'On Fire For God's Work': How Scott Pruitt's Faith Drives His Politics Before Scott Pruitt became the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, his political career was guided in large part by his Southern Baptist faith and a faith-based agenda.
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'On Fire For God's Work': How Scott Pruitt's Faith Drives His Politics

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'On Fire For God's Work': How Scott Pruitt's Faith Drives His Politics

'On Fire For God's Work': How Scott Pruitt's Faith Drives His Politics

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/607181437/607483543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're going to hear now about the background of a controversial member of the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He's facing at least 10 federal investigations into alleged ethics violations. Just today the EPA confirmed that two of his top aides have left the agency. Despite all the scrutiny, Pruitt is still in the job himself.


Yeah. Conservatives strongly support his work at the EPA. He's widely reported to have ambitions beyond the EPA - senator, governor of Oklahoma, maybe even U.S. attorney general. One thing that has defined Pruitt's political career is his religious faith.

CORNISH: Pruitt is a Southern Baptist, and for years, his focus was on faith-based issues. Tom Dreisbach from the NPR podcast Embedded has the story.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Before Scott Pruitt ran the EPA, before he got involved in politics at all, he was a young lawyer in Tulsa, Okla. And back in 1993, his first client was a woman named Judith Lyn Whittington.

JUDITH LYN WHITTINGTON: Some people call me Judy. Some people call me Lyn.

DREISBACH: What do you prefer?

WHITTINGTON: Either one. I don't care (laughter).

DREISBACH: Let's just go with Lyn 'cause that's how she introduced herself to me. And when Lyn was in her 30s, she had just gotten divorced, and a Baptist pastor in her town kept bugging her about going to church. So one Saturday night, she's out dancing with a friend. She didn't drink, but her friend did. Lyn was a smoker. Anyway, the next morning, Lyn convinces her friend. Why not? Let's go try out this church.

WHITTINGTON: And, you know - and everybody of course giving you the look, you know? And I don't blame them 'cause we probably smelled like a beer (laughter) and cigarettes, you know?

DREISBACH: Lyn liked the church, and she became a Baptist. And like a lot of people who convert, she really threw herself into it.

WHITTINGTON: So I was a fairly new Christian. It was very important to me to be able to do the things that I felt like God was leading me to do.

DREISBACH: So she starts a Bible study in her house. She also starts volunteering with a crisis pregnancy center. These are groups that oppose abortion and who counsel women basically not to get an abortion. In general, these organizations can be controversial, especially with abortion rights activists. Anyway, at the time, Lyn was also a social worker with the state of Oklahoma, the Department of Human Services. And one day there's a problem with her bosses.

Lyn had become friends with a woman through this crisis pregnancy center, and she helped this friend move. Thing is, that woman was also a client at the Department of Human Services. So Lyn's supervisors at this agency, DHS, get upset. Her bosses thought Lyn was blurring the lines between her religious mission and the state agency's mission. So her boss calls her and says this.

WHITTINGTON: She said, you're not allowed to have any contact after hours with DHS clients or potential clients. And I thought, what? And I told her - I said, would you repeat that (laughter)?

DREISBACH: Her supervisor says she has to stop working at the crisis pregnancy center, that she's supposed to deliver this disclaimer at the beginning of all of her Bible studies stating that she's there just as a private citizen and that it has nothing to do with her work for the state. Lyn starts worrying that if she says or does the wrong thing, she could lose her job. She's so scared she just ends the Bible study. And eventually, Lyn Whittington calls up this organization called the Rutherford Institute, which is basically a conservative version of the ACLU.

WHITTINGTON: I called, and they scheduled me an appointment with Scott Pruitt - went in, talked with him. He was a young lawyer. But he was a go-getter. I mean, he started working on it that day. He was excited about it.

DREISBACH: Scott Pruitt and the EPA did not respond to several requests for comment for this story, but it's not hard to see why Pruitt might be excited about this case. On the one hand, it's the kind of case you might study in a constitutional law class. And then on the other hand, Scott Pruitt, like Lyn Whittington, is a Southern Baptist.

WHITTINGTON: He saw it as this is what she truly believes, and she has the right to do it.

DREISBACH: It was about the religious beliefs. It wasn't about getting money...


DREISBACH: ...In damages.

WHITTINGTON: No. He wasn't into that.

DREISBACH: Here's how the case ended. During this time, the Clinton administration happened to sign a religious freedom law, and in response, Oklahoma changed its employee handbook. After that, the state decided to just settle with Lyn. She was able to start up her Bible study again and go to work for the crisis pregnancy center. And for that, Lyn thanks Scott Pruitt.

WHITTINGTON: He was there, a young attorney, when I need an attorney so badly.

DREISBACH: And this story has also stuck with Pruitt. He even featured it in a political ad several years ago.


SCOTT PRUITT: And I stood beside her. And we fought for her religious liberty at that time to say that the state agency could not keep her from having a bible study in her home.

DREISBACH: And there's a reason Scott Pruitt decided to feature Lyn Whittington's story in this ad. Religious freedom and faith-based issues have been central to his politics. A few years after that case, when Pruitt was in his late 20s, he decided to run for the state Senate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Will there be further debate?

DREISBACH: In 1998, he gets elected.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senator Pruitt, you are recognized for debate.

PRUITT: Thank you, Mr. President.

DREISBACH: One of the first things he does is pass a religious freedom act. He works on legislation to restrict abortion rights and what's known as an informed consent law. Those laws mandate what doctors have to tell patients before getting an abortion.


PRUITT: Because they need to know that there's a link with breast cancer. They need to know that there's a risk with infertility. They need to know that there are emotional risks attendant with abortion procedures.

DREISBACH: Leading medical groups and experts say all of those claims, by the way, are wrong or very misleading. According to documents NPR obtained, Pruitt was also on the board of a crisis pregnancy center in Tulsa. And most years he was in the state Senate, he introduced some sort of abortion restriction bill. He said his ultimate goal was this.


PRUITT: I'm voting to say that an unborn child from the moment of conception should be considered a legal person under the 14th Amendment.

DREISBACH: That move would effectively criminalize abortion. Pruitt also supported a bill called the Teacher Protection Act. And as part of that bill, textbooks would be required to include a disclaimer that evolution is just a theory.


PRUITT: And there aren't sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution.

DREISBACH: Pruitt also worked on tax cut legislation and changes to the worker's comp system. But religion was a major focus of his politics. Around this time in 2005, he also went on a Tulsa radio station, KFAQ, for a series of interviews on the Constitution.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: And to the republic...

DREISBACH: And it always starts the same way.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: One nation under God, indivisible...

DREISBACH: On that show, Pruitt argued that Christianity was under attack in America.


PRUITT: The objective I believe that we see in America today is to create a religious sterility. It is to eradicate vestiges of religion in the public square - period.

DREISBACH: And Scott Pruitt said he's fighting back.


PRUITT: I'm Scott Pruitt.

DREISBACH: So in 2010, Pruitt ran for Oklahoma attorney general.


PRUITT: I authored and passed the religious freedom act. And I'm the only candidate in this race with a record of defending our constitutional liberties in court.

DREISBACH: Pruitt did not mention energy or the environment in those ads. But he later became known for his lawsuits against the Obama administration, including 14 against the EPA alone. Those lawsuits gave Pruitt a national platform, and that attention helped him get the job as EPA administrator. In that job, Pruitt says his faith still guides him. Pruitt recently told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he believes God blessed people with natural resources like coal and oil so that we can use them.


PRUITT: The biblical worldview with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we've been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.

DREISBACH: And the Sunday before Pruitt left Oklahoma for Washington, he gathered with the people who have been behind him throughout his political career - the congregants at his Baptist church who prayed for his confirmation. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

KELLY: On tomorrow's program, we'll hear from the Embedded team about Scott Pruitt's record on the environment when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma.


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