So much of the story of West Michigan ... is people feeling like they didn’t leave the Republican Party, but the Republican Party left them,” says Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten, seen here in her D.C. office in July.
“So much of the story of West Michigan ... is people feeling like they didn’t leave the Republican Party, but the Republican Party left them,” says Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten, seen here in her D.C. office in July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Before her election to Congress, Hillary Scholten served as a deacon in her local church. That fact alone isn’t that remarkable — she counts more than one fully ordained minister as a colleague, after all. But as her fellow millennials and Democrats increasingly skip church, it stood out when she quoted scripture on the House floor — especially because it was in defense of abortion.

The issue helped Scholten win her West Michigan district centered in Grand Rapids, where Republicans have dominated since well before beloved native son Gerald Ford first ran for office.

It took her two tries to make it to Congress, with a loss to Peter Meijer in 2020. But under fresh district lines, and facing a more extreme opponent endorsed by Donald Trump, Scholten cruised to victory, offering “a new political home” for many of the mild-mannered, middle-class, college-educated descendants of Dutch immigrants in her part of the state.

Scholten sat down with Heard on the Hill in her sparsely adorned (aside from Ford memorabilia) office in Washington before the August recess. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You have a lot of Gerald Ford memorabilia in your office. I know he’s from Grand Rapids, but what’s the deal? 

A: Very few districts can claim to have sent a former representative on to the presidency, but it’s not only about honoring that legacy. I feel like Ford’s model of leadership really set the tone for the next generation of leaders, from Vern Ehlers to Paul Henry.

Even though I’m a different gender and a different political party, it’s something that I try to embody as well. So much of the story of West Michigan, and why I got elected, is people feeling like they didn’t leave the Republican Party, but the Republican Party left them. And we were able to provide a new political home. 

We were talking with a group of constituents while they were out knocking on doors for me, and I started to say, “A lot of Ford Republicans like you —.” And they were like, “No, no. We’re not Ford Republicans. We’re Scholten Democrats.” That’s a change in West Michigan, but we’re not rejecting wholesale the past leadership just because it happened to be aligned with a different political party. 

Q: After you got your law degree, you worked for the Board of Immigration Appeals. How did that shape your views on immigration?

A: Oh, immensely. So much of what we deal with here in Congress, particularly when it comes to immigration, is a reactionary, hyperpartisan division around the issue. But when you’re looking at these cases up close, you can’t not see the nuance. I saw firsthand the need for informed and thoughtful enforcement of our immigration laws. 

It’s a humanitarian issue. It’s a national security issue. We were reviewing deportation decisions and setting national precedent when it came to asylum laws and the processing of unaccompanied [minors] at the border. And it started to plant the seed that we need more elected officials who understand this. 

You may know that I’m on a bipartisan bill right now, with María Salazar from the Republican side, and [Democrats] Veronica Escobar and Kathy Manning and myself. Kathy Manning and I are both immigration attorneys who have over 40 years of experience combined, and we looked at this [bill that addresses both border security and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants], and we were like, “I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good bill.”

Q: You’re an outspoken supporter of abortion rights and of the LGBTQ community. But you’re also a member of the evangelical Christian Reformed Church, which opposes abortion and last year affirmed that one of its core beliefs is that homosexual sex is a sin. 

A: Yes, I’m very involved in my church. You’re correct on the same-sex marriage component, and I’m happy to talk about those challenges and the faith component. But the church does not take an official canonical position on abortion, and in fact it came out, even during my election when we had a referendum on the ballot in Michigan, to say that as a political matter, the church doesn’t say whether you have to be pro-life or pro-choice. We honor and affirm the sanctity of life, and there are many different ways you can do that. 

We’ve got other members of the Christian Reformed Church [in Michigan politics], like our new state Senate majority leader, and I know our campaigns elevated this issue. A lot of people started to question, sometimes for the first time in their lives, what it really means to be, quote-unquote, “pro-life.” When Roe v. Wade was overturned, we saw so many women being forced to near death because they couldn’t get access to the lifesaving care they needed. Women going through miscarriages were told, “Sorry, you have to be in sepsis before we will actually give you a lifesaving abortion.”

I overperformed our ballot initiative in the district and had huge support from within the faith community because I took a nuanced, balanced and thoughtful approach to this.

Q: A lot has been written about the role of abortion in Michigan with Prop 3 on the ballot. Do you think that was overstated? And will it still play a big role going forward, given that abortion is now enshrined in the state constitution?

A: I think it absolutely will, because even though we have codified that right in our state, we have not protected it nationwide. People know that if we have a Republican-controlled House and Senate and the presidency, it doesn’t matter what we do in Michigan. Republicans can and will take those rights away, just like they’re doing in the Southern states. And they’re not stopping with abortion care — it’s going to be birth control next. 

Q: You faced a relatively weak and extreme opponent last year, John Gibbs. There was a lot of criticism directed at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for meddling in the Republican primary, including from you. You came out and said that was a wrong move. How can you make sure that doesn’t happen again?

A: You know, I don’t control the DCCC. I think winning this seat by 13 points sends a pretty clear message that people were voting for something instead of just against something. 

They know how I feel about the situation. But reporters who have been willing to look at what actually happened have come around. Initially, a lot of the reporting was like, “Oh my goodness, why did they prop up this candidate?” And we got a lot of people saying to us, “Why did you run ads for John Gibbs?” because the reporting was so bad on this issue. And then people were like, “Oh, wait a second. [The DCCC] ran an ad letting people know this guy was an extremist, while voters still had the chance to choose someone else.” At the end of the day, the Republican primary voters made their decision, and that’s who they chose.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White, because I’m a brand-new Frontline member of Congress who doesn’t have a ton of time to read, but I read to my children. 

Why that book? They’re preteen boys, and it’s this beautiful coming-of-age story. And reading it again as an adult, particularly at this time coming into Congress, was really meaningful.

In politics, can the end justify the means? Everything we do matters, especially right now in this current Trump era, post-Trump presidency, but we’ll see what happens. I hear a lot of people talking about when we retake the House, but we don’t know if that’s where we’ll be. So I would say the means are the end, and I’m working to make every day count. 

One thing your friends know about you but your constituents don’t? I can’t carry a tune. I sing off-key, but I love to sing.

Your least popular opinion? I don’t like fancy coffee. In a place like D.C., everyone’s like, “Let’s go get a fancy coffee.” But I just want straight-black jet fuel.