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Rob Bishop, Mormon: Building Bridges With Germany

Just four months after taking office, Republican Rob Bishop found himself once again in one of Germany’s most famous college towns. He first set foot on the streets of Heidelberg more than three decades ago. At that time he was acting in the capacity of an ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ, serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The next time that he walked the picturesque streets of Heidelberg, Germany, he was acting in the capacity of an ambassador of the United States.

Rob-Bishop-MormonOver the course of the past decade, Bishop has become Congress’ expert on Germany. He is also the only member that is fluent in the German Language. Since his election to Congress in 2002, Bishop has made 17 trips with members of German parliament. He meets with German lawmakers twice a year to continually develop a refined understanding of German politics, and to maintain life-long friendships that go beyond diplomatic relationships.

Otto Fricke, a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) said of Bishop:

That’s why he’s such a good politician. He’s so curious. He’s not the typical one that says, ‘I’m just doing something for my constituency, and that’s how I push.’ He wants to understand how the country works. [1]

Serving as an Ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ

Even though the knowledge of the German language that he obtained in his high-school German classes and the missionary training that he received left him all but a little nervous, Bishop exhibited the same level of curiosity as he served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ in the heart of southern Germany in 1970.

When Bishop arrived in Germany he was met by mission leaders who coached him on a few useful phrases and then promptly sent him on his way to begin the work that he had been called to do. However, the phrases that he had been taught proved to be somewhat inadequate. When a German bus driver asked him a follow-up question, he found himself at a loss. Of the experience, Bishop recalls, “I just froze. I didn’t know what he said or how I was supposed to respond, so I just stood there and I realized how desperate it was.” [1]

It would take at least two months before he began to feel at home with the German people, and to be able to interact with them in conversation. He discovered that the people were upbeat and pro-American. Bishop said, “Germans were a “very secular” people and prompting them to talk openly about matters of faith was a true feat. Getting them to discuss politics was far easier.” [1] He served in Germany during a time of political upheaveal, and discussing the German elections became of great interest to him. Bishop said, “[Germany] has a unique system. … You cannot bring a government down unless you replace it.” [1]

Serving as an Ambassador for the United States

As a Mormon missionary, he never made it to Berlin, never saw the Berlin Wall, or witnessed the animosity that existed between East and West Germany. In 1984, however, as a Utah lawmaker, on a trip sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, he made a trip back to the country and arrived early enough to take in some sightseeing to be able to see some of the things that he had missed while on his mission. Along with a colleague whom he met up with, he was able to tour the infamous Berlin Wall, and got a glance into East Germany, later traversing its war-torn streets. Of the experience, Bishop said:

We were able to go up to the wall itself on the west side and look over into the east and see the land mines, the guard towers,” he said. “It [seemed] very old. There were the same buildings, but there was nothing to it. There was nobody on the streets; there wasn’t any vibrancy. That, to me, has always been profound: the difference between Berlin under East German control — communist dictatorship — and Berlin today. [1]

This trip was the first time Bishop’s professional career coincided with his religious mission, an experience that is not uncommon among Mormon politicians. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was a missionary in Taiwan and recently served as the U.S. ambassador to China; former Rep. Chris Cannon said his mission to Guatemala greatly influenced his position on immigration. [1]

The Direct Impact of His Missions

On even-numbered years, members of the Bundestag (German parliament) take two trips to the United States, and on odd-numbered ones, U.S. representatives visit Germany twice. Bishop has missed just two of these journeys since 2003. Because he is considered a representative of the U.S. government when talking with foreign dignitaries, Bishop receives regular State Department briefings even though his trips are not considered official diplomatic missions.

In at least one instance, his trips directly affected legislation that he was endeavoring to get passed. The legislation entailed attempting to boost the nation’s foreign-exchange program by increasing tax deductions for certain students living in a taxpayer’s household. The bill never passed, but Bishop still believes in its message, and he also believes that America’s youth are “perfect ambassadors.” His argument was that much of the anti-American sentiment in the world is due simply to a lack of exposure:

“I realized that those places in Germany that are extremely pro-American are those that have the greatest contact with Americans,” Bishop said in a 2005 House floor speech. “It would be wise to do everything we could to encourage students of the world to experience what this country has to offer, return home and watch that influence tend to grow.” [1]

One of his sons has also served an LDS mission in Germany, and he has been able to bring most of his five children along on trips to Germany. In 2008, he served as the chairman of the Congressional Study Group and was able to host a German delegation in northern Utah. He also maintains regular email conversations with Otto Fricke, the Bundestag member he met in 2004. The conversations touch on politics, but more often than not, end up in a discussion of baseball.

“You can use so many things in baseball to explain things more easily,” Fricke said. “We like soccer, [Americans] like baseball, and it’s a completely different ballgame. You can really translate that into foreign relations.” [1]

Additional Resources:

Missionary Work

The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The LDS Church on Political Neutrality