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Bush Speechwriter Addresses Christians in Politics at Calvin College
Kristin Rudolph January 27, 2012
“Public expression of faith often reveals the deepest commitment of the faithful, and determines their image in the world,” Michael Gerson told undergraduates at Calvin College in Michigan on January 12, 2012. Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a columnist for the Washington Post, addressed the subject in a speech entitled “Religion and Politics in a New Era.”
Gerson told students at the evangelical school that Christian political engagement is important because “at any given moment in a democracy, great issues of justice and morality are at stake.” He criticized past Christian political involvements, and he promoted a vision for the future, where Christians would utilize government power to protect human dignity.
“Politics is both a temptation and a responsibility; an addictive drug and healing medicine,” Gerson warned. Because of these risks, “reflecting on these issues is always important, [but] now I think it is urgent because we have entered a time of transition. One political theology, the model of the religious right, is passing in America, another still unformed is taking its place.” He told students how the “religious right” model accomplished some important things, such as reengaging Christians in politics after the “fundamentalist/modernist controversy” of the early 20th century, and uniting evangelical and Catholic Christians on important moral issues despite deeply rooted prejudices.
Also significant, Gerson explained, was how religious conservatives resisted secularism, as “elements of modern liberalism have contended, and still contend, that religiously motivated arguments are fundamentally private and thus illegitimate as a basis for public policy.” This “novel conception of the separation of church and state means that citizens may advocate a certain political view because of utilitarianism, liberalism, or vegetarianism, but not because of their moral views rooted in Christianity or Judaism,” he said. Christian conservatives have “reminded us that much of American political history, from abolition to the civil rights movement, is a story of religiously informed social activism. They’ve stood for the principle that a genuine pluralism must include religious people,” Gerson said.
Despite its successes, “as a social movement, the religious right cannot be considered a model. The language and tone of the religious right was often apocalyptic, off-putting, and counterproductive. It seemed to thrive on the cultivation of crisis,” Gerson regretted. “Melodrama,” such as Jerry Falwell’s statement that “‘just like Nazi Germans did to the Jews, so liberal America is doing to evangelical Christians’ ... was good for fundraising, but bad for American politics,” Gerson said. “This approach makes a civil political conversation impossible.”
Gerson argued this tone resulted from how conservative Christians sometimes “simplistically identified biblical teachings on the nature and destiny of Israel with their conception of the nature and destiny of America,” and thought, “because ancient Israel was rewarded or punished by God because of the conduct of its people and ruler, America would be rewarded or punished by God” for the same reasons.
This approach, Gerson complained, created a “politicization of religion,” which “caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude, ‘if this is religion, I am not interested.” The religious right did not appeal to young people, as it held “no categories concerning the relief of poverty or racial equality … [which] left a strong impression that the religious right was a tool of a specific political ideology instead of an independent voice.”
Citing sociologist Robert Putnam, Gerson reported that “Americans in their 20s are now much more secular than boomers were at the same stage in life. About thirty to thirty five percent are now religiously unaffiliated.” The way forward for Christian political engagement, according to Gerson, is a perspective that does not view America as a nation subjected to divine punishment or reward based on collective morality, but one that places the protection of human dignity at the center of policy decisions.
Gerson told how his “best experience in government” was when “I sat in the Oval Office and watched President George W. Bush make the decision to approve the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, PEPFAR, the largest initiative to fight a single disease in human history … religious people should be the strongest base of support for such works of healing and mercy.”
But Gerson gave no limits or criteria, however, for determining how the government should act as an agent of “healing and mercy.” He said “the focus on our political engagement will naturally vary by interest and background, but the primary shared Christian political commitment to the value and dignity of every human life is challenged at home and across the world.” Since his involvement in projects such as PEPFAR, Gerson said, “I will never be cynical about politics [because] I have seen a glimpse, just a glimmer of what justice looks like.”
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