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

May 1, 2018

The Sunday before Scott Pruitt's confirmation hearing to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Pruitt stood on the stage of his hometown church, bowed his head, and prayed.

"I stand on a platform today with a man of God who's been tapped to serve our nation," said Nick Garland, the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla.

"It's an honor for the Kingdom of God to have a man of God who's going to fill that role," said Garland. "We wanted to pray for you today, and ask God to bless you."

The congregation at First Baptist, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention and has a membership of some 4,500, has counted Pruitt as a member for nearly three decades. Pruitt is also a deacon at the church.

Throughout his career, he has relied on the church for both spiritual and political strength.

While Pruitt is probably best known now for his aggressive attempts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations - and perhaps for the increasing number of investigations into alleged ethical misconduct - much of his career has been driven by faith-based issues like abortion and religious freedom. Pruitt and the EPA did not respond to several requests for comment over nearly two months, including a four-page list of questions from NPR. But an examination of Pruitt's public statements and his record shows that says his faith continues to inform his views of the environment and climate change.

Pruitt's first legal case: a fight over religious freedom

Pruitt is originally from Kentucky, and went to the University of Kentucky on a baseball scholarship. He played second base and, according to E&E News, his fellow players nicknamed him "The Possum." ("I thought he looked like a possum," the team's shortstop, Billy White, explained.)

Pruitt later transferred to Georgetown College, a Baptist school in Georgetown, Ky., before moving to Oklahoma to attend the University Of Tulsa College Of Law.

After graduation, Pruitt got his first client, a woman named Judith Lyn Whittington.

Judith Lyn Whittington was Scott Pruitt's first legal client. She sued her employer, Oklahoma's Department of Human Services, arguing that the state was infringing on her religious freedom. "He was there," she says of Pruitt, "when I needed an attorney so badly."
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

In the early 1990s, Whittington sued her employer, Oklahoma's Department Of Human Services, alleging religious discrimination. Whittington had converted to Christianity later in life, and was active in her church's crisis pregnancy center, which counsels women not to have abortions. (In general, such centers can be controversial, and medical groups and abortion rights activists have accused some centers of misleading women.) Whittington also held a bible study at her home.

"I was a fairly new Christian," she says. "It was very important to me to be able to do the things that I thought God was leading me to do."

Then came the conflict with her employer.

Whittington had become friends with a woman through her work at the crisis pregnancy center. One day, she helped the woman and her young daughter move out of their living situation.

Trouble arose, because the woman was also a client of the Department of Human Services.

Supervisors at the Department disciplined Whittington, because they said she was blurring the lines between her volunteer work for the crisis pregnancy center in her off-hours, and her work for the state agency.

Whittington says she got a call from one of her supervisors, who told her, "You're not allowed to have any contact after hours with DHS clients or potential clients."

As a result, Whittington decided to end her bible study, and stopped volunteering with the crisis pregnancy center.

Eventually, she got in touch with the Rutherford Institute, a conservative non-profit, which connected her with Scott Pruitt.

"He was a young lawyer, but he was a go-getter," says Whittington. "I mean he started working on [the case] that day. He was excited about it."

And Pruitt's excitement, Whittington says, came from his genuine dedication to religious freedom.

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

The case ultimately resolved, because of a national religious freedom law signed by President Bill Clinton. That law prompted Oklahoma to change its employment policies, and the state settled with Whittington. She was able to resume her work with the crisis pregnancy center and restarted her bible study.

Whittington still credits Pruitt with reaching the settlement.

"He was there, a young attorney, when I needed an attorney so badly," she says.

The case also stuck with Pruitt. He later featured Whittington in a campaign ad, where he says the case sparked his interest in serving as Oklahoma's Attorney General.

"He was so honest, he was so kind, and he was so on fire for God's work," Whittington says in the ad.

Pruitt's church

Soon after Pruitt came to Oklahoma, and around the time of the lawsuit, he also joined First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, a suburb just outside Tulsa.

Pastor Nick Garland describes Pruitt as an active and faithful member of the church, who has been involved in Sunday school teaching and eventually became a deacon.

Outside the church's worship center, where roughly 2,500 people gather each Sunday, there's a brick wall inscribed with the names of people important to that church, and who donated to the church's relocation.

A brick wall at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla. is inscribed with the names of people who donated to the church's relocation. Among the names is Scott Pruitt, who has been a member of the church for nearly three decades.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

On one end of the wall are four bricks, one for each member of the Pruitt family.

Over the years, Pruitt and Garland have spent a lot of time together, though Pruitt has had fewer opportunities now that he's in Washington. Garland says Pruitt will still call or text him when he's got a big meeting and will ask Garland to pray for him. Garland told Mother Jones that he recently went to a private reception at the EPA with Pruitt.

Pruitt is also a trustee with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he says his faith forms the foundation of his politics.

"A Christian worldview means that God has answers to our problems," said Pruitt, according to the Seminary's website. "And part of our responsibility is to convey to those in society that the answers that he has, as represented in Scripture, are important and should be followed, because they lead to freedom and liberty."

The Southern Baptist Convention, as well as Garland and Pruitt, oppose same-sex marriageabortion rights, and transgender rights.

In one 2016 sermon, Garland criticized the Obama Administration's guidance on transgender students and bathrooms.

"In this generation, where people are trying to decide what they believe about sex," said Garland, "it's because we've forgotten the One who made them male and female. In a generation, where we're not sure if God created, because we've propagandized evolution, we've forgotten that in the beginning, God."

(Pruitt also sued the Obama Administration over that guidance, calling it "Obama's Transgender Power Play" in the Wall Street Journal.)

On the environment, Garland is also skeptical of the scientific consensus, which has argued for urgent action to prevent the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change.

Nick Garland, the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla., stands outside the church's worship center.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

  "Let's be a little more cautious," Garland says. "Let's not overreact on supposition."

On climate change, Pruitt has argued for a government-sponsored debate on climate science and the potential effects of greenhouse gases. And he recently told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he believes God blessed humanity with natural resources like coal and oil so that people may use them.

"The biblical world view with respect to these issues," he said, "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."

Translating faith into policy

Pruitt was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate in 1998, and an NPR review of legislation he sponsored shows a strong focus on faith-based issues.

Early on, he sponsored a state Religious Freedom Act. He also sponsored legislation to provide state funding to faith-based organizations working in juvenile justice.

Most years he was in the state senate, he also sponsored legislation to restrict abortion, including what's known as an "informed consent" bill. Such bills mandate language that doctors have to use before performing an abortion.

"[Women] need to know that there's a link with breast cancer," Pruitt said in 2003. "They need to know that there's a risk with infertility, they need to know that there are emotional risks attendant with abortion procedures."

Leading medical groups say all of those claims are either false or misleading.

While voting for another abortion restriction measure in the Oklahoma State Senate, Pruitt said, "I'm voting to say that an unborn child from the moment of conception should be considered a legal person under the 14th Amendment."

Such a move would effectively criminalize abortion.

Around this time, according to filings NPR obtained from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Pruitt served on the board of a crisis pregnancy center in Tulsa.

Pruitt also supported a bill called the Teacher Protection Act, which would have required textbooks in Oklahoma to add a 251-word disclaimer about Darwin's theory of evolution. That disclaimer included this line: "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

In a 2005 radio interview first unearthed by Politico, Pruitt said, "there aren't sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution."

When Pruitt became Oklahoma's Attorney General after the 2010 election, he continued to pursue many of these priorities. He fought a move by Oklahoma's Supreme Court to remove a public display of the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol, and he joined a lawsuit against the federal government over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

"Our Founding Fathers established a system to protect us from this type of coercive federal infringement on religious liberty," Pruitt argued.

Ambitions beyond the EPA

President Donald Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in 2017, after announcing that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate agreement.
Credit Andrew Harnik/AP

The increasing number of ethics investigations into Pruitt's actions as EPA Administrator have raised speculation that President Trump may fire him.

In the last century, no presidential cabinet has seen more turnover in its first year than this administration.

Pruitt has argued that the criticism is partisan, and says that his opponents will "resort to anything" to stop his regulatory rollback at the EPA.

On Tuesday, the agency confirmed that two high-level EPA employees - Albert Kelly and Pasquale Perrotta - had left the agency.

Whatever happens, it has been widely reported that Pruitt has ambitions for other positions, whether Senator or Governor of Oklahoma, or even U.S. Attorney General.

His record on faith-based issues suggests he would continue to pursue those priorities in other offices.

For now, Pruitt joins a weekly bible study with other members of the Trump cabinet. He recently told CBN News, "it's such a wonderful thing" to pray with "a friend, a colleague, a person who has a faith [and] focus on how we do our job." 

Tom Dreisbach is a producer with NPR's Embedded

Joe Wertz is a reporter with StateImpact Oklahoma

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

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...

WHITTINGTON: No.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Will there be further debate?

DREISBACH: In 1998, he gets elected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: And to the republic...

DREISBACH: And it always starts the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

PRUITT: I'm Scott Pruitt.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN FAHEY'S "IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.