I spoke with Peter Wehner, co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era. Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national security issues for Commentary, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Click here to listen to our twenty-five minute discussion or read the following transcript.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m with Peter Wehner, author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era. When I was an undergraduate government student at UVA, one famous professor, Larry Sabato, adopted the slogan, “Politics is a good thing.” Is your slogan, “Politics is a good thing for Christians?”
Peter Wehner: Yeah, it’s a good thing for Christians with caveats. [Co-author] Mike [Gerson] and I argue in the book that Christians should care about politics because politics in its deepest and best sense is about justice and Christians should care about justice. And political acts can have profound human consequences and Christians should care about that, too. So as a general matter we think that that’s an arena that Christians should be involved in but it’s an arena that’s filled with traps and snares as well. For one thing, political power is not something that was central to the teachings of Christ or his disciples.
PW: In fact they were largely non-political. Secondly, when Christians get involved in politics, it’s easy to get caught up in the power game, to speak in ways that are apocalyptic and sometimes uncivil and that harms the Christian witness. Mike and I in our book analyze the so-called Religious Right, Christian conservatives, a movement that developed really in the late 1970s and we try and give it a fair accounting. We’re sympathetic to what much of the Christian Right did, and believe they made important contributions, but one of the things that we’re critical of is the fact that they, in some instances, I think hurt their Christian witness by the way that they conducted politics.
GT: Your book was critical of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. What was wrong about how they approached engagement in the political arena?
PW: Well, some of it was the apocalyptic language I was referring to. Jerry Falwell said that liberals in America wanted to do to Christians what Hitler did to the Jews in Germany and I just think that’s a reckless statement. Secondly, Mike and I think that they made some important theological errors. For example, they blamed the attacks on 9/11 on the ACLU and on abortion in America and essentially on the liberal social/secular agenda and we just think that’s bad theology. And thirdly, there was a kind of apocalyptic language that I think they used and a sort of breathlessness in a sense that everything depended on them or their movement or the outcome of particular elections. Now, I’ve been involved in politics my entire adult life and I’ve worked in three administrations and the George W. Bush White House, so I care about elections and indeed my job sometimes depended on it, so I felt strongly about them. But I had the sense that the language that’s sometimes used in fundraising letters and speeches and so forth overstated in a sense the importance of politics to the future of America or at least overstated the importance of elections to that. And Mike and I also think that the way that the Religious Right, particularly via Falwell and Robertson, conducted themselves sometimes made Christianity seem subordinate to a political party, as if it was an appendage of a political party or a political movement. Mike and I argue in the book that Christianity should stand in judgment of all political ideologies and all political movements. It shouldn’t be seen as subservient to anyone or putting political causes above faith and we think that sometimes that happened.
GT: You mentioned in your book that the media took up the tone of Robertson and Falwell, which led to kind of a cycle of success for Falwell and Robertson for getting fundraising support and then the media liked it because it drew a lot of attention to what they were broadcasting, too.
PW: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that the media tended to overstate their influence and they began to describe the entire Christian conservative movement as if they were all clones of Falwell and Roberston and that there were really no distinctions among people and of course there were. So I think the media had a vested interest because it created a controversy. I think it caricatured the Christian conservative movement and I think Robertson and Falwell were interested in getting attention, as lots of people in politics are. And it probably helped their effort to be credited with an enormous amount of political power, which I think at the end of the day was important but probably overstated.
GT: When we use the term Religious Right, who are we referring to?
PW: Well, it depends. I mean, in a narrow sense you could be referring to the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. In the broader sense you can be referring to people of conservative theological and political views who are themselves Christian, evangelical Christians. Most self-professing evangelical Christians in America tend to be conservative. So it could be a narrow or a broad definition and people use them often virtually interchangeably.
GT: In the book you talk about political theology. How would you define political theology?
PW: Well, political theology is the theological views that one takes as they approach politics. That is, how does one’s view of Christianity and of the world and certain moral truths inform one’s practice of politics? Both the principles of politics and even the practical application of them as it relates to issues, but it’s a kind of template, a framework, a paradigm, that people of faith use to try and interpret politics and events in their lives and the world.
GT: How did you choose your title, City of Man?
PW: A colleague, Yuval Levin, a very very bright guy and a good friend of mine and Mike’s came up with the title. We were throwing around other titles, none of which were very good and Yuval came into my office and I think I’d asked him about it and he said, “Why don’t you do ‘City of Man’?” and that had immediate resonance with me and of course it was a play off St. Augustine’s monumental work, City of God. So it seemed to fit.
GT: And what was Augustine’s City of God work about?
PW: Well, it was a hugely significant work in the fourth century, I think, where he laid out a kind of theology of history and God’s role in history and what the Christian’s role in history and in public affairs should be and he distinguished between the City of Man, which is the world in which we live in, which is a fallen world but has the capacity to achieve good and important things, and the City of [God] which is our true home and where our true allegiance is. And the tensions that sometimes arise when you’re a citizen of both the City of Man and the City of God.
GT: In the book you quote James Davison Hunter, who says, “No real political solutions to absence of decency or to the spread of vulgarity exist.” You disagree with Professor Hunter, right?
PW: Yeah, I mean, in a broad sense he makes an argument for sabbatical from politics that Christians, because they have not executed their involvement in politics very well, have hurt their faith and not produced very much in politics. But Mike and I disagree with that. I should say I am sympathetic to much of what Hunter writes, I think his book is good and it’s an impressive book. But on that particular issue I think that he underplays the significance of politics. To simplify things, I think he is of the school that culture is upstream of politics. Culture is key and if you can fix the culture then that in fact will trickle down into politics and then politics is very limited in its capacity to change the life, including the moral life, of a country. Now, there are limitations to it but on the other hand, the law is an expression of certain moral beliefs and indeed the law itself can shape certain moral beliefs because when you have the imprimatur of law, it carries a lot of weight. Take, for example, drug use. If we were to legalize drug use, you would see an explosion in the use of drugs, not simply because they would be more available but because it would be sending a signal to people, particularly young people, which is that this society has made the determination that this is not problematic and it’s fine if you use it. In addition, the Civil Rights Era is an example of how laws, the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act in ‘64-‘65 helped change people’s moral attitudes and sentiments toward the issue of segregation. Now these things are complicated; they’re mutually reinforcing. There’s no question that culture can influence politics, and there’s no question that politics can also influence culture. And Mike and I make the argument that a lot of people who downplay the importance of politics tend to be Christians in a pretty comfortable situation but if you’re a young inner city kid in New York City in the early 1990s then public policy and politics would make a heck of a lot of difference and you would actually see examples of how the social, cultural and moral life of the nation has shifted because of public policy. Welfare is one example. Crime and the transformation of New York City by Mayor Giuliani is another. So while these things are complicated, it’s not as if one has complete dominance over the other. But Mike and I believe that Hunter, for all the virtues of his book, overshot in this particular case and underplays the importance of politics.
GT: You wrote this book from a wealth of experience. You were in the Bush White House on 9/11 and in the book you talk about how you were assessing what kind of response the United States would have to 9/11 and you said, “We were not in a mood to turn the other cheek. And we did not feel then and we do not feel now that this violated our consciences as Christians.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
PW: Sure. Mike and I are not pacifists and we don’t believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a political philosophy. And often Christians make the mistake of assuming the words of Christ and the individual commands, or commands that apply to individuals, apply to governments as well. One of the distinctions we make in the book is the requirements on government is different than on individuals so you allow government certain powers that individuals themselves wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – take just for themselves. And in our view, self-defense and violence in response to attack – violence even in an effort to promote justice and human dignity and human flourishing – can be justified. Now, it’s not justified in every instance and it’s a very high bar that you have to cross to use violence, but when you have a situation like 9/11, which is that we were attacked and thousands of innocent Americans were killed, then we didn’t have any problem at all in believing that the United States should respond forcefully. And if we were pacifists, we would have been in the wrong business anyway, or at least in the wrong jobs, because I don’t think it’s advisable to have pacifists in the White House, particularly for situations like 9/11. If you’re in positions of influence in government, you take an oath to protect your fellow citizens and you have to take that seriously and if you can’t do it in good conscience, then you ought to do something else.
GT: It reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, saying, “You want me on the Guantanamo Bay line,” and, “You can’t handle the truth.”
PW: That’s right, that’s right; it’s a good movie.
GT: In the book you go into the history of the Religious Right and as an example of that you talk about President Carter’s interview with Playboy Magazine. And Jerry Falwell objected to Carter’s interview with Playboy and Carter’s aide called Falwell and criticized Falwell for basically what he saw as attacking candidate Carter and – I think he was candidate then and not president, actually – and you said that that was kind of a change for Falwell from being disengaged in the political process to seeing what kind of an influence he could have in the political process.
PW: Well, that’s right; I think what it told Falwell – and understandably so – is that he has a lot of influence. Now here he was getting a complaint from a key advisor to the person who was eventually elected president of the United States and that can be heady stuff. And you know if you’re noticed, even by your critics, that can be nice. It certainly can underscore influence and it can also go to people’s heads, so it’s complicated. But it was a sign to Falwell, I think, that the Religious Right was a political force to be reckoned with, and in that respect he was correct. And that of course was a big change for Falwell because in the 1960s he was much more in an Anabaptist tradition that the obligation that a Christian has is to share and promote the gospel and to win people over to the Christian faith. Now that’s an extremely high calling in Christianity, but Falwell believed that politics was an arena that Christians ought to stay out of and he of course changed dramatically from the 60s to the late 70s and that incident with Carter underscored just how dramatic the change was.
GT: In your book you detail the kind of changing of the guard of Robertson and Falwell to people like Rick Warren and Tim Keller, who actually wrote the forward for your book. And Rick Warren – you have a quote from him when he was interviewing Obama and McCain during the presidential election: “I’m so tired of Christians being known for what they’re against.” From that quote, what do you take from what the new leaders of the Religious Right are trying to advance?
PW: Well, I think people like Rick Warren and Tim Keller just approach things in a very different way. Now, they’re much less political than Falwell and Robertson; Warren is somewhat more political than Tim, and Warren got involved in the Proposition 8 debate about same-sex marriage in California and he hosted the presidential debate with McCain and Obama and did a splendid job. But they’re not the obvious successors to Falwell and Robertson because they have somewhat different roles. But the point Mike and I were trying to make was that there’s a kind of spirit and mode of argumentation and mode of conversation that Rick Warren and Tim Keller embody which is very different I think than what Falwell and Robertson embodied. I think it’s much more open-minded, much more willing to engage with other people of different views. A kind of civility and a certain high-mindedness to their arguments, combined with a very solid, I think, philosophical as well as theological foundation and I think that both of them are persuasive. You can think about public figures in terms of: Are they trying to energize the already converted or are they trying to win over the unconverted, the fence-sitters, and I think if you use that as a model, Falwell and Robertson are more in the first category where as Tim and Rick Warren are more in the second category – I think they’re more persuasive. I think there’s a tone and a spirit that animate Tim and Rick Warren, not just in politics, but it’s the kind of tone and spirit that I think can translate to politics and be very effective and I think it’s the kind of thing that the younger generation, the Millennial Generation, is looking for. I just think that the tone that Falwell and Robertson used is very much out of step, particularly with younger Christians who themselves are sympathetic with some of the moral beliefs of the so-called Religious Right but were not so enamored with the way that they presented their case.
GT: Your book also discussed the idea of human rights and advancing human rights as part of political theology and one topic that’s really hotly disputed right now in universal human rights is reproductive choice. Some would say that reproductive choice is a universal human right. What is your response to that?
PW: No, I mean, Mike and I have a section in the book on abortion and we count ourselves very much in the pro-life camp and we make the argument for it, not out of theology so much as basic science and medicine, which is that there’s no question that that’s a living human being that a mother is carrying and to have violence committed against that we think is morally problematic in the extreme. Now, how that translates itself in terms of public policy is an open question and Christians disagree on abortion in terms of where on the continuum as an unborn child goes longer in gestation, do certain moral rights begin to adhere later in pregnancy as opposed to earlier? Does a fetus at eight months have the same moral claims that it does 24 hours after conception? People of goodwill will disagree on that. Christians themselves over the millennia have disagreed with that, but as a general matter, certain things are indisputable and the entity we are talking about is both living and human and if it’s allowed to progress it will itself become a human being, not an alligator or a giraffe. So the way that people on the left in particular frame this issue as just choice, we don’t think is a compelling argument because there is something involved here more than the mother, and that is the life of the child.
GT: As an example in your book of how Christian convictions can influence political decisions you use the example of PEPFAR and how President Bush allocated 15 billion dollars over five years to promote prevention, treatment and compassionate care in Africa for AIDS and malaria and other health issues.
PW: Yeah, that is I think one of the great achievements of the Bush administration and Mike Gerson was a key figure in that effort. And when President Bush made that decision there was no real political upside to it; it was a huge increase in the funding that program had received before. It was by far the largest amount of money that was committed to a single disease in history as it relates to government funding and it had huge effects. There was a Stanford study that said there were a million – more than a million – lives that were saved within the first three years of that program going into effect. So that’s the kind of issue that Mike and I argue that Christians should care more about. It’s not as sexy and lively as some of the more culture-war issues and we don’t mean to downplay those issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage and the ones that usually come up, but we argue that the Christian agenda should be broader than it has been in the past. And indeed during the 1990s you began to see the broadening of that agenda, like issues with aid and development, issues like religious liberty and religious freedom, and getting involved in situations where genocide is unfolding. Those are the kind of issues that we think should galvanize Christians because they have to do with human rights and human dignity and human flourishing and those are the kind of issues that Christians above all should care about.
GT: In the book you give us three concluding propositions and one of them I just love because you had a G.K. Chesterton quote and I think he’s great; the quote is, “Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.” What did you mean by that quote?
PW: Well, that was in the context of the complaints by people like Jim Hunter that Christians have often done politics poorly. But we say so did other people in the democracy and the answer is to do politics better, that political engagement isn’t a luxury and I think the way we put it in the book is, “The fighting of raging fires requires not contemplation but a fire extinguisher. Urgency can involve errors but these should be admitted and corrected. But, as Chesterton said, ‘Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.’”
GT: Well, I think that’s a great way to end this; thank you so much for your time with us.
PW: Sure, I enjoyed it. Thanks very much.
First published in First Things in February 2011