Michael Gerson is something of a political anomaly. On the one hand, Gerson is a conservative Christian who served as George W. Bush's chief speechwriter and senior aide from 2001 to 2006. On the other hand, he is now an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and has been critical of both the religious right and the Tea Party.
A reflective man who has made a living carefully weighing words, Gerson now seeks to dissect the religious political movement in America in hopes of paving a new way forward. His new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, has created a stir among both religious and secular leaders. So I decided to spend a moment with Gerson to collect his insights on the future of faith in the public square.
JM: You begin your book with a critique of the religious right pointing out that their "biggest problem" has "not been tonal or strategic but rather theological." How specifically has poor theology harmed the religious right movement?
MG: The religious right had serious problems that undermined its effectiveness, even among some who share its values. It's often negative, desperate, and apocalyptic. Theologically, the identification of America with the treatment and promises given to ancient Israel in the Bible has been a mistake. The notion of corporate blessing and punishment that was applied to the covenant community of Israel has been applied to America by people like Jerry Falwell. It's a confusion of modern nation-states with Biblical Israel. That is not only off-putting to a lot of people, it is bad theology.
JM: The next generation of Christians seems to be tired of the divisive partisanship and several markers indicate that though they remain engaged politically, they are abandoning the culture wars. Is this an accurate assessment?
MG: Yes. The whole language and approach of the culture wars has been largely discredited. Basically because it represents a brand of political engagement that is narrow and negative. When evangelicals reengaged in politics in the 1970s, it was largely a response to the perceived aggressions of modernity, whether it was prayer in public schools or Roe v. Wade. These aggressions were not imaginary; they were real trends. There are a number of people now--particularly young people--who want to step back and look for an approach that is not merely reactionary but is founded upon first principles.
JM: A lot has been made in recent years about so-called "young evangelicals." They are more politically diverse, they weren't as supportive of Bush as their parents were, and many voted for Obama in 2004. How do you see this group shaping Christian engagement with politics in the future?
MG: I've spent some time on Christian and religious college campuses. I do see a significant discontent with the model of social engagement of the religious right. When you ask for their model of social engagement they often say "Bono" or "Rick Warren." People are looking for a different model. But you have to qualify that in two ways. First, I don't see a large shift on moral issues such as abortion. There seems to be stability on these key issues. Second, evangelicals remain the most loyal element of the Republican coalition. The model of the religious right is passing but it doesn't seem to indicate a major ideological realignment among evangelicals.
JM: In addition to this generational shift, the religious right seems to be in something of a political vacuum. Do you see the future of Christian political engagement in jeopardy?
MG: I see the future of Christian political engagement in transition. You definitely have a passing of an older generation of leaders with a broad discontent with that model. In the book, we call it "a plastic moment," and it is critical. It's critical because if you introduce errors in the beginning of this transition, it could be bad down the road.
JM: Scholars like James Davison Hunter have argued that the way to really change the culture isn't politics. It is to move upstream in culture and shape the way people think and see the world. What do you make of this argument?
MG: I don't advocate for a purely political approach to changing culture, but I have at least three problems with the Hunter critique. The first is the nature of law. While it is true that culture is often upstream of politics, it is also true that politics is often upstream of culture. A good example of this is the civil rights movement. Politics in many situations shape social consciousness in that the law often creates expectations of acceptable behavior.
A second objection is that at any given time in history, there are great moral issues at stake that can't be ignored just because people are tired. Right now, we have a million people dying each year because of malaria, a completely preventable disease. We have the ability to deal with it, and it is a political issue, and we should do something about it.
A third objection is that in a democracy, participation is a part of self-government and citizenship. We don't undertake it because we have utopian visions of the future. We do it because it is a part of our faithful witness to culture. It's not an option that depends on our mood.
JM: You've been critical of the Tea Party. You've said they have a misguided theology. But many Christians support this movement. Why are you so skeptical?
MG: My view on the Tea Party is mixed. Much of Tea Party activism is a natural and justified reaction to the massive expansion of the government in recent years. As Christians, we share concerns on debt, deficits, and spending. My concern with the Tea Party comes in specific areas. There is a difference between skepticism of government and disdain for government. We can't allow a justified skepticism for government to become a disdain for government, which is not a biblical approach. They also seem to assert an unfair, over-broad critique of Islam and misguided positions on immigration. We must confront the excesses of the Tea Party movement.
JM: There is a big debate about the founding of our nation. Some evangelicals have said for some time that we were founded as a Christian nation while others say we're a secular nation. Still others, like Q founder Gabe Lyons, have tried to forge a middle way saying our founders were influenced by their Christian ideals but made room for pluralism. Who is right?
MG: America is not a Christian nation. Precisely because it is founded on both Jewish and Christian ideas of human rights and dignity. It is precisely because of this anthropology that they didn't want the state infringing on matters of conscience. They weren't secularists or sectarians, but in between. So I guess I would identify most with the middle ground approach. This is our founder's vision--principled pluralism.
JM: Newsweek reported this year that with the influx of Tea Party candidates to Washington and the release of President Bush's new autobiography, Americans may get nostalgic for Bush. They may begin to rethink his legacy. What will be the legacy of the Bush Presidency, in your opinion?
MG: I know George Bush well, and I know him to be a man of principle who faced a very difficult time. Usually, history treats men of principle well. I'm pretty confident about that. Truman is a great example. He left office with a harsh public judgment particularly over the Korean War, but two things happened. First, Americans realized that he was a man of principle and they respect that. Second, he proved to be right on many things. I think the first is true of Bush and the second, I believe will also be true regarding the war on terror. People will realize that he took the most serious things most seriously.