Retired U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Southern Baptist, is being remembered for his Christian faith, pro-life advocacy, campaign against government waste and friendships with political opponents following his March 28 death.
Coburn, 72, who died after a prolonged struggle with prostate cancer, served Oklahoma as a Republican member of the Senate from 2005 to 2015. He retired with two years remaining in his second six-year term. He previously had served as a U.S. representative from 1995 to 2001, keeping his promise to step down after three two-year terms.
The family announced Coburn’s death in a statement which said, “Because of his strong faith, he rested in the hope found in John 11:25, where Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, will live, even though they die.’ Today he lives in heaven.”
With his wife Carolyn, Coburn had been a member of South Tulsa Baptist Church for about four years. He was ordained previously as a deacon in another Southern Baptist church.
Eric Costanzo, lead pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, described Coburn as “a true man of God” with “integrity off the charts.”
He was “the most faithful of followers of Christ that I could imagine,” Costanzo told Baptist Press (BP) in a telephone interview, adding Coburn had “a great legacy of influence.”
Coburn was “somebody that I just trusted very much in terms of his counsel,” he said. “And he made himself available to me at a moment’s notice.”
The Coburns were leaders in their Sunday school class, and he taught the class at times, Costanzo said.
Coburn was a physician before his election to the House and continued to serve in that role while in the House and afterward. He delivered more than 4,000 babies.
Southern Baptist national and state leaders commended Coburn and his legacy.
Brent Leatherwood – director of strategic partnerships for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a one-time senior legislative aide to former Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla. – said in written comments for BP:
“During my time serving on Capitol Hill, few voices carried as much weight as Sen. Tom Coburn. As a Southern Baptist deacon, medical doctor and public servant, he leaves a legacy that beckons us to move beyond mere civility to kindness, to love our neighbors, even, and maybe especially, those with whom we disagree politically. We join the Coburn family, his friends and the Oklahomans he served in mourning his passing.”
Hance Dilbeck, executive director-treasurer of Oklahoma Baptists, told BP in written remarks, “Tom Coburn served Oklahoma well and with integrity. Whether in his medical practice, his service in Washington or at his home church, Sen. Coburn led by example. We are honored to call him an Oklahoma Baptist.”
Anthony Jordan, who retired in 2018 after 22 years as executive director-treasurer of the state convention, said in a written statement for BP, “Sen. Coburn was a man of integrity, conservative family-centered values, and a consummate Christian gentleman. I greatly appreciated his clear and uncompromising commitment to the unborn. His strong voice will be greatly missed.”
The Southern Baptist who succeeded Coburn in the Senate praised him.
Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla., who won a 2014 election after Coburn announced his retirement, described the late senator as “a tremendous leader” and “great friend.”
“He was unwavering in his conservative values, but he had deep and meaningful friendships with people from all political and personal backgrounds,” Lankford said in a written statement. “He was truly respected by people on both sides of the aisle.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered flags in the state to be flown at half-mast in Coburn’s honor March 30. “Even in the midst of this challenging time, his life of service to Oklahomans and lessons will not be forgotten,” Stitt said on Twitter.
Coburn’s pro-life convictions were especially demonstrated in his late 1990s efforts in the House to prevent the abortion drug RU 486 from being introduced in the United States. The House twice passed legislation by Coburn to bar the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from spending federal funds on the testing, development or approval of any abortion-inducing drug. The Senate refused both times to approve the measures, and the FDA approved RU 486 in 2000.
“Unborn children had a dedicated defender in Tom Coburn,” said Tony Lauinger, vice president of National Right to Life and chairman of Oklahomans for Life. “There was no issue on which he placed a higher priority than the protection of the youngest and most helpless little members of our human family.”
Coburn tenaciously sought to bring federal spending under control, opposing government waste and earmarks, spending designations supported by members of Congress for projects in their districts. His efforts – which landed him the nickname “Dr. No” – displeased not only Democrats but members of his own party.
He worked with Democrats, however, on pieces of legislation and made friends across the aisle. Coburn and future President Barack Obama both entered the Senate in 2005 and became friends, though Coburn often opposed Obama’s policies in the White House.
When Coburn announced his retirement in 2014, Obama expressed gratitude for their friendship, saying in a White House statement, “[E]ven though we haven’t always agreed politically, we’ve found ways to work together – to make government more transparent, cut down on earmarks, and fight to reduce wasteful spending and make our tax system fairer.”
In addition to his wife of 51 years, Coburn is survived by their daughters Sarah, Katie and Callie; and nine grandchildren, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Additional reporting by Brian Hobbs, editor of The Baptist Messenger.)