Louisiana's Congressman-Elect Anh 'Joseph' Cao: From Aspiring Priest to Politician

The newly elected Cao talks about his Jesuit priest training.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country.

After Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao's surprise victory against scandal-plagued Democratic Rep. William Jefferson in Louisiana this month, House Minority Leader John Boehner sent his fellow GOP-ers a memo entitled "The Future is Cao": "The Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and win the trust of the American people." A Vietnamese-born lawyer—he's the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress—and a former Jesuit seminarian, Cao has also been embraced by conservative Christian groups like the Family Research Council as proof that "values" candidates can help return the Republican Party to power. In an interview with God & Country, Cao said that it was a crisis of personal faith led him into politics, but that traditional values issues like abortion and gay marriage aren't at the top of his agenda. Excerpts:

You attended Baylor University, the world's biggest Southern Baptist school, then wound up training to become a Jesuit priest.

The only reason I attended Baylor was it had an excellent premed program. I met a Catholic university chaplain—I was very much involved with the student Catholic Center at Baylor—and meeting this priest brought back the desire I had since I was very young of wanting to become a Catholic priest. You fled Vietnam at age 8 with your mom and your siblings after the fall of Saigon. Had you been raised Catholic in Vietnam?

I was born and baptized Catholic.... But I received basically a calling my senior year at Baylor. I decided not to attend medical school and to join the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits] instead. My friend the priest recommended me. They were the six most wonderful years of my life. How close did you get to being ordained?

I was not close at all—I only reached about halfway. The Jesuit formation is 12 years, and I left during my sixth year. What happened?

Basically, I was in Mexico working with the poor when I had something of a faith crisis in which I questioned the whole existence of suffering and the notion of how an all-powerful and loving God could create such terrible situations for humanity and people all over the world. It was not only Mexico but seeing a Vietnamese refugee camp, seeing the human conditions of workers in Vietnam and in China. All those images really put the notion of an all-powerful and loving God with respect to evil and human suffering. I conveyed that to my spiritual director and asked whether or not God is doing anything to address human suffering. He told me that God does it through good people, like Mother Theresa, Pope Paul II, Martin Luther King, Gandhi—people of various backgrounds and religions working in their own way to address the issue of human suffering and human life in general, and that's when I got inspired to be involved in social change. I figured that the best way to promote social change was to be involved in the political process.

Has that kind of political involvement put an end to your faith crisis?

Something that complex and that significant does not resolve itself in that short a period of time. Sometimes even now I still question the whole issue of human suffering, and the whole question of faith is something that plagues a lot of us. I know that Mother Theresa herself had a faith crisis that lasted to the moment of her death. So a lot of very religious people at one moment or another experience a certain level of faith crisis. It's not something that's particular or unique to myself. What's the connection between your faith and your politics?

My faith emphasizes the whole aspect of service. That's what I intend to do. That is the core of my faith and the core of my political view, that politicians are put into office in order to serve. I have to do my duties the best I can in order to serve everybody, especially those who are in the most desperate need. That doesn't mean that all my work is going to be focused on serving the poor. Mr. [William] Jefferson was involved in activities that were quite questionable, indicted under 16 counts of corruption, bribery, and money laundering, if I can remember all the indictments. So it boiled down to the question of being accountable for one's actions, of ethical values between the two candidates. That was one of the campaign themes, of promoting reform and ethics in the Second Congressional District. The race boiled down to ethics.

How important were traditional family values issues, like abortion and marriage, in your race?

Very little. I was focusing on the need to rebuild the Second Congressional District so the issues of abortion and marriage were not the focus of my campaign at all. Are those values issue high priorities for your first term in Congress?

My main priority in the first couple of years is to focus on rebuilding the Second Congressional District in Louisiana. Three and half years after Katrina, there are areas that remain devastated. The healthcare system is in need of reform. The educational system is in need of reform. We need to develop economically, need to look at the levies and at coastal restoration. Those are the issues right now that concern the majority of my constituents, so that's what I'll be focusing on.