What do you see in the future for compassionate conservatism?

I think conservatism will stay with us, and I think compassion will stay with us. I think the term is less important than the theory behind the term. Some people make the mistake of conflating compassion conservativism with big-government conservativism. That's not necessarily the case. They're distinct. One can be for compassionate conservativism and opposed to big-government conservativism. The idea behind the faith-based approach is to promote public policies that strengthen and energize the institutions in society that form character and help the poor and the dispossessed. We haven't made as much progress as we would have liked, but that's almost always the case when you're in government.

President Bush talked in July about his "theological perspective" that the Almighty's gift to humanity is freedom. Help us understand what he means.

His views and the views of this administration are anchored in part in recent human experience. We have been witnessing over the last decades a great movement toward human liberty, the swiftest advance in human freedom in history. But those policies are anchored in more than recent experience. They're grounded in a particular view of human nature. The President's belief is that there's a moral imperative to treat human beings with dignity and decency, and that liberty is the design of nature. This explains why liberty leads to human flourishing.

Most people's view of teleology is shaped by their religious convictions. That's true of President Bush. That was true of President Lincoln. Lincoln used some pretty vivid words. He said, "Nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows." Lincoln anchored the Civil War in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. We have certain rights that were given to us by a Creator. Freedom is one of them.

Now, that high-minded belief doesn't easily translate into policy. Believing in a natural law and believing in the dignity of human beings doesn't tell you when and how to act in particular situations. They don't enlighten you on when to push for one more diplomatic settlement or when an impasse has been reached and a time for war of liberation has come. And they don't provide you with wisdom on which levers to apply to which countries. But what they can do is supply public officials with a fundamental view of the human person, what rights individuals reserve and what goals are worthy of our energy and our efforts. That's the case with the President. He believes that liberty is a gift from the Creator, and ought to be treated that way. That doesn't mean it will come all at once or that it will come easily, but it's an aspiration.

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Christians believe in freedom, but they also believe in original sin. Freedom is not an unequivocal good, right?

Freedom can lead to licentiousness, and freedom can lead to terrible consequences. But as a general proposition, freedom beats despotism 10 times out of 10. And the people who constantly worry about freedom might want to live in a police state for a few years and find out which is better. The debate between freedom and despotism isn't particularly complicated. The question is how you achieve that freedom during the bumps along the way. You're exactly right. Orthodox Christianity teaches us not only about natural law, and why I believe people should live in liberty, but it teaches about original sin, too. Sometimes people want liberty, and sometimes they are driven by ethnic hatreds and self-interests. The President understands that. As a person who makes and argues for public policy, the question is how do you get from where we are to where we want to be.

Christians debating policy often stall when their biblical principles seem to conflict, as in the case of promoting liberty and securing peace. How do we move forward from these standoffs?

There are lots of biblical principles, and all of us have dispositions toward one or the other. A lot of our theology is cafeteria style. But I think most Christians and most people who are non-Christians would agree that we want to achieve freedom, human flourishing, and peace. So I don't think there's a lot of debate about the goal or the aim. The question is the means to the end. And that is always a complicated question, and it's been with us since the beginning of man. It will be with us until the end. The only way you answer those questions is through practice. You see what works, you learn from history, and these things are judged.

Is it possible to attain worldwide liberty without using violent means?

I'd begin with a couple of caveats. As the President said in his second inaugural address, the objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. It's a difficult task. He said that America's influence is not unlimited. But fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we use it confidently in freedom's cause. Can you get universal liberty without violence? I don't know. I suspect it would be difficult, because there are certain regimes that are deeply committed to oppression and hate liberty. But that doesn't mean that war is the only way to get rid of them. As a policymaker you want to try and exhaust every possibility short of war, and that's everything from pressure to sanctions to supporting opposition groups. You should try and get there without force, I know that. You should try and get there without wars, I know that. But I also know that the history of the 20th century shows that some wars have been for good causes and have helped liberate lots of people and save millions and millions of lives. So war is an awful reality, but sometimes it's a necessary one. If you decide to go to war, it should be as a last resort and is the most morally serious question and decision a President or members of the administration can make.

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Is it harder for the nation to support the principle behind a war when there has been no direct attack?

I'm not sure it's that difficult for a nation to grasp the principle behind wars. The nature of our country is that we have pretty robust debates that usually precede wars. That's not always the case. If you're attacked, as we were in World War II by Japan, that pretty much answers itself. But with most military actions, there's been a debate within the country. Are the debates always what we'd hoped they'd be? No. Are they sometimes too simplistic and not morally serious enough? Sure. But that's the nature of debate in a big country. But your general point is true. Some wars are more difficult than others. It's easier to go to war if you've been attacked. It's easier to go to war if your survival is at stake. The most difficult wars are the wars that you believe are necessary to promote peace and human flourishing and liberation. Those are judgment calls, and they involve prudential judgments and prudential decisions. Sometimes people get them right and sometimes people get them wrong. The judgment of history depends on how the wars go.

Related Elsewhere:

Other articles on George W. Bush's "theological perspective" on freedom include:

Bush's 'Theological Perspective' | U. S. presence in Iraq is 'allowing for the inevitable to happen.' (August 28, 2007)
The Bush Doctrine | The moral vision that launched the Iraq war has been quietly growing in the President's inner circle. (May 1, 2003)
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Wehner's page at the Ethics and Public Policy Center links to his articles and short publications.

Previous news interviews include:

Q&A: Paul Marshall | The Hudson Institute senior fellow discusses initial findings of the forthcoming book Religious Freedom in the World 2007. (September 5, 2007)
Q&A: Richard Land | The president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission talks about his new book, The Divided States of America? (July 30, 2007)
Q&A: Rep. Heath Shuler | Shuler, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina who ran as a social conservative, defeated a Republican incumbent in 2006. (June 26, 2007)
Q&A: Tony Hall | Hall, a former Democratic congressman, directs the faith component of a new Middle East peace initiative. (May 15, 2007)
The Rebirth of Venus | Charlene Cothran, editor of a magazine for African-American gays and lesbians, on how she renounced homosexuality and came to Christ. (March 23, 2007)
Q&A: Albert Mohler | On recovery from life-threatening pulmonary emboli and lessons learned. (March 9, 2007)

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