Michael Gerson might be the most familiar person you don't know. As chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign and first term, he crafted prominent addresses delivered after September 11, the Columbia shuttle explosion, and on the State of the Union. As senior adviser during Bush's second term, he sought more funding to fight AIDS and a plan to end the Darfur genocide. One of TIME magazine's 25 most influential evangelicals, Gerson left the White House on June 28. Now he plans to take time off for reflection before focusing on writing. He spoke with CT associate editor Collin Hansen days before he packed up his West Wing office.
What will you remember most fondly about your time working for President Bush?
Memories I'll really take away are being in Namibia, meeting this little 6-year-old, HIV-positive girl whose parents had named her "There is no good in the world," because they assumed she was going to die. And then seeing a perfectly healthy little girl because of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). That's a vivid experience.
I'll also remember being with the President over in the residence, where he met with Chinese house-church leaders and dissidents, and how unbelievably inspired they were to know they had a friend in the Oval Office. Those are the kind of things I'll tell my children, the kind of things that really make public service worthwhile.
What more do you wish you had accomplished before leaving the White House?
We've set some broad policy goals that are going to take a long time to accomplishthe promotion of democracy in the Middle East, setting up a stable democratic government in Iraq, and some of the goals we set on malaria or AIDS or development.
Will compassionate conservatism survive rising deficits, the cost of Katrina, and illegal immigration?
There are some members of the Republican Party who do not understand the power and appeal of this set of issues and who have a much more narrow view of government's role. These issues are very much up for debate. Immigration is a good example. I understand the need for any nation to control its borders. But I do think that people of faith bring a little different perspective to this issue. There's a positive requirement to welcome the stranger and to care for people even if they're not citizens. Human dignity is universal and doesn't depend on what papers you hold. That brings a leavening perspective to a lot of these issues. And it's the perspective the President has brought to this issue. It would be a shame if conservatism were to return to a much more narrow and libertarian and nativist approach.
Until recently, the Republican Party and Christian conservatives have complained that government is the problem. Is that a view they will likely return to?
I think it's a temptation, but I don't think it's going to happen. One reason is because of what's changed in evangelical political involvement.
I think there are lots and lots of young people, in their 20s to 40s, who are very impatient with older models of social engagement like those used by the Religious Right. They understand the importance of the life issues and the family issues, but they know the concern for justice has to be broader and global. At least a good portion of the evangelical movement is looking for leaders who have a broader conception of social justice. President Bush has provided that in many ways. He ran his initial campaign on education and on faith-based answers to poverty and addiction. And then he's led the international efforts we've undertaken, both on the development and disease side, but also on the spread of human liberty.
You're starting to sound like Jim Wallis!
No, because I also don't think the answers can be found in the Religious Left. I don't think we can minimize some of the traditional issues. I don't believe it's possible to be concerned about social justice without being concerned about the weakest members of the human family. I also think that America can play an active and positive role in the world and that we're not at fault for everything.
Many evangelicals are looking for something that's still developing, if you talk to people like Rick Warren or Tim Keller. One thing that's catalyzed it is probably Africa, where so many young evangelicals I know have spent time. They've seen the needs and the extraordinary kind of spiritual strength that's found in the continent, and they've come away changed.
What challenges do you see for evangelicals who want to broaden the movement's social agenda?
It's probably a long-term mistake for evangelicals to be too closely associated with any ideology or political party. The Christian teaching on social justice stands in judgment of every party and every movement. It has to be an authentic and independent witness. It should have an influence in both parties. I would love to see the Democratic Party return to a tradition of social justice that was found in people like William Jennings Bryan. During that period, many if not most politically engaged evangelicals were in the Democratic Party, because it was a party oriented toward justice.
I don't see much of that now in the Democratic Party. Instead of an emphasis on the weak and suffering, there's so much emphasis on autonomy and choice. And so the party of William Jennings Bryan, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, I'm not sure it exists any more. But it would be good if it did.
Is it possible to do this without getting down and dirty in the day-to-day politics of both parties?
You have to. Part of being a citizen in a democracy is participation. But the concern here is not getting down into the details of politics. The concern is identifying the agendas of any party or movement with the Christian agenda, because it traditionally is a temptation, and it doesn't work out well. I think grassroots politics is actually a noble calling.
Don't you have to make tradeoffs with people who aren't natural allies to build political coalitions in order to win elections and pass legislation?
There's no question that you have to. Abolitionists had to do that; people who opposed child labor had to do that; the civil-rights movement had to do that. But they kept their identity and priorities; they kept their goal; they didn't begin to throw away principle and conviction as baggage just for access. So it depends on how you do it. Christians in politics have to be idealists about goals and realists about means.
Where specifically do you think the Religious Right has gone off track?
Some of it is what I would call baptizing policy recommendations, as if there were a Christian view on tax policy or missile defense. These are questions of prudence and judgment on which reasonable people disagree.
Sometimes the agenda has been important but too limited. The goal is to have a Christian worldview that encompasses domestic and foreign policy, that speaks broadly without essentially trying to claim there's only one Christian view on a variety of issues.
I think there are informed and correct views on tax policy. I don't think there's necessarily a Christian view. But there is a Christian view on human dignity and on the responsibility of government to protect the weak and on making sure societies are not just organized for the benefit of the strong. Those are consistent teachings that have relevance in every time, and they motivate people across the spectrum.
Where do you find inspiration for how faith can inform public policy?
Some of it is the heroes you choose. Mine are a pretty eclectic bunch. They include Martin Luther King Jr., William Jennings Bryan, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln took moral arguments rooted both in natural law and in revelation and applied them to some of the most difficult issues of his time. Most of my heroes have been reformers, even when they're conservatives. Conservatism puts a tremendous value on tradition. That's important, because over time societies are wise and develop a kind of accumulated tradition that often fits what human beings are. But it's not enough. Sometimes, as in the case of slavery or other things, there has to be a radical appeal to principle. And that is often, though not exclusively, a Christian contribution.
What are the challenges for Christians regarding contentious issues like gay marriage and abortion?
These are the toughest issues in American life. How you argue makes a huge difference. Proof-texting arguments from Scripture or arguments made in a spirit of anger are often counterproductive. I don't think that's been general or uniform, but it's been known to happen. Christians should acknowledge that opponents aren't enemies, that ultimately every person is worthy of respect and tolerance.
The pro-life debate is a case in point: It's a strong principle of Christian teaching and Roman Catholic social doctrine, as well as other sources, that says we as a society have to have solidarity. A test of that solidarity is how we treat society's weakest members. We're all in this together. We should be a welcoming society that includes everyone. The way we argue for that should be through appealing to [people's] aspirations, not to their anger. We should be talking about inclusion, not judgmentthis could be very effective.
How can evangelicals make our public policy stronger, more lasting, and more consistent?
Some of this requires learning about the world beyond your own small world, which is true for everyone, not just Christians. I have seen the tremendous positive influence of short-term missions, where people come back from two weeks in a developing country with their perspective changed. That's a marvelous thing and a growing trend. I think of getting involved in grassroots politics. It teaches people that they have to relate to all sorts of other people and work together as citizens in areas of common interest.
And I think we need a better knowledge of Christian history, to know the role Christians have played in other times, to show that it hasn't been always politically predictable. Learning about the great reforming traditions in the 19th century is a good thing. So many of us in Washington have been influenced by William Wilberforce and his tenacity in fighting slavery, by how effective he was in organizing a mass movement.
What progress has been made in fighting AIDS since 2001?
The progress is absolutely dramatic. Before the American government got into this in a major way in 2003, there were, I think, between 30,000 and 40,000 people on anti-retroviral drugs (ARVS) in the entire continent of Africa. And we're well on our way to meeting our goal (just in our five-year-old PEPFAR program) of having 2 million people on treatment.
Now the need is bigger than that, but that's a huge difference. And when you look at it on the ground, it's a night-and-day difference. When drugs are available, people are much more willing to be tested. Why would you want to be tested if there's no treatment? And when people know their status, then prevention, counseling, and other things are much more effective. Stigma is reduced.
On treatment, the news is excellent. On prevention, the news is good in some parts of Africa and challenging in other parts. We're just beginning to deal with the orphan crisis in Africa, because it's just going to be massive.
This is a case where I've been able to see a decision made in the Oval Office by the President in late 2002, and then a couple of years later, I met the first person in Uganda under the program to receive ARVS, who got them just about 18 months after the President announced the program. For a government program, that's pretty extraordinary.
What do you make of the recent report of corruption that has prevented some money from reaching AIDS patients in Uganda?
It's one of the main difficulties in Africa. Through our AIDS program, we've been very effective at working on the ground directly with nongovernmental organizations (both faith-based and non-faith-based) to bypass government bureaucracies that sometimes waste money. That, I think, is a good model of development. And PEPFAR has done that much better than, say, the Global Fund or other efforts.
It's almost like the church-to-church model we're seeing with Rick Warren and others.
Exactly. I visited a lot of these groups that we work with in a variety of contexts, including Uganda. It's as simple as identifying extraordinary people and getting them the resources they need to do what they need to do. We can't do it. The key to all kinds of development is just finding local partners, principled people who want to make a difference in their own country.
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A profile of Michael Gerson from 2001 is available from USA Today.
Gerson told a group of journalists in late 2004 "the danger for America is not theocracy." He told the Christian Science Monitor, "I don't believe that particularly Christian faith can be identified with any party or any ideology."
Gerson was listed among Time's 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
You can hear Gerson in this interview on NPR.
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