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.
: Why is the City of Man relevant to someone following politics in October 2010?
: 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.
: How much of City of Man
comes from lived political experience, especially in the White House?
: 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.
: “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?
: 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.
: What’s “the new era”? What marks its beginning? What are the signs of it?
: 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.