Friday Five Interview – Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner

By Daniel Darling

Today I’m highly honored to have two distinguished men stop by the blog for this very special Friday Five interview. We’re less than two weeks before the midterm elections and so thoughtful people of faith on both sides of the political divide will go to the polls and help shape their government. So I thought I’d bring a little perspective to bear from two men who have been in the arena.

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner are both veterans of Washington, D.C. and most recently the Bush White House. They recently released a fantastic new book, City of Man, published by Moody Publishers. You can read my review here.

Michael Gerson worked closely with President George W. Bush to express in memorable speeches the Nation’s response to the events of 9/11, and then to define and explain the unfolding War on Terror. He is recognized as one of the key intellectual architects of the Bush presidency, particularly on the issues of compassionate conservatism at home and the freedom agenda abroad. He is also respected as an advocate for the poor and suffering, focusing on issues from AIDS, to malaria, to genocide, to global development.

Michael is a graduate of Wheaton College. Prior to his work in the White House, Michael worked for  Senator Dan Coats, Senator Bob Dole, was a senior policy advisor for The Heritage Foundation, wrote for U.S. News and World Report, and also worked with Chuck Colson.

Currently, Gerson is member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a columnist for the Washington Post, and is an advisor to the One Campaign.

Five Questions with Michael Gerson:

1) City of Man is a very thoughtful, important work. How did this book come to be?

In the short term, it is the result of a couple of conversations my co-author, Pete Wehner and I had in 2009. But it’s also the result of a lifetime of thinking about the subject of Christianity and politics. I attended Wheaton College, where this issue came up fairly often, as you might imagine. And I’ve had a set of diverse, interesting jobs over the years, having worked for a religious non-profit group, in the media, and in the legislative and executive branches of government. So I felt like I had a perspective to bring, a story to tell. And City of Man is the result of it.

2) In City of Man, you lay out guiding principles for Christian civic engagement. You also assert that while life and marriage remain paramount, evangelicals seems to be broadening their portfolio of important issues. Why is that?

We argue in the book that the religious right was in large measure a defensive movement; that it, it was an understandable reaction against a series of aggressive steps by government to reshape the laws of our land, most especially on the issue of abortion. But the religious right’s agenda was largely determined by those on the left. What we’re seeing now are people stepping back and considering first principles.

They’re engaging in a period of self-examination and self-reflection. They’re asking, for example, what are the causes that may advance human rights and the human good beyond what is known as “culture war” issues?

Out of this has emerged a strong interest in issues such as religious freedom, preventing genocide, and slowing the spread of AIDS and malaria. These haven’t replaced the importance of life and marriage for evangelical Christians — but it’s enlarged the scope of concerns.

3) You argue that Christians must be winsome and kind even as they firmly stand for principle. It seems so easy to get sucked into the negativity of the campaign season. But do this generation of evangelicals seem more balanced than the previous generation of culture warriors?

There’s no question we’re seeing a significant shift in leadership and tone; people are drawn much more to the model of engagement as exemplified by Rick Warren and Tim Keller. What Pete and I argue is that evangelical Christians are looking for leaders in politics who are principled but not breathless, candid but not apocalyptic, and who don’t seem angry at the world and their opponents, who understand that honorable people can bring different perspectives to an array of matters.

Particularly in the case of younger evangelicals, they hold to a set of conservative convictions while being discontented with tone that characterized much of the religious right. They’re looking for something different and something better.

4) You were the chief White House speechwriter for much of President George W. Bush’s presidency, with an eyewitness view to history. What impact do you think your evangelical faith had on your ability to help shape the President’s words?

It helped, I think, that my faith and President Bush’s faith are similar. We shared a general perspective on politics that was informed by faith. This became most obvious in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11, when the president had to speak words that helped comfort a wounded nation. A faith perspective becomes most important during times of tragedy, in order to assure people that suffering has some meaning, that the universe is not an empty, echoing void, that there is a purpose behind events even if we do not know what they might be. And the president’s faith, and mine, was a key factor and force in his decision to promote the AIDS initiative, the largest program in history to fight a single disease. A recent study at the University of British Columbia found that the AIDS initiative saved more than a million lives in just its first three years. That’s something I’m enormously proud of — and it’s the result, in part, of the president’s religious faith and the moral commitments that flowed from it.

5) It’s no secret that life in the White is long, stressful, and takes a huge toll on a person and their family. I’m guessing you’re glad to be out of that arena.

There’s no question that life in the White House is stressful, but it is work that also has a purpose. It was an intense, engaging, and invigorating period.  I left tired but not disillusioned. And one of the purposes of the book it to relate our experiences to others, and to tell young people in particular that politics can be a noble profession and a way to serve others.

Peter Wehner, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Mr. Wehner served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations prior to becoming deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush in 2001. In 2002, he was asked to head the Office of Strategic Initiatives, where he generated policy ideas, reached out to public intellectuals, published op-eds and essays, and provided counsel on a range of domestic and international issues. Prior to joining the Bush Administration, Wehner was executive director for policy for Empower America, a conservative public-policy organization. Mr. Wehner also served as a special assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and, before that, as a speechwriter for then-Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.

Mr. Wehner writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues. Since leaving the White House in 2007 he has written for Commentary, The Weekly Standard, National Review, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He also writes regularly for Commentary magazine’s blog “Contentions” and National Review Online. Mr. Wehner has also appeared as a commentator on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN television.

Five Questions with Peter Wehner:

1) I’ve thoroughly enjoyed City of Man, I think it’s a very important work. How did you come to be involved with this project?

Mike and I were actually talking about writing this book when we were approached by Moody Publishers to write on a topic of our choice. So the timing was fortuitous. We’ve written episodically on the issue of Christianity and politics over the years, but never in a systematic fashion.

We thought it was time to do so – and so when Moody approached us, we were grateful for the opportunity. It certainly helped that Tim Keller was editing Moody’s Cultural Renewal Series. Tim’s a friend of many years. My wife Cindy attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church in its early days, which is when I got to know Tim and Kathy. We have great affection and regard for both of them. So having his involvement in the project was a huge incentive for me as well as for Mike.

2) You have a wide array of experience working in Washington. Is it difficult for a Christian to live and work in that city and still hang on to his faith?

Not really. Our faith can hopefully withstand more than anything Washington, D.C. can throw at it. Debating politics in America is certainly less demanding than having to confront, say, Nero.

Part of the explanation for this, I think, is that I’ve been blessed to attend excellent churches over the years. I’ve also been involved in Bible studies almost without interruption since I came to Washington out of college (the University of Washington) in the 1980s.

Mike and I write in City of Man that among the ways a person of faith can better resist the temptations and corrupting effects of power is to connect with a strong community of believers, including people who don’t necessarily share your own political views. And of course it’s vital to maintain one’s spiritual grounding. We say in the book that like so many other Christians, we are much more likely to lash out at others when our faith has been drained of its vitality and when we have begun to think of ourselves simply and solely as citizens of earth instead of as citizens of heaven.

I’d add one other thought: Every profession – from lawyers to actors to athletes; from doctors to certified public accounts to Wall Street executives to magazine editors to everything in between – poses certain temptations. The temptations may be different – but they still exist because of the state of the human heart. Sometimes I get the impression that people believe politics belongs in a separate category. I’m not sure it does.

3) We’ve had several decades of Christian political involvement. Some might say the gains have been less than satisfactory. So why should Christians stay on the front lines in shaping government and culture.

Because the Bible teaches that God is the author of history and isn’t indifferent to the realm of politics and history. In addition, politics can have profound human consequences. It matters whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. 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. Particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, there is no sabbatical from the failures of politics.

Have some Christians done politics poorly over the years? You bet, and we describe some of that in City of Man. Have they hurt their witness in the process? Absolutely. But the answer is to do politics better. And Mike and I have seen up close the good that politics and governing can do to improve the lives of people.

4) What are some ways that the Christian conservative movement needs to change in order to a) be more biblical and b) more effective?

It needs to remember that our Christian faith is more important than our politics, and that we need to conduct ourselves in a way that reflects well rather than poorly on our witness to the world. I also think it’s vital for Christians to think through first principles, such as what the role and purpose of the state ought to be in our lives. In City of Man we discuss order, justice, virtue, and prosperity, for example.

We also believe that tone is crucial, that winsomeness is better than bitterness and an irenic attitude is better than an angry one. Mike and I are all for passionate, spirited debate; too often civility is a code word for those who lack principles and have only a lukewarm attachment to moral commitments. But we also argue that Christians need to engage in debates in a manner that reflects basic good manners and respects people’s inherent dignity.

Finally, Christians need to ground their argument in core principles and in a manner that can appeal to non-believers. Mike and I hold up Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. as models of persuasion. Their views were informed by their faith. They argued from explicit moral precepts.

And they appealed to reason and the common good rather than revelation and Christian doctrine. They quoted from the Declaration of Independence, not the Westminster Confession.

5) What advice would you give believers as they head to the polls on November 2nd?

Go to the polls informed. Vote your conscience. Be grateful for the opportunity to elect your leaders, which is still a rarity in human history.

And understand that politics is important and can make a difference. But don’t invest too much hope in politics, either. We’re told in the Scriptures time and again to hold loosely to the things of this world – and politics certainly is of this world.