Congressman Gary Palmer’s American Dream
Congressman Gary Palmer took the oath of office for his second term representing Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives earlier this year. As the country adjusts to policies under the new Trump administration, he will continue to serve as the voice of Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, Bibb, Chilton, and Coosa counties in Washington, D.C. A Christian since childhood, Palmer has used politics as a platform to demonstrate respect, conservative values, and the exciting realities of the American dream.
A native of Hackleburg in northwest Alabama, Palmer says growing up in a rural part of the state meant playing in his grandpa’s barn with his brothers and the boys that lived down the road. He hunted in the woods and worked in the gardens on the family’s 40-acre farm, raising cows and picking strawberries. Palmer’s father had grown up during the Great Depression and dropped out of school in the eighth grade, so when Palmer made education a priority and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1977, he was the first member of his family to receive a college degree. “For me it was an opportunity to open the door for the rest of my family,” he remembers, noting that his younger siblings followed his lead and went into careers in banking and engineering, then his mother went back to school as well. “My mom had finished high school but always wanted to be a nurse. She went to community college and got a nursing degree. It was a transformative moment not just for me but for my whole family.”
While at Alabama, Palmer was a walk-on wide receiver for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. He still carries with him the lessons he learned on the field. “I remember us losing the first game of the year in 1975 to Missouri; it was on a Monday night, and it was a team that I think had only won one game the year before.” The three-hour scrimmage Coach Bryant put the team through the following weekend was one of the hottest, toughest football practices Palmer had ever attended. The turf burn on his forearm left a scar that didn’t fade for 15 years. “We went undefeated the rest of the year. Losing that first game illustrates how you’ve always got to be prepared. You’ve always got to do your best, and you can’t take anything for granted. Losing that game probably cost us a shot at the National Championship.”
Palmer earned a B.S. in Operations Management and worked in the private sector for 12 years before attending a summer Counseling Enrichment Program at Focus on the Family that inspired him to found the Alabama Family Alliance. Now the Alabama Policy Institute, the non-profit research organization is a “conservative think tank” that informs Alabama citizens on legislative issues being debated in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., and challenges public policy with research, analysis and recommended solutions.
Palmer’s involvement with Focus on the Family also gave him the chance to meet American philosopher and Christian author Dallas Willard. Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines made an impact on his commitment to spiritual practices. “A lot of people are disciplined in what they eat and their exercise regiment and it’s all about the body and health—I’m all for that, I do that myself—but there’s also spiritual disciplines that help develop the whole person,” he says. Palmer writes devotionals based on personal reflection and Bible study and says that while they are mostly for his personal benefit, he shares them via e-mail with his peers.
Elected to the House of Representatives for his first term in 2014, Palmer says faith directly overlaps with his duties as a Congressman because faith defines his character, and character influences every decision he makes. Some people expressed surprise when he shook hands with Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. He says simple courtesies are a matter of living out his faith. “It’s never wrong to show respect. It speaks more about your character how you treat people you do not necessarily agree with or do not like than it does how you treat people you do agree with or do like. In politics, we need to pay more attention to [the fact that] we have an obligation, particularly as a Christian—especially as a Christian—to treat people with respect.”
Citing the 1 Corinthians mandate that believers are to be the aroma of Christ, Palmer says after a particularly tough meeting with some of the Democrats in Washington, D.C., he recently reminded another member of Congress that their goal should be calm collaboration. “I said that Romans teaches us that as much as it is possible for us, we are to be at peace with all men. An aroma is not a stench—it’s pleasant.”
Reflecting on how far he’s come since his boyhood days in Hackleburg, Palmer says the opportunity the U.S. affords its citizens is perhaps unmatched by any other country in the world. “There is very good ingenuity among the American people. They are hard workers. They are confident workers, and I see that in the people of Alabama. They are good neighbors,” he says. “Here’s a guy that grew up pretty much dirt poor with a dad who was a logger with an eighth grade education, and now he is in Congress. I don’t know that there’s any country in the world where that could happen. And I’m not the only story like that up here [in Washington, D.C.]. That’s one of the beautiful things about this country is that if we’re willing to work hard, we’re disciplined, we’re willing to make some sacrifices, we have patience—we can go as far as our abilities will take us.” Palmer is quick to point out those abilities come from God and he leans on God daily for direction. “Prayer is like breathing,” he says. “It’s really been helpful to me knowing that my future is not in my hands or any human hands. It’s in His hands.”
- Camille Smith Platt