Religion, Politics, and Other Unmentionables

Published October 11, 2010

National Review Online

Two former aides in the George W. Bush administration have collaborated again, this time on the new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era.

Michael Gerson is former policy adviser and chief speechwriter to President Bush. Peter Wehner is former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. Gerson is now a nationally syndicated columnist and Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Wehner talks City of Man, St. Paul, Jesus as philosopher, and the fierce urgency right now with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Has the City of Man rejected the City of God?

PETER WEHNER: Well, the City of Man will never fully reflect the values of the City of God — and in some instances it will actively oppose them. That has been part of Christian teaching since Jesus walked the earth. Those who attempt to usher in the Kingdom of God in this world have often left it in much worse shape than they found it. We should reject utopianism in all its variations and manifestations; it often leads to shattered hopes and shattered lives, to prison camps and gulags.

At the same time, some forms of government express principles that more closely approximate the values of the City of God than do others. Our book is based on an explicit assumption: Politics matters because political acts have profound human consequences. It makes a huge difference whether people live in freedom or servitude, whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity.

So the two cities are always in tension — and the challenge is to fight for principles that further human flourishing and human excellence without succumbing to fanciful hopes and utopian dreams.

LOPEZ: Why is the City of Man relevant to someone following politics in October 2010?

WEHNER: Because the relationship between faith and politics is a perennial one; it mattered at the American founding and it matters to this day. It’s a topic every generation needs to come to terms with. And the outcome of that grappling can have profound effects, for good or for ill.

I also believe it’s important for people of faith to think through first principles, such as what the role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. We devote an entire chapter to that subject, which certainly has bearing on politics in 2010.

In politics, it’s quite easy to become reactive, to deal with issues as they arise. Having served in the Reagan administration and the Bush White House, I understand all that. You don’t have the luxury of conducting college seminars when you’re at the center of political power. You have to deal with events as they come.

At the same time, it’s important to step back and to think through, in a careful way, core principles — for example, to think about how order, justice, virtue, and prosperity might manifest themselves in the era in which we live. And for Christians it’s important to reflect on what Augustine called a “theology of history,” which helps us place ourselves and our political debates within the right context.

LOPEZ: How much of City of Man comes from lived political experience, especially in the White House?

WEHNER: A fair amount of it does, actually. Mike and I have been close to political power, and I think we can testify to both the good and the bad of politics, to its possibilities and its limitations.

A quick story that bears on this. We were working in the White House when the 9/11 attacks occurred; in fact, I attended the 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting that morning and sent an e-mail to Mike reporting on what transpired. I began my e-mail this way: “Very little of note happened.” Four minutes later American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We use that episode to segue into a discussion on why the moral duties placed on individuals are, in important respects, different from the ones placed on the state. None of us was in a mood to turn the other cheek in the aftermath of 9/11 — and we explain why that didn’t violate our consciences as Christians.

I want to add one other thing: For me, it’s been an ongoing challenge to engage in spirited and intense debates, ones that I care deeply about, without dehumanizing the opposition or becoming uncivil. I’ve tried to stay on the right side of that line over the years, but it can be tough — and I’m sure some of those on the receiving end of my commentaries would argue that from time to time I’ve crossed the line. I’ll leave that to others to decide; my point is simply that the temptation is real and that, as a Christian, you need to try to guard against it. We’re candid about that in City of Man, and we offer some specific thoughts on how to deal with it.

LOPEZ: “Christians have often done politics poorly. So do most other groups in our democracy. The answer is to do politics better. Political engagement is not a luxury. The fighting of raging fires requires not contemplation but a fire extinguisher. Urgency can involve errors, and these should be admitted and corrected. But, as G. K. Chesterton said, ‘Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.'” Did you two have anything specific in mind when you wrote that?

WEHNER: We did. James Davison Hunter wrote a recent, well-received book, To Change the World, in which he argues that Christians should be “silent for a season” and “learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.”

Professor Hunter is a serious scholar and a thoughtful man; I agree with many parts of his book. But I think he’s quite wrong in counseling Christians to be “silent for a season.” Mike and I argue that at any given moment in a democracy, great issues of justice and morality are at stake. The idea that people of faith can take a sabbatical from politics to collect their thoughts and lick their wounds is a form of irresponsibility. It is, in fact, an idea that could only be embraced by comfortable Christians. Especially for the poor and the vulnerable, there is no sabbatical from the failures of politics.

LOPEZ: What’s “the new era”? What marks its beginning? What are the signs of it?

WEHNER: In important respects, the old model, as embodied in the religious right, is passing away. Some of its key figures — people such as D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell — have literally passed from the scene. Others, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, are less influential than they were. So there is a generational shift that’s occurring.

But we also know from survey data that many Christians who are politically and theologically conservative have turned against the brand of politics practiced by religious-right leaders. Many conservative Christians are looking for a new model of social engagement; they want their leaders to display a lighter touch, a less desperate and anxious spirit, and a more gracious tone.

Focus on the Family is an interesting illustration of this point. Jim Daly has replaced James Dobson — and Daly has said that, for him, it’s more about having a conversation with people than it is confrontation with them. There’s certainly a difference in approach between Daly and Dobson.

LOPEZ: So what is “the religious right” today? Does it exist? Should it exist?

WEHNER: It’s probably best to disaggregate several things. Conservative Christians remain politically potent and engaged. We don’t see any signs of a full-scale withdrawal from politics and the culture. Yet a redefinition of sorts is occurring. Institutionally and generationally, we’re seeing a passing of the baton. Evangelical Christians who share many of the stands of the “religious right” on policy matters don’t want to associated with the tone and approach we saw during its heyday. They don’t like it when people say, as one prominent pastor did, that “what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians.” Many of them are uncomfortable with a Christian “scorecard.” And they certainly don’t like it when Jerry Falwell declared, with Pat Robertson, that 9/11 was God’s judgment on America. That is a theological error, a category error, that we think is significant and, for many people, alienating. Now, many of these things happened years ago — but over time these things add up.

LOPEZ: What exactly is political theology? And whose political theology rules?

WEHNER: It’s a shorthand description for how people of faith view politics. As for whose political theology rules: It’s an open question, which is one of the reasons Mike and I wrote City of Man. We wanted to offer up our views on what some of the precepts and principles ought to be in sorting through that question. We haven’t written a definitive account by any means — but we do think we’ve laid out some useful thoughts on how religious believers can better understand their obligations as citizens of a modern constitutional republic.

LOPEZ: I’ve seen City of Man described as an evangelical book, but you sure do quote a lot of Catholics. To what extent is it a book for anyone who takes religion seriously?

WEHNER: We sure do quote a lot of Catholics, and that’s not accidental. There are obviously important theological differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. But the Catholic Church has a great deal to teach evangelicals when it comes to how to engage politics and the culture — to do so in a way that’s both effective and faithful.

Among the things evangelicals can learn from Catholics is that instead of serially reacting to issues as they arise, it’s crucial to stand back and analyze how we should approach politics based on a cohesive Christian worldview. Catholicism has helped deepen our nation’s understanding about the proper role of government based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity with the poor. The encyclicals of John Paul II were extraordinarily impressive documents, both theologically and politically. They had a formative influence on Mike and on me. Our view is that the Catholic Church, while a flawed institution, has shown an impressive understanding of the proper role of government and the relationship between Christianity and politics.

LOPEZ: “Politics and governing are fraught with temptations and dangers. There are plenty of people who bring dishonor to the enterprise. But there is also something ennobling about it when done properly.” I couldn’t help but think of these coming elections when reading that. Does the Tea Party get that in a renewing way?

WEHNER: I hope so. The Tea Party has been a positive and powerful force in American politics. It’s evidence of a broader, organic, and powerful uprising against contemporary liberalism. The Tea Party movement is composed of people who want to stop, and then roll back, the Obama agenda. And I think that’s all to the good. Skepticism toward government is warranted and legitimate; that’s especially the case now.

At the same time, contempt and outright hostility toward government can be unwarranted and counterproductive. We’ve seen government policies succeed on an array of issues, from crime and welfare to progress on education to the surge in Iraq. It was Burke, who in many ways was the founder of modern conservatism, who said that God instituted government as a means of human improvement. He was also a great advocate of reform — and a great champion of political parties, by the way. The Tea Party movement would be helped if the spirit of Burke animated it.

LOPEZ: Is there some kind of awakening going on?

WEHNER: I don’t think so. What we are seeing is actually a fascinating phenomenon: Theologically conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing at the very same time that the number of secular Americans — those who claim not to believe in God or at least to have no religious preference — is also rising. This makes for a complicated situation — rising secularism and rising orthodoxy. Tim Keller — an exceptional minister, an outstanding theological mind, and good friend of ours — writes about this in the foreword to our book.

LOPEZ: You write an awful lot about family. On one level are you tempted to get everyone to stop debating politics and watching Fox News and take care of that instead? Because only then will we get the rest right?

WEHNER: No; in fact, we argue more nearly the opposite. Obviously it’s crucial to strengthen the institution of the family; so many contemporary social problems are the product of the breakup of the American family. But one of the ways you ameliorate the problems caused by family breakdown is through politics, through wise government policies.

One of the arguments we make in City of Man is that public policies in the area of crime, welfare, and drug use helped improve the lives of people in ways that were significant. New York City under Mayor Giuliani was transformed in important ways. And it didn’t happen by accident or by disengaging; it happened because lawmakers put into effect policies that made a world of difference. Wise reforms can be a moral enterprise.

This works the other way as well. The first “no fault” divorce law was signed into law in 1970 by Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California. Within just seven years, 47 out of 50 states had repealed fault grounds for divorce. This amounted to a revolution in social policy; in less than a decade, the entire legal divorce structure was fundamentally changed. The way Americans viewed divorce changed as well. Prof. William Galston, a top domestic adviser to President Clinton and a man for whom I have great regard, concluded that the switch in the law led to a measurable increase in the divorce rate. So laws matter and politics matter, including when it comes to the family.

LOPEZ: How has the abortion debate changed? How might it continue to?

WEHNER: It has, and in City of Man we argue that this ranks among the great achievements of the religious right. After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the New York Times editorialized that the abortion debate was now settled. It absolutely was not, in large measure because of the religious right. Given the cultural forces arrayed against pro-life Americans — from the legal system to elite culture, to a broad social ethic of autonomy and convenience — this is a remarkable achievement. Consider this: In 2009, more than 50 percent of Americans called themselves “pro-life” — the first time a majority of adults in America identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question 15 years ago.

This debate will continue to favor those championing a culture of life, in part because science and medical technology are friends of the pro-life movement. It’s impossible to see a sonogram and deny the humanity of an unborn child.

LOPEZ: How does the Left misunderstand religion and politics?

WEHNER: They assume religion is, in every instance, a negative influence on politics. That’s just empirically wrong. And many of those comprising the Left not only disdain religion in general and Christianity in particular, they believe religious arguments and motivations are themselves illegitimate. They argue they ought to have no place in democratic discourse. This view would of course eviscerate some of the most powerful and important arguments that can be made on behalf of human rights and human dignity. Can you imagine the abolition and civil-rights movements — or the Declaration of Independence — stripped of religious influence?

LOPEZ: Having some Washington experience as you do: What’s the best recipe for getting the religion and politics mix right, in a real, practical way?

WEHNER: It’s a complicated question. The short answer, I think, is historical awareness, Biblical and constitutional grounding, reflection, and study, and a willingness to examine and re-examine our views in light of shifting circumstances. And let me speak for myself here: It’s important to approach this issue with the recognition that my faith is more important than my politics; doing so helps prevent religion from being used as a means to serve narrow political ends.

The author Sheldon Vanauken was caught up in the antiwar movement in the 1960s. Christ, he wrote, would surely want him to oppose what appeared to Vanauken to be an unjust war. “But the Movement,” he said, “whatever its ideals, did a good deal of hating.” And that isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind. The mortal danger of social action, Vanauken warned, was making God secondary, which in the end is to make Him nothing at all. Those words, that warning, have stayed with me from the moment I read them.

LOPEZ: Are there any politicians on the scene now who especially seem to get this right?

WEHNER: Let me mention two individuals for whom I have worked: George W. Bush and William Bennett.

President Bush showed deep human sympathy for those suffering and in need — and he used the power of his office to do something about it. I think history will say about Bush that he liberated millions of people in foreign lands and, through his AIDS and malaria initiatives, saved millions of lives. As president, he respected different religious faiths and understood their power to do good even as he was deeply committed to pluralism and tolerance. He showed that in the aftermath of 9/11, with his outreach to Muslim Americans. And George W. Bush is also a man of grace. When a senior aide left the White House and later wrote a book that was a betrayal, the president pulled aside his key advisers and told them to show grace, not retribution, for this particular person. Not many presidents — in fact, not many individuals — would have done such a thing.

Bill Bennett has been a mentor and close personal friend since the 1980s. He’s a deeply committed conservative, as you know — but when Pat Robertson sent out a letter in 1987, declaring “The Christians have won!” Bill rightly criticized Robertson. He knew this was dangerous stuff. Bill’s a man of great intellect and learning — and political courage, too. Over the years he’s made powerful and compelling arguments, informed by his Catholic faith, in defense of tradition and virtue. He’s withstood withering criticisms. But he never bent; he held shape.

Neither man is perfect; none of us is. But I’ve been able to observe them up close in some pretty challenging circumstances — and I’ve learned a great deal from them. In some respects they’re very different individuals. But I admire the heck out of both men. And they walked the faith/politics tightrope pretty well.

LOPEZ: Why are you so fond of the Founders in this respect?

WEHNER: Because they provided brilliant insights into these matters. What emerged from their thinking was this central insight: While government ought to be respectful of religion, it should not get into the business of endorsing or favoring one religion over another. America was not founded as a Christian nation precisely because the Founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since people are autonomous moral beings created in God’s image, freedom of conscience is essential to their dignity. At least where the federal government was concerned, the Founders asserted that citizens should be subject to God and their conscience, not to the state. Historically, this disestablishment of religion has served the Christian faith well, preserving it from being corrupted and tainted by political power.

LOPEZ: Why did you find yourselves writing a lot about St. Paul?

WEHNER: More than any other New Testament figure, he laid out a Christian view of the purpose of government — to restrain evil and promote justice. Rulers are God’s servants, St. Paul wrote; civil government itself was established by God. Christ Himself did not lay out a political philosophy per se; it was left to St. Paul, among others, to interpret Christian ideals in the context of his time, which of course was during the reign of the Roman empire. As a Christian you cannot engage the issue of politics and the role of government without dealing with St. Paul’s thinking.

LOPEZ: Did George Bush get a bad rap for naming Jesus as his favorite philosopher?

WEHNER: I think so. His answer was much more personal than theological. But Jesus articulated a view of ethics, human nature, and human dignity that left an important, and I think quite positive, imprint on President Bush — to say nothing of the Western political tradition. The words and example of Jesus helped shape President Bush’s views in valuable ways. You could do a whole lot worse than Jesus as your favorite philosopher, that’s for sure.

LOPEZ: Who is yours? You quote more than a few in the book.

WEHNER: I’m partial to Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, and Edmund Burke — each of whom was not strictly a philosopher; they were also statesmen. They were individuals of action as well as reflection. And they each, in their own ways, based their political views on a deep understanding of the human condition and the importance of justice. “Justice is the end of government,” Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers. That’s right — and figuring out how to advance justice in the real world, in the rough and tumble of politics, is a difficult and endlessly fascinating thing. I also think Martin Luther King Jr. was one of our nation’s most eloquent and effective advocates for the American ideal. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a masterpiece of American political and moral thought.

LOPEZ: Did you and Gerson disagree at all during the course of writing this book?

WEHNER: Not really. Mike and I are very close friends, and we were colleagues in the White House. In our political commentaries, we sometimes emphasize different things and come at things from slightly different perspectives. But our views align for the most part — and in writing this book, we didn’t encounter disagreements of any sort, really. That may be in part because this is a subject we’ve talked about and wrestled with many times over the years. I hope we’ve refined each other’s thinking during that time. And Mike has been a person who I’ve often gone to for wisdom and counsel on these matters, not to mention other matters, and he’s never let me down.

LOPEZ: Why is it a worthwhile and important book now? Who is the audience for this?

WEHNER: First and foremost, it’s addressed to people who care about what will emerge in the wake of the religious right — people who are interested in the principles that ought to guide our engagement. How can religious people exercise influence while maintaining their integrity? What tone should they be known for? Which causes and issues, both at home and abroad, ought to be part of the new agenda? Those are the kinds of issues we take up — and we think they’ll interest readers. But more broadly our audience is anyone interested in how political theology affects American politics.

LOPEZ: Is there anything in this book that’s controversial? That you hope will get debated or otherwise talked about in the short or long term?

WEHNER: I suppose that we learn from some of the mistakes of the religious right.

Mike and I argue that despite some significant contributions — the role it played in ending evangelical Christianity’s political isolation, its strong stand on behalf of the unborn, and its firm support for Israel, among others — the religious right committed some serious theological errors. They include the belief that America is the “new Israel” — a covenant community on the model of ancient Israel. We disagree with those who believe that the Scriptures provide a governing blueprint. The religious right was also seen by many as an appendage to a political party, in a way that hurt Christianity itself. Beyond that, the apocalyptic tone sometimes employed by leading religious and political leaders revealed, I think, a belief that everything hinged on the success or failure of a particular political movement. In 2008, an influential religious and political figure put it this way: “The future of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance….Will they inherit an America based on our Judeo-Christian heritage or will they inherit a secular, godless society where individual responsibility and freedom have disappeared?”

One of the things I’ve learned from wiser people than myself is that, as Christians, our job is to be faithful, not necessarily to be successful. That ultimately rests with the Lord, who is the author of history and not indifferent to what unfolds. I’ll grant you that this isn’t always easy to remember; in the intensity of the moment, our vision can become blurred. We can lose our way. And we can hold too tightly to the things of this world. But if we can keep our eyes fixed on the true object of our faith, we can avoid a lot of errors and missteps along the way. And from time to time we can do some real good, too.

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