Church III, Frank Forrester

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Frank Forrester Church, III

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1956, Frank Church (1924-1984) spent 24 years in Congress as an advocate for progressive causes, including civil rights, equal rights for women, wilderness preservation, and opposition to the Vietnam War. In the mid-1970s he gained notoriety for overseeing a Senate investigation that exposed some of the CIA and FBI's more controversial activities. Church's inquiry paved the way for passage of the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, which requires the agencies to report covert activities to an oversight committee in an effort to curb abuses of power.

Born to Middle-Class, Catholic Family

Frank Forrester Church, III, was born on July 25, 1924, in Boise, Idaho. His pioneering grandfather, raised on the East Coast, had relocated to Idaho at the height of the gold rush that followed the Civil War. Church was the second of two boys born to Frank and Laura Bilderback Church. His parents ran a modest but profitable sporting goods store in Boise. As a child, Church developed an affection for the outdoors, which was later reflected in the environmental legislation he supported. Church's father took him and his brother, Richard, on fishing expeditions and duck hunting trips. The wilderness around them also provided for plenty of swimming and hiking excursions.

As a student, Church impressed teachers with his interest in politics—he read the paper daily and was always eager to discuss current events. In the Frank Church biography Fighting the Odds, classmates described Church as a witty and confident, yet humble peer. “You always felt better being around him,” one classmate recalled. As such, the Church home was the place neighborhood kids came to study, chat and play ping pong.

As an eighth grader, Church wrote an editorial letter to the Boise Capital News, laying out reasons the United States should stay out of the impending war in Europe. He touted the benefits of isolationism and noted that since U.S. territories were not at stake, the United States need not intervene. Church warned that winning the war would cost countless American lives and would not necessarily pave the way for democracy abroad. Skeptical that a 14-year-old could write such an articulate letter, the editor contacted Church's teachers to verify authorship, then printed the letter on the front page.

Intrigued by Politics

With a love for words, an interest in politics, and superb speaking abilities, Church joined the Boise High School debate team, then led it to a state championship. As a junior he won the 1941 American Legion National High School Oratorical Contest with a speech titled “The American Way of Life,” in which he warned against the dangers of economic monopolies and recommended that American freedoms be preserved for future generations. The $4,000 scholarship prize allowed him to attend Stanford University.

During his senior year of high school, Church befriended Bethine Clark, the Democratic governor's daughter, and began hanging out at the governor's mansion. Church's interest in politics—and in the Democratic Party in particular—were born out of a desire to debate his father, a staunch Republican. As noted in Fighting the Odds, Church once said, “I learned all about the Democrats so I could argue with Dad. I ended up by converting myself.”

Church's idealistic views on democracy and reason got him into trouble during his senior year. One evening a fight broke out after a basketball game and a classmate was arrested. Church rushed down to the jail to admonish authorities for violating the boy's civil liberties. Buoyed by his success on the debate team, Church believed he could win any argument. When Church arrived, the police chief grabbed him by the collar and threw him in jail. From behind bars, Church continued his tirade, quoting the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and insisting that his civil rights were being violated. He was freed, along with the other boy, a few hours later.

Battled Cancer

After graduating from high school in 1942, Church attended Stanford University. By then, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States had joined World War II. Church enlisted in the Army and encouraged his friends to do the same. In early 1943 he completed basic training and was eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was deployed to Asia, where he served as a military intelligence officer.

After returning from the war in 1946, Church finished his political science degree at Stanford and married Bethine Clark on June 21, 1947. The newlyweds road-tripped to Mexico, then headed to Boston so Church could start classes at Harvard Law School. That first semester, Church suffered severe back pains, which doctors attributed to long hours spent hunched over books. Church's health continued to deteriorate and he decided to transfer to the Stanford Law School, figuring California's warmer weather might make him feel better. In February of 1949, Church's groin swelled and a surgeon recommended a hernia operation. During the operation, the doctor discovered a cancerous testicular tumor, which he removed along with several lymph nodes.

Doctors told Church the cancer was incurable and gave him six months to live. He and Bethine Church fell into a deep depression—they had just become parents to a baby boy. They contemplated leaving the baby with grandparents in Boise and embarking on one last hurrah to Italy. There, they would drive off a cliff to end it all. A week after the initial diagnosis, another doctor was more optimistic and suggested the cancer might respond to new experimental radiation therapy. For several weeks doctors doused Church's torso daily with radium that burned his flesh and left him so nauseous he dry-heaved relentlessly. At one point, the 6-foot-tall Church was hospitalized and put on a feeding tube because he had dropped to 90 pounds.

Bethine Church read to her husband and helped nurse him back to health. According to Fighting the Odds, Church said that after surviving cancer, he felt compelled to take more chances in life. “I'd had a sentence of death passed upon me—a sentence that had been lifted. I was determined to make my life the better for it—personally, with my wife and children, and professionally in my career.”

Won U.S. Senate Seat

Church finished law school in 1950 and returned to Boise to practice law and teach public speaking at the junior college. Two years later, he ran for a seat in the state legislature, but lost. Undaunted—and eager to take chances—Church set his sights higher and launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1956.

As a virtual unknown who had never held public office, Church faced an uphill battle. He hit the road, shaking some 75,000 hands over the course of the campaign. During one campaign stop, Church spoke to a group of high schoolers and one of the teachers suggested he dust a little grey into his hair to set himself apart from the students. He went on to beat the state's incumbent Republican and become the fifth youngest member in the Senate's history.

Once in Washington, Church befriended Senate Majority Leader and future president Lyndon B. Johnson, helping push through the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Though the legislation dealt primarily with voting rights, it was the first civil rights legislation passed since the Reconstruction legislation that followed the Civil War. A noted voice in the Senate, Church became a national figure at 36 when he delivered the keynote address at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Opposed U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

By the early 1960s, U.S. troops were being sent into Vietnam to shore up the anti-Communist South Vietnamese army, which was locked in battle with North Vietnam. Church was one of the first politicians to protest U.S. involvement in the conflict. In 1965 he gave a speech on the Senate floor titled “Going from Bad to Worse in Vietnam.” As deployment continued, Church began to publicly denounce the administration's insistence on sending U.S. troops to the area.

In November of 1965 the New York Times published a commentary by Church titled “How Many Dominican Republics And Vietnams Can We Take On?.” In the article, Church suggested that the United States should not try to impose a solution to every insurgency abroad. “No nation—not even our own—possesses an arsenal so large, or a treasury so rich, as to damp down the fires of smoldering revolution throughout the whole of the awakening world,” he wrote.

In 1969 Church joined forces with Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky to co-sponsor the Cooper-Church Amendment. This measure prohibited U.S. troop deployment to Cambodia, touching off an extensive filibuster and a six-month debate. Though it eventually passed the Senate, the measure died in the House of Representatives. A watered-down version eventually passed— monumental because it was the first bill to curb presidential powers during a war situation. Church continued to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and in April of 1975 the last U.S. soldiers left Saigon. South Vietnam fell within hours.

During the mid-1970s, Church gained national attention for his involvement in the so-called “Church Committees,” which investigated U.S. intelligence agencies and multinational corporations for abuses of power. In 1975 Church headed the Senate's Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. The committee uncovered assassination plots by the CIA and found that the FBI had harassed dissident groups, conducted break-ins and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. The committee also found evidence of illegal wiretapping. The committee's findings led to the formation of a permanent oversight committee.

In 1976 Church entered the presidential primary, seeking the Democratic Party's nomination. He won primaries in Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, and Montana before dropping out and endorsing former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who went on to win the presidency. Realizing Church was an able diplomat, Carter leaned on him to negotiate relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the late 1970s. In 1979 Church was named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he had aspired to for years.

Lost Senate Seat after 24 Years

As the 1980 elections neared and a wave of conservatism swept the country, Church found his Senate seat in jeopardy. He was placed on the short list of Democratic senators chosen for defeat by the Virginia-based National Conservative Political Action Committee. As a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, Church was an ideal target. Months before the election, the committee launched an “Anybody But Church” ad campaign across Idaho. Some of the accusations leveled against the Senator were erroneous, including one ad that said he voted to increase his pay by $13,000 in 1977. Church actually voted against the increase.

Antiabortion groups also jumped on the bandwagon. Church had a record of opposing abortions and had denied federal funding for the procedure. He did, however, approve of abortion in cases of incest or rape, or when a mother's health was at risk. One antiabortion group, Americans for Life, launched a mail campaign titled “Stop the Baby Killers,” which targeted Church.

Church had a long record of opposing gun control and supporting agricultural interests in Idaho, which pleased constituents. He had also played a pivotal role in ensuring that Idaho's water was not diverted to surrounding states. In the end, these actions were not enough to carry him through, and he lost to GOP candidate Steve Symms by less than one percent of the vote. Analysts at the time said that Church was a capable politician whose only downfall was being too liberal for the conservative state he represented. After his defeat, Church practiced international law in Washington, D.C.

Died of Cancer

Four years after his election defeat, Church became ill with a pancreatic tumor and died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, on April 7, 1984. He was 59. Survivors included his wife and two sons, F. Forrest Church and Chase Clark Church. In an effort to commemorate Church's years of service in the U.S. Senate, Congress in 1984 designated a 2.2-million-acre area of land the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area in his home state of Idaho.


Ashby, LeRoy, and Rod Gramer, Fighting the Odds: The Life of Senator Frank Church, Washington State University Press, 1994.

Boise State University Library Special Collections Department, The Frank Church Papers, Boise State University, 1988.

Hall, Bill, Frank Church, D.C., & Me, Washington State University Press, 1995.


New York Times, November 7, 1956; May 25, 1960; November 28, 1965; December 27, 1979; April 8, 1984.

Wall Street Journal, August 28, 1979.

Washington Post, April 8, 1984.

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Church III, Frank Forrester

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