Christians' retreat from American politics would be a mistake, argues Michael Gerson, against those who prefer more behind-the-scenes forms of cultural engagement. As President George W. Bush's speechwriter for five years, and now as senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, Gerson has seen first-hand how policy has tangible cultural effects. Gerson recently co-authored City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (Moody) with Peter Wehner and began a one-year fellowship with the ONE Campaign, the Bono-backed nonprofit devoted to funding international aid programs. Gerson will be working on the campaign's religious and conservative coalition on development, disease, and trade issues. "I am not, however, in charge of distributing U2 tickets," he says.

Gerson spoke with CT online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey about why Christians should remain vigorously engaged in the political sphere.

You gently critique the Religious Right, saying, "The biggest problem with the Religious Right has not been tonal or strategic but rather theological." Could you flesh that out? How might Christians approach politics differently?

We are in a moment of transition. There's a discontent with an older model of social engagement. One reason is tonal. The Religious Right reacted to the aggressions of modernity, to the impression that leading institutions were imposing an alien vision on American society. Its fundraising appeals presented politics through the prism of a bitter divide. It was the children of light against the children of darkness.

Another element is political and strategic. Because it brought many moral concerns to public life, the Religious Right became an appendage of another political ideology: the Republican Party. So you would see voter guides that were not only on moral issues but also on tax policy and missile defense. I am a conservative, but I think the Christian faith stands in judgment of all political ideologies. When it's too closely identified with any of them, it becomes a tool in someone else's power game.

The third element is theological. After 9/11, when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson publicly blamed the suffering of the American people on various American sins, they left out other sins: exploitation of the poor, pride, and vanity. When an American religious leader says that Orlando might be destroyed because of Gay Day, and a hurricane hits Disney World on Gay Day, it seems cruel rather than compassionate.

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The book also addresses the underestimated virtues of the Religious Right. The movement led conservative Christians back into social engagement after a period in the wilderness, and it raised issues about the value of human life and the importance of traditional values and family.

Did you see evangelicals become tools in a power game in the Bush administration?

People who take the Bible seriously are going to be disposed toward traditional morality. That can change over time—it wasn't too long ago that the Democratic Party was identified with those types of issues.

Evangelicals, particularly in 2000, closely embraced President Bush because he brought a broader agenda than the traditional conservative issues. He was capable not just of doing a traditional Republican economic agenda but also of doing the HIV/AIDS initiative. That was an outworking of his view of America and his faith. I never saw the cynical manipulation of evangelicals in that context. I think evangelicals were naturally attracted to Bush as somebody who shared many of their priorities. But the broader point is that for most of its early history—with the arguments over the regulation of private schools, the reaction to Roe v. Wade, and the debates on marriage and family—conservative religious people in America have largely reacted to their perception of aggressive secular elites. Their agenda, oddly, has been determined by someone else because they have reacted to the aggression of the other side.

You also critique James Davison Hunter's argument in To Change the World, saying that "he imputes too little influence to the state and the political process. They are more important than he thinks." But might the Religious Right have relied too much on political solutions?

Pete Wehner and I do not draw the conclusion that the answer to the Religious Right is a retreat from political engagement, that social and cultural engagement is private. At any given moment in American society, Christians face demands of justice that they are responsible for as part of Christian and American citizenship. We live in a self-governing society where people can't take breaks from engagement just because they don't think things have gone well.

The alternative isn't to not do politics; the alternative is to do it better. We try to be careful in the book, because these duties vary based on history and the form of government. We live in a representative democracy, where everyone shares in the governing of the nation. That implies a certain set of duties that can't be escaped. The appropriate response is not for Christians to throw up their hands and stare at the political process. We set out basic themes from the history of Christian reflection on politics, particularly justice, order, prosperity, and virtue.

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You also write that just "engaging culture," as some are suggesting, won't quite cut it.

Culture making and engaging in culture are important, but there are political imperatives in any time that have to be taken seriously. Law often plays an important role in determining the parameters of a culture, in what's accepted and what's honored. The obvious example is when a group of white pastors in Birmingham told Martin Luther King Jr. that his demands for legal change were premature, that cultural change had to take place first. His response was, "You make that argument because you don't feel the results of legal injustice. You don't have the same sense of urgency because you don't share the circumstance."

Whenever I hear someone say that culture is more important than politics, I immediately think of hundreds of thousands of children who are dying completely needlessly of malaria because the U.S. doesn't do something. For those kids, the political task is quite important. They don't have the luxury of saying, "Let's write great books." They need the U.S. government to act urgently in the cause of justice.

We live in a self-governing society where people can't take breaks from engagement just because they don't think things have gone well.

You argued in your last book for compassionate conservatism. Might it risk overestimating what the government can accomplish?

Compassionate conservatism argues for a limited but noble role of government, which is to respect the role of mediating institutions and support their work instead of always providing services. That view comes out of Catholic social teaching, and it's consistent with a Reformed reflection on the nature of society. It says that government can't do everything, but that there are ways it can strengthen the work of churches, charities, and communities in meeting social needs.

We have tax breaks for charitable giving, and we provide a lot of social services through private, religious, and community institutions. There are a lot of creative ways we could do that, but that is not trusting government too much. It is devolving power in a society, not just to states or local governments but also to communities, religious institutions, and individuals.

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In the epilogue, you write, "Politics is the realm of necessity; politics is the realm of hope and possibility; politics can be the realm of nobility." This reminded me of President Obama's campaign slogan.

That's not conscious. We were trying to make a substantial point that many conservatives in the 1980s were predicting that American social decay would take place quickly and comprehensively—that families were breaking down, that drug abuse was increasing, and that America was headed toward social and cultural collapse. What we found instead was that at least an important part of the problem was stupid government policy. We did welfare reform that got people out of welfare dependence and into work. We reduced crime just by routinely enforcing the law. That's an antidote to pessimism.

There are some areas where good government policy can improve people's lives dramatically and where bad public policy can undermine human flourishing dramatically. Those are areas where Christians should have strong opinions and where the government matters greatly.

In your columns you have been skeptical of the tea party. Do the tea partiers have a misguided theology?

The tea party is a tremendously diverse grassroots social movement. We have massive deficit problems, and we need to analyze what the government is doing and why it's doing it. But there's a position that goes at least a couple of steps further that is anti-government. The position believes that the entirety of the modern state—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—all are fundamentally unconstitutional, that since they are not in the text of the Constitution, they are actually illegal.

The purpose of Christian social engagement is not to seek a preferred status for Christianity but to pursue a vision of universal human dignity informed by our faith.

The imposition of that kind of ideology would be an act of great cruelty. From a Christian social justice perspective, there are significant problems with that view. It's appropriate to be skeptical about government, but the government has important and noble roles that we need to honor. We need to be thoughtful about what it should and should not do, instead of adopting a broad, essentially anti-government attitude, essentially libertarian. The mainstream Christian reflection has concluded that government has an important role in pursuing the common good. It plays an important role in defending the weak and the vulnerable.

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But does that make people more dependent on the government and less dependent on other social structures like churches and charities?

It can. Welfare is the perfect example where a well-intended public program really decimated families and communities. It's hard to argue that Social Security has created a culture of dependence and bad behavior among old people. Social Security has been a tremendous success in bringing millions of people out of terrible poverty at the end of their lives. Now that doesn't mean it shouldn't be reformed to be financially sustainable and more oriented toward individual empowerment. These are valid public obligations. But they have to be done the right way or they can be counterproductive.

In what ways is the government limited in addressing physical needs? How should the government determine which areas to be involved in?

Health care is a big case study in these questions. My general approach suggests that government has a valid public role in encouraging access to health care for the poor. I don't think that's an illegitimate government goal. But two fundamentally different visions are competing right now on how to do that. One empowers individuals, essentially allowing them to buy private insurance in a private system and encouraging them to control costs. The other one says we need to centralize and do various forms of government-sponsored rationing, whether it's Medicaid or other things. A Christian could argue that there's an important imperative for government involvement in health care, particularly when it comes to helping the poor, but then could disagree vigorously about how to apply that as a prudential matter.

In many ways, it's the church's duty to define these broad moral imperatives toward justice, order, and human dignity. It's the imperative of Christian laypeople who know what they are talking about to design policies that actually achieve these ends. And those debates are substantive, fact-based debates. How do you achieve these goals in a way that's not counterproductive? That mainly depends on the expertise of Christians, not on the pronouncement of church bodies.

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How do you help Christians think theologically about political engagement?

The purpose of Christian social engagement is not to seek a preferred status for Christianity but to pursue a vision of universal human dignity informed by our faith. Christians' goal is not to favor their own. It's to vindicate everyone's rights and dignity, including their neighbors'.

That's been a huge progression in the church's approach. If you look at the Middle Ages, you very much had the theology of the tribe where the church was competing in society for influence and using that influence at the expense of Jews at home, of heretics, and of Muslims abroad. It was a battle.

But that has shifted significantly to say that it's really not the purpose of the church to serve its own interests. Its purpose is to serve in the interest of human rights and dignity, which were taught by Christ himself. It's the reason Muslims also have religious liberty rights—not because we approve of their faith, but because we view them as individuals created in the image of God with rights of conscience.

Related Elsewhere:

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era is available from and other book retailers.

Previous interviews with Michael Gerson include:

Michael Gerson: Obama's Speech Rhetorically Flat, but Ideologically Interesting | A former presidential speechwriter examines President Obama's inaugural address. (January 23, 2009)
How Then Shall We Politick? | Michael Gerson, recently resigned Bush speechwriter and adviser, on how evangelicals should comport themselves in the public square. (August 1, 2006)

Christianity Today also follows political developments through the Political Advocacy Tracker and on the politics blog.

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City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
Moody Publishers
144 pp., 8.92
Buy City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era from Amazon