In his new book, Keeping the Republic (Sentinel HC), Indiana governor Mitch Daniels argues that the United States thrives most when the government cuts taxes and empowers people. On a more private level, Daniels, who serves as an elder at Tabernacle Presbyterian (USA) Church in Indianapolis, acknowledges that his faith is quieter. On a public level, he was involved in helping found the Oaks Academy, an inner-city Christian school. "As a believer, I always felt that the God I know was larger than politics," Daniels said before the 2008 election. "I'm always happy when people of faith decide that they want to be involved in public activity, but it should never distract us from what's primary, from the mission of saving souls." Online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke with Daniels about fiscal responsibility, whether he had a conversion experience, and how faith played a role in his decision not to run for president.
What drives you to focus on fiscal responsibility?
Much bigger, longer, more scholarly books have been written about debt and how it can ruin a country. That is the immediate threat to the America we've known; it's the symptom of other problems. The book tries to say that other things are involved in repairing our standard of living or even restoring what is shaky right now, and that is the American sense of optimism that tomorrow will be better than today, which has always driven progress in this country. Our free institutions and self-governance are being tested. Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired that debt commission a year ago [with Alan Simpson], has been going around saying this is the most predictable crisis we've ever faced. He means that if you just look at the arithmetic and if we don't do something significant, we will have a much worse situation even than today. But this was predictable in a second, larger sense. As long as the idea of government "by the people" has been around, cynics and skeptics have said that it won't work and sooner or later you'll need a tyrant. People make wrong choices, politicians will promise more than can be delivered and one day the system will go tilt.
How do you pitch these kinds of ideas to a religious audience? Do you see it as a religious and/or moral issue?
I'm very much for the latter. What kind of people will we be? We need to first believe that people can and should be permitted and enabled to make their own decisions in life—where their kids go to school, what kind of health insurance to have, what kind of credit card to have, what kind of light bulb to buy. And this zone of personal dignity and autonomy has been slowly whittled away. Part of reconstructing America and having a successful economy is citizens who do take responsibility and insist on it in their own lives. Every time I argue for a policy, I'm looking for the one that gives people the most leeway to make their own decisions. I don't dwell on it in the book, but where does that dignity come from? Because we're all creatures of God, endowed with inalienable rights—by whom? By our Creator. To that extent, yes of course, there's a very strong moral component to the argument and for the solution.
Some have been concerned by your idea to have a truce on social issues until we get our fiscal house in order. Do you still stand by that?
Yeah, I do, but first of all, I think many people misunderstood it. I talk about the whole spectrum, including gender and race and other arguments that I think are secondary right now. TheWall Street Journal took a poll last summer and they asked that question. The number of Republican primary voters who agreed with my suggestion was 65 percent. All that means to me is that most people see the common sense in trying to bring folks together right now. It'll be a long time before everybody agrees, let's say, with my view about protecting unborn life. We don't have a long time to deal with the threat that we're facing. So all I was saying was, let's try to get people unified, if we can, to address the immediate danger that really, left unaddressed, will crush everything that we hold dear.
Some fellow [Josh Kraushaar] wrote a story in the National Journal about three months ago, and he said maybe nobody's noticed, but this whole idea of a truce is already happening. He pointed out that in all the debates and in what the Republican candidates are doing, they are emphasizing financial and economic problems. I don't think it's quite as strange a notion as some people thought it was at first.
How do you balance fiscal responsibility with trying to help the poor and needy?
That's a very important question. You quit spending money you don't have on wealthy people. The term of course is means testing, but absolutely at times, means test these programs and concentrate—when there isn't enough money to go around, you have to concentrate the dollars on those who need them most. The only reason we haven't done that all along is the cynical political walk. We have to give something to everybody so they'd always support these programs politically. Certain leaders in our country don't trust Americans, and they should. We're the most generous and voluntary people on Earth. You cannot tell me that Americans to whom life has been kind won't continue to support helping their neighbors avoid destitution in later years just because they don't get a check, too.
Even as you are personally religious, we don't hear you talk about it very often; is that a choice? Was there a time or a year you decided to be a Christian or had a particular Christian conversion?
On the second question, no, I can't point to that because it was part of my life from the first moment of consciousness. We were always in church. My folks both sang in the choir. I spent all Sunday morning at church, at Sunday school and first service, and then I'd wait in the choir loft while the folks sang. They would sing right up through the anthem, and then they could leave. But the answer is no, it was and always has been a part of my everyday life. We moved to Indianapolis when I was 10 and joined the church that I'm still a member of. I'm a 50-year member of the same church—now you would call it an inner-city church, as the town has grown.
On the first question, I've tried to find the right balance point, and it's a difficult thing in this job. As a private citizen, it wasn't difficult at all. I helped, for instance, start the Oaks Academy. But in this job, there is a responsibility to remember that one represents everyone of every faith or even no faith, and not to misuse even by accident the position to advance, or as the Constitution says establish, any religion. But before I was sworn in, one of the big events of our inaugural was a massive gospel concert that I asked people to put together. We filled the coliseum out at the fairgrounds for an afternoon of gospel music. It was something I wanted to do, it was voluntary, nobody had to come, and I wasn't governor yet. I remember it rubbed a couple people the wrong way, and I'm sorry it did. On many, many occasions I've quoted Scripture, I've spoken to it. I don't know if I've gotten the balance exactly right, but I accept the Great Commission, as we call it, and the responsibility of witness. But during these years in public life, I've had a second responsibility that I at least need to be mindful of.
When you said your family played a large role in your decision not to run for President, was there an extension of your faith at all?
Well there was a whole lot of prayer involved. But I think only to the extent that my faith as I understand it commands first loyalty to my family. Let me just say this—it seems to me that put to the choice between two priorities, the one that I did chose seems to me is consistent with my understanding of the teachings of the Book.
It appears that no self-identifying mainline Protestants are major candidates in the GOP primary. Does that say anything about the Republican Party right now, or does that just happen to be the field?
That's very interesting. I guess you're right. I don't know exactly with some of them, but I assume you've done the checking. Let's face it—the so-called mainline denominations have stalled in numbers or even fallen.
Do you identify yourself as more mainline or evangelical or something else?
Well, you have to say the church I've always belonged to is mainline. I don't think in those labels personally. When I see the ranks of Presbyterians thinning out, I feel like that's us. Thank goodness for the growth in the Korean church—it's keeping Presbyterian numbers up, last I looked.
Has the Tea Party overtaken the influence of evangelicals in the Republican Party?
The book emphasizes the importance of culture and citizenship, trying to strengthen it and reaffirm it. I would say a huge contribution of the people you're asking about comes simply in the way they live. They live as we need a majority of Americans to live if we're going to be successful long-term. As with so many matters that trouble us, activity in politics is good and it's welcome, but really the contributions that I think are the most important are the ones that change people's hearts. And that can happen because they see an example living next door of a loving and intact family of people who look after their own and accept responsibility for the consequences of their own actions and witness in that way. On the major issues that we consider social and cultural, I don't think we're ever going to lecture people into a different point of view. We may be able to lead them there, but we simply, quietly, and lovingly show a different way and always invite others to join.
Back to a policy question, should President Bush's faith-based efforts and compassionate conservatism have been executed differently?
I was ambivalent about it. I very much liked the greater emphasis he put as a candidate on the problems of the poor and the less fortunate, the children in bad schools, and all of that. I liked the substance—we've done it in Indiana. We brought it into our prisons and our substance abuse efforts. We encouraged, acted, and supported where we could these kinds of activities. My ambivalence I mentioned was in the term itself. I never liked the term—it had a ring to it, yes, but it suggested most conservatism isn't compassionate. I reject that completely—that previous conservatism wasn't compassionate—I don't believe that for a minute. If I thought that, I never would have touted myself as conservative. In certain parts of our tradition, believing in the values, the primacy of family life and of government close to the people, for me, is compassionate because it produces better results, better lives than with those who start with little or nothing.
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Previous Christianity Today interviews with politicians include:
Q & A: Michele Bachmann on Cuts for Aid Relief, Obama's Faith and Credibility, and Francis Schaeffer | The Tea Party caucus chair talks to CT about recent military actions in Libya, why she opposes governmental steps to combat global warming, and her potential presidential candidacy. (April 14, 2011)
Q & A: Rick Santorum on Muslims, Religious Freedom, and 'Walking' for President | The former senator from Pennsylvania talks about what he thinks Obama got right and becoming a target of the gay community. (April 5, 2011)
Q & A: Herman Cain on Faith, Calling, and Presidential Aspirations | CT talks with the pizza magnate about his potential candidacy, cancer, and views of Islam. (March 21, 2011)
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