What might one of the first prominent conservatives to publicly oppose Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign think about both Republican politics and American politics today? What might a conservatism foregrounding “a respect for facts and reality and human experience, and for adjusting your approach to fit your present situation” look like going forward? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Peter Wehner. This present conversation focuses on Wehner’s book The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. Wehner is a New York Times contributing Op-Ed writer, a contributing editor (covering American politics and conservative thought) for The Atlantic, and a popular media commentator on politics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and veteran of three Republican administrations.
ANDY FITCH: Before we get bogged down discussing Donald Trump: I appreciate this book’s broadest goal of exploring “how we can rediscover, refine, and recalibrate…how we understand politics.” I share your longstanding interest in individuals who (here in JFK’s mixed metaphor) can “reopen the channels of communication between the world of thought and the seat of power.” And I also detect an implicitly trinitarian structure undergirding your arguments throughout The Death of Politics. So could we first take Aristotle and Locke and Lincoln, or communitarian responsibility and individual autonomy and legislatable morality, or moderation and compromise and civility, and sketch the habits of a democratic brain, of a democratic spirit, of a democratic heart that you would most hope for a post-Trump US conservatism to cultivate?
PETER WEHNER: As you say, I do want this book to play its part in a broader recovery of what politics at its best has been in American history, and what it can be going forward. I wrote the book out of a sense of alarm at American politics reaching a very low moment. Repairing our politics has become one of my most animating concerns, because I consider politics vital. It provides us with an imperfect way to pursue and achieve justice. But if you get your politics wrong, you can pay a tremendous human cost and lose a lot of what you love and care most about. So how to stabilize and improve our politics today? I should credit my editor for pushing me to give some concrete, tangible examples in the book. Though on the deepest level, I think we have to change some of our most fundamental ideas about and attitudes towards politics.
You mentioned that one chapter focuses on moderation, compromise, and civility. I think we’ve come to misunderstand those terms over time. For example, some people might now consider these “weak” rather than “strong” virtues. But civility doesn’t necessarily mean acquiescing or finding common ground. Civility means treating others with basic good manners, which I consider necessary in a democratic republic. Civility means acknowledging each other’s inherent human dignity, because constructive dialogue can only happen that way. You might have a civil conversation and end up disagreeing with somebody, but you still can both learn from each other.
So for each of those general categories you asked about, I would emphasize an epistemological modesty. Epistemological modesty implies accepting that the world is immensely complicated, and I can’t possibly begin to comprehend it by myself — that I need other people to help with this, that I need other perspectives, some from people I disagree with, to widen the aperture of understanding. Epistemological modesty, to me, suggests an internalization of certain democratic virtues, and a way of orienting both our daily lives and our political lives. I also do recognize that many readers might push back and say: “We need more than that. Individuals acting alone can’t make much difference.” I can appreciate that concern, but I do believe that a lot of us acting together can reshape a culture and redirect its politics and revitalize the country itself.
On that level of individual motivation and agency, The Death of Politics presumes a demoralized reader, and aims to leave us “far more hopeful about politics than you are, because you have far more power than you think.” The Death of Politics calls for something like a renewed Tocquevillian citizenship, in which “To be a citizen means to be a participant in civic life, not just a spectator.” I’ll want to get to what present-day participatory citizenship can look like, particularly among some of America’s most marginalized communities. But first here I can’t help recalling your collaborator Arthur Brooks’s disturbing point that what we consider our most accessible avenues to civic participation today often place us on a path towards corrosive partisanship, towards conceiving of civic participation as fighting some opposing (often intolerable) side. Within left-leaning social groups, for example, I often see highly skilled, professionally placed friends and colleagues operate from the assumption that to engage in politics inevitably means to protest — rather than, say, to promote and / or enact good governance. How might some equivalent sense of civic hopelessness manifest specifically among quite capable conservatives, profoundly demoralized by Trump’s remaking of the Republican Party, yet not seeing any constructive political outlet at present?
As a general matter, this hopelessness manifests in pretty familiar ways — through fatalism, cynicism, or rancor. When people feel hopeless about politics, they can become quasi-nihilistic or nihilistic. They just can’t see any point to politics. They might embrace radicalism, a willingness to roll the dice and take risky chances. They might say: “We’ve got to try things we otherwise wouldn’t.” For conservatives critical of Trump, hopelessness may mean giving up on the Republican Party, giving up on conservative principles, declaring this whole conservative (or political) enterprise utterly corrupt and irredeemable — or joining the other side, feeling, in a reversal of Irving Kristol’s phrase, “mugged by reality,” but with that now moving them more to the left than to the right. Political hopelessness can manifest in all sorts of different ways, most of them thoroughly unhealthy.
So here in terms of this book’s core assumption that “by remembering and restoring America’s noble and necessary political tradition…covering the roles of morality, religion, rhetoric, debate, and citizenship…we can heal what has been fractured and get back to the task of making America a more perfect union,” could you start to sketch how an empowering civic renewal might play out specifically among some of America’s most politically, economically, and / or culturally marginalized constituencies? How in particular would you pitch this recommendation for restoring America’s foundational political traditions to a perhaps majority of Americans who might have good historical reason not to characterize our longstanding political traditions as primarily “noble” – or who might sense in calls for restored moderation, compromise, and civility a form of role-playing reserved for those privileged few Americans (often enough, of course, white males like ourselves) unaccustomed to experiencing some of this country’s more uncompromising, immoderate, uncivil aspects?
Well I’d begin by describing our political system as a responsive system. When enough pressure gets brought to bear on this political system, it does move. Sometimes it moves more slowly, sometimes more quickly. But I think Americans on the political left can point to many examples throughout our history when politics changed, when our political system changed, because Americans brought enough pressure to bear. The political theorist Gregory Weiner, who just wrote a very good book called Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence, told me that he couldn’t find any major issue or policy on which the American public didn’t get more or less what it wanted over time. So for marginalized people as well, I’d first emphasize mobilizing on a local and state and national level, and acting as a citizen and a constituent and a voter in all the various possible ways.
So much of our political life plays itself out at the local level. It might not sound as sexy as participating in national politics, but so much of our real lives plays out in school-board meetings and hundreds of similar civic engagements. And for all of this you again do have to mobilize and get active and make your voice heard. You have to elect people who represent your way of life and your interests and your values and your goals and aspirations. You have to stay in contact with these officials once they take office. You have to keep participating as a member of various organizations and (now in James Madison’s terms) factions, groups that represent one’s point of view.
Here could you give a couple contemporary examples of how even pointed interventions can help reinvigorate a broader civic culture?
People on the left could point to Black Lives Matter as one fairly recent manifestation of how this all can play out. We now see much more public attention placed on how African Americans get unfairly targeted and sometimes suffer through their treatment by police officers, in ways we never had before. Some of this came about through technological change, with smartphones now allowing individuals to record these incidents. But it still took sustained citizen initiative to start changing that conversation. Now, from my own perspective, this doesn’t mean that nobody in the Black Lives Matter movement ever went too far, or that cops don’t face their own real threats, or that some of those involved in the movement aren’t reinforcing reflexive hostility to police. I consider those real dangers. My brother was an outstanding police officer, and I have great respect for cops. But I also consider it essential for Americans from a wide range of backgrounds to see this reality that African Americans face, and to hear these stories. I think that bodes well for our whole society.
I would say something similar about the #MeToo movement, which I consider one of the most important and praiseworthy social movements of the past one hundred years. I think of us as still at the very beginning of this movement. And I think it offers another exemplary case of people (here women who have experienced sexual abuse) coming together to really change this country for the better.
Whatever you think of its merits, the gay-marriage movement provides another example of how culture can change. If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, this idea that gay marriage would become the law of the land would have seemed almost inconceivable. I would credit two figures above all for that movement’s more recent successes, Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch. Both, in their own relentless ways, have made very thoughtful and careful arguments over time. Neither has engaged in name calling. Neither has accused their opponents of homophobia. They made their case for gay marriage not on transgressive grounds, but on conservative grounds. They simply wanted to take part in the longstanding institution of marriage.
So again, today’s marginalized people have ample historical — and even quite recent — precedents to draw upon. They certainly might face struggles today, but they shouldn’t give up in any event. We always have to remind ourselves of those amazing examples like the Civil Rights Movement, and we always need to advocate for the change that’s necessary today. Of course, as a conservative, I feel this way about causes on the conservative side as well.
We should bring those examples in too — as you sketch this “noble” American political lineage that might include gay-marriage advocacy and Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, perhaps alongside conservative-identified causes.
Sure, and I would in fact first disaggregate this noble American tradition. I don’t think it breaks down into a checklist of conservative or liberal policies. I have in mind a more foundational sense of natural rights preceding government, with government established in order to secure these rights. Government allows for liberty and establishes order, taking into account human nature’s virtues and vices — including tendencies toward a mob mentality, and toward passions getting overly inflamed.
Within that broader context, we need a political system filled with checks and balances, with separations of power, in order to prevent the worst from happening. We need to engage in dialogue and discourse with a basic recognition that we’re all in this together, and that we need everybody contributing to the conversation if we hope to keep moving forward in a positive manner. We need to keep in mind the central importance of moderation and compromise for anything we hope to accomplish in this country. Our system of government requires that you give up on some of your goals in order to win other goals. It requires that we hold and exemplify a high view of what human beings more or less left to their own devices can do — that we don’t rely on government as this intrusive force directing every aspect of our lives. This system lets us live the lives we want to live, within certain parameters. It assumes and demands a certain degree of competence and efficiency in government as well. And it believes that politics at its best can advance justice.
Here could we follow up on this point about participatory citizens still needing to elect competent leaders? I’ll often sense, for example, that amid our bitterly partisan present, there must be countless constructive policy compromises just waiting for somebody to pick them up. But could you articulate your urgent concerns about contemporary voters feeling that “it takes no special skills to be a politician…in fact the less experience, the better…the problems we face as a nation are simple, the solution is obvious, so either stupidity or malice must explain why the solutions haven’t been invented yet”? Why does a participatory democracy still rely so heavily on strong, seasoned leaders?
Basically I’d say because politics is hard, much harder than most people think. If you never have been involved in politics (not politics solely as campaigning, but politics as governing), you might consider it simple and straightforward. But politics means actually addressing some of our hardest problems. Politics requires a lot of different personal attributes, as well as a lot of good luck, and it means dealing with countless unexpected contingencies. More generally, I’d say that if you look back at some of America’s best historical moments, you tend to find quite capable and quite competent political leaders who found a way to rise to the occasion and bend history towards justice. Without leaders like that, things can go south pretty fast. The 1860 election wasn’t fated. Lincoln could have lost to Breckinridge or Douglas. If that had happened our whole country’s history would have turned out dramatically differently.
But we also have to remember that most of politics does not involve dramatic battles on behalf of justice. Those grand battles do happen, but they tend to be the exception. Politics usually means trying to address concrete problems as they emerge, getting your response basically right and not fouling up, not taking actions that unintentionally set back the country in significant ways. Whether in realms of education or crime or welfare or the environment, government has to try and take these actions.
That requires a great degree of confidence (and also of course competence and wisdom) among political leaders and advisers in charge of executing policy. These officials need to discern which best policies we need most. They need to know how to implement these policies most productively. They need to know which policies to prioritize and promote right away, and which to wait on. They need to possess the knack for looking around corners to see what other challenges might be coming. They need to retain the flexibility to adjust to new circumstances. They need to be willing to revisit what they’ve accomplished, and admit to where they’ve made mistakes, where their assumptions didn’t pan out, and where to make new modifications. And they also have to push passionately and tirelessly for their ideals.
That’s asking a lot. I wouldn’t call that easy. And I’d hope that we elect knowledgeable and capable people to meet these challenges, rather than someone clearly not up to the task.
Well The Death of Politics provides an admirably self-reflective take on your own shifting perspective as a presidential adviser — as empirical evidence gradually swayed you, for instance, from believing only a religious revival could cure many of America’s most corrosive social trends, to instead asserting: “One could only come away impressed by the enduring power of policy, properly understood, to influence culture and make things better, often faster than we imagine.” So here could we take the terms “politics,” “policy,” and “government,” and talk about ways in which they overlap in this book, and ways in which they each point to something slightly different? Or how might tracing the fault-lines among these terms helps to map what The Death of Politics describes as “one of the fundamental differences between the American Right today and the conservative movement that shaped me” (a difference, basically, in whether and when a conservative considers “the activity of governing” itself legitimate)?
Good question. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would describe politics as probably the broadest canopy. Government fits under that politics canopy, and policy takes up a large part of government. Politics involves most basically how we live together, and how we govern ourselves. Aristotle characterized humans as political animals, but that designation goes beyond any specific form of government or any particular policies. It means establishing the collective values that will shape government in the first place.
Tocqueville’s emphasis on civic associations gives us a more modern sense of how politics happens. Then you start getting into governmental structures, and the individual people elected and how they conduct themselves. Policy then emerges through specific legislative proposals and executive initiatives we mentioned earlier — on education, welfare, the environment, crime, labor laws and trade laws and so forth. So that would be my most basic sketch of these discrete but interlocking levels.
In terms of where I as a conservative differ from many people on the right today, I consider the most important difference a dispositional one. The worldview, temperament, and approach to life and politics which shapes my own mode of conservatism is best represented by people like Oakeshott and Burke and Madison and Lincoln. This approach gets premised again on an epistemological modesty. It gets shaped by wariness of the mob mentality and of the dangers of demagogues who provoke anger and recklessness among the polity. It prioritizes real-life practical experience within society over more abstract speculations and ideological commitments. This conservatism respects the past, but doesn’t keep itself locked in that past. It doesn’t romanticize the past. It believes in reform, but also believes in caution and in incorporating whatever wisdom the past can provide us. Conservatives tend to react quite cautiously when it comes to revolutionary temperaments.
So, in my view, today’s American right often departs from a conservative approach. Today’s right embraces an angry populism more than a calm conservatism. And these tendencies of today’s right do predate Donald Trump. Mike Gerson and I wrote a National Affairs piece several years ago on conservative attitudes toward government. We argued that conservatives ought to respect government, that government has an important role to play in our country’s well-being. But we noted this growing (and today, almost reflexive) contempt for government, this assumption that government never does any good. That rhetoric had started getting really lazy and reckless. And today I would consider it fair to characterize most self-described conservatives instead as populists, as nationalists, sometimes as radicals — qualities I associate more often with the European right.
Here of course I also recall Ronald Reagan’s famous inaugural line that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” — as well as Reagan’s less frequently cited statement (which you quote from this same speech) that “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work…. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” Reagan, as you astutely note, was a “conservative, not an anarchist.” So what most compelling case can you make to today’s self-defined conservatives that Reagan’s legacy should stem less from a “government is the problem” reductionism, and more from the optimistic premise (here in your own rewriting) that: “The idea that politics will always be as it currently is…that what we’re experiencing today is the new and enduring normal, that things can’t get better and will only get worse…is a fatalistic trap”?
Right, I don’t think you can make a serious empirical claim that Reagan abandoned government. His administration eliminated no cabinet agencies. It added them. Reagan didn’t try to destroy or dismantle government. He tried to control its spending and size. He succeeded in some areas. In many he did not. But I often see this caricature on the left that Reagan took a machete to government and chopped off so many branches. That doesn’t correspond to the reality (for more on this topic, I’d recommend reading David Stockman’s 1987 book The Triumph of Politics). And that left perspective also fails to account for the results that Reagan’s administration did produce. During the Reagan presidency, trust in government went up, not down. A majority of Americans felt that, under Reagan’s stewardship, government functioning got in many respects better or somewhat better.
As a conservative, Reagan believed in limited government for sure. But that does not make him an anarchist in any respect. Reagan provided excellent stewardship for the country. He faced major problems in a responsible way, which of course doesn’t mean he never got things wrong, or never made bad choices. Here again, I think many Americans often hold both a too-high and (at the same time) a too-low view of government. They think too high of government in expecting it to achieve things it probably can’t achieve. They invest enormous expectations in this belief that government should fix every leaky faucet in our lives, on the one hand. But then, maybe when those hopes get disappointed, these same people can get filled with cynicism and the sense that government can’t do anything right, or that we need to take a wrecking ball to this political establishment comprised of a bunch of fools and knaves. I actually think we need to recalibrate and arrive at a more stable, somewhat lower but also somewhat higher view of what government can achieve.
Still on this topic of appropriate government intervention, but now again to fuse more broadly philosophical and more acutely political concerns, when you lament us finding ourselves increasingly trapped in a post-truth world, when you cite Trump and his associates undermining “the very idea of truth itself,” when you fear an “epistemological anarchy taking hold,” and pick up the George Orwell-esque imperative to restate the obvious and to “call out the most damaging lies,” it’s hard for me not to recall the scientist-dismissing climate-change denial, specifically within the George W. Bush administration (and occurring, of course, alongside the newly digitized formation of countless evidence-debunking, authority-disparaging communities), as something of an original sin fostering so many of today’s delusional political discussions. No doubt you might consider certain theoretical trends from the late-20th-century intellectual left to have proven equally corrosive to public discourse. Please feel free to acknowledge those here. But specifically in terms of lying, could we also get to the long-term damage to our physical, cultural, moral ecosystems brought about by recent years’ Republican climate-change denial? Is it fair to consider that the biggest lie of all in our own respective lifetimes?
First, I definitely do consider it fair to raise the question of climate-change denial within the context of this broader denial of truth and authority. I mean, that human habit of denial certainly precedes climate change. I can’t give you an anthropological or psychological or philosophical explanation for it, but it certainly manifests itself throughout human history. And I see the political left as engaging in denial of certain scientific realities — for example when it comes to unborn children and refusing to acknowledge at any point in a woman’s pregnancy that a child’s life exists, and denying the findings of ultrasound imaging. So I think both sides engage in these kinds of denial.
I wrote my first piece on climate change in 2011 for Commentary magazine. Then I did a National Affairs essay with Jim Manzi a couple years later, on conservatives and climate change. I’ve consistently said since then that climate-change denial poses a serious problem. The picture gets more cloudy when it comes to future projections — because then you have to rely on modeling, and how do you decide on which are the most responsible models, and how much certainty can you have that they’ll come to pass? And what actions should America take if we can’t expect Russia and China and India to do the same? Many legitimate issues remain open to debate: about what to expect, how to engage, how much leverage we as one country have to make a difference when it comes to a worldwide problem.
But in terms of the science itself, you can’t deny the evidence. That’s not a matter of ideology. That’s a matter of physics. If you put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, heat gets trapped and the planet warms up. The Earth just works this way. People on the right should be able to understand that. I think a lot of the objections or denial of science came from fears that the left would use climate change as a Trojan horse to pursue policies advancing a left-wing governing agenda. But whatever you may think about the politics, you should be able to agree on the science and on the reality. You should acknowledge that reality, and then devise a better way forward than what the left proposes. By contrast, this deep commitment we have seen on the right to deny climate change or to ignore global warming as a legitimate concern has produced problematic consequences both for our environment and for claims to empirical truth and empirical reality.
In our National Affairs essay, Jim and I argued that you can see a shift in recent years from complete denial to people saying: “Okay, but we’re not scientists. We don’t know how to account for this. We just don’t know the right way to respond.” Now of course you can find a different type of hypocrisy here, because these same lawmakers might never have taught a class, but have no problem casting votes and speaking out on education.
Right — for one of a billion potential counterexamples.
Sure, and again, I’ve always associated conservatism with a respect for facts and reality and human experience, and for adjusting your approach to fit your present situation. That doesn’t mean you have no foundational principles to guide you, but that you can make the necessary practical changes to keep your principles true and honest. To me, that’s prudence at its core. And our increased willingness and even eagerness today to simply deny reality because that makes us feel better, because that helps us to advance a certain perspective or certain policies, has become widespread enough to do significant damage to American democracy.
Again, all of those tendencies predated Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, but that campaign accelerated these forces to an alarming degree. Remember that Trump really entered the political arena with that whole ridiculous issue about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. I wrote a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece called “The GOP and the Birther Trap,” warning conservatives to stay away from this whole racist conspiracy theory. I don’t think they have. I think that, in embracing Donald Trump, many Republicans have embraced some of the worst tendencies on the right, certainly now including an assault on truth — and that honest conservatives should say so.
Still in terms then of internal frictions on the contemporary American right, could we address The Death of Politics’ take on evangelicals’ shifting and intensifying role within the Republican Party — palpably present, as you note, in many white evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of Trump long before he had become the inevitable Republican presidential candidate? Could we start with your acute assessment of this particular community’s current ascent to power coming “at a devastating cost to evangelicalism’s moral integrity and credibility, damage that might take generations to heal, if it ever does”? And could we bring in your broader historical argument that “precisely because of religions’ centrality to our national culture, when religion itself is corrupted, it creates problems that extend beyond religion…. It seeps into our political and cultural life”?
In terms of a loss of credibility on the religious right, I again see that predating Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the political stage. The modern religious right began in the mid to late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and others started injecting themselves into politics. By the mid 80s, you have Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech on the Soviet Union delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals.
But prior to that particular era, many people with religious sensibilities, at least in parts of the Protestant movements, stayed pretty disengaged from politics. They took a certain theological view which considered politics part of this lower state of affairs in the world. Many people of faith believed that getting involved in politics would compromise their theology and produce negative consequences. They had largely disengaged from politics, for a variety of reasons.
By the 70s, though, this group started to get reengaged on specific topics, such as abortion (but also others). Then you started to see warning signs, harmful forms of intermingling politics and religion and culture, through people like Falwell and Robertson. Their rhetoric often had a hard edge that lacked in grace. Their theology was simplistic. This theology boxed them into a narrow partisan category, which I consider harmful both for faith and for politics. They obsessed on matters of human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. When 9 / 11 happened, they called this God’s judgment on America’s waywardness on issues like abortion and homosexuality. That worried me. I wrote about my concerns at the time. Autobiographically, this had been a concern of mine almost since I started publishing my writings. I didn’t grow up as a Christian, but I became Christian at the end of high school and in college. So that intersection of faith and politics long had fascinated me, but had raised my concerns, too.
Could you offer then some concrete specifics on where you see corrupted religious practices most distorting American politics today?
Well this Donald Trump period seems especially injurious. An awful lot of white evangelical Christians rallied to Trump in the primaries, which is quite difficult to justify as an evangelical Christian. Evangelical Christians should have considered Trump, in almost every way and by almost every metric, the last person to rally behind — whether due to his personal conduct, his personal morality or public morality, his questionable commitment to conservatism, to the pro-life cause, to conservative judges. By virtually any standard, Donald Trump would wind up at the bottom of your list. Yet a lot of white evangelicals rallied to Trump during the Republican primary, and even more so since he became president.
My criticisms, as you know from reading the book, have less to do with white evangelicals who said that they voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton because they believed his policies better reflected the causes they cared about than hers. I get that argument. I don’t agree with it. I didn’t vote for either one, but I can understand.
But I do think many white evangelicals have made a serious and even disgraceful mistake by treating Trump as this almost cult-like figure. They virtually never call him out, regardless of whatever moral or ethical transgression he commits. They’ve lost the capacity, or at least the willingness, to speak truth to power and to hold powerful people accountable. For me, the real stain on this movement happens right there — when they don’t just go sotto voce in the face of Trump’s moral and ethical transgressions, but actually become his most vocal defenders. I mean, just look at people like Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Ralph Reed or Franklin Graham or Robert Jeffress or Eric Metaxas or Mike Huckabee or James Dobson or Tony Perkins. That list could go on and on. And my only consolation comes from thinking that these leaders are not speaking for this whole large and diverse movement.
I know plenty of white evangelical Christians with very mixed feelings about Donald Trump. Some openly criticize him. Some refused to vote for him. Some voted for him reluctantly. But an awful lot of white evangelicals (far too many, in my judgment) have become almost cult-like in how they follow Trump. That does enormous harm to Christian witness. It displays a staggering degree of hypocrisy. Many of these same people within this movement argued during the Bill Clinton presidency about how much personal character counted. They took a figurative two-by-four upside the head of Bill Clinton, and beat on him for acting immorally. But then we get Donald Trump, a person of borderless and boundless corruptions. And yet, all of a sudden it seems, character actually doesn’t count. You can’t watch this whole sequence without coming to the conclusion that morality has served not as an end in itself, but simply as a means to a political end — that this movement, at least many of its leaders, have weaponized faith and morality to use against liberals as a matter of convenience. As a person of Christian faith, I find that painful reality hard to stare down.
And so here could you describe what it might look like (to various Christian denominations, to religious Americans more broadly, to believers and nonbelievers alike) for religion to resume what you consider its appropriate place in American cultural and political life?
Yes I’d say several things. First, I’d say that religion and faith need to be very, very careful about getting identified with a particular party or particular ideology. From my own perspective, faith should stand in judgment of all political ideologies, all political movements. It shouldn’t get too closely braided to any of them. It never should serve some instrumental purpose for somebody’s political project. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it about right when he described religion’s proper role not as master of the state, or servant of the state, but conscience of the state. Faith, rightly understood, gives voice to social justice and to human dignity. Politics likewise should seek to bring about justice and to defend human dignity, particularly when it comes to the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human community. Religion should hold our politics to account on that basis.
Faith, at least according to my own reading of the Bible, has a particular concern for the poor and the dispossessed, for those on the margins of society and living in the shadows of society. Faith doesn’t attend exclusively to these people, but it certainly shows an awful lot of concern for these people. Faith properly understood would make the case for moral order, for moral decency, for a certain way in which human beings deal with one another. It also would incorporate grace in unusual ways. For me grace remains an extremely powerful concept, particularly when you see it play out in individual human lives. I would place an understanding of grace at the core of Christianity. But I do feel that many Christians today have lost sense and sight of that. If you asked many people (both Christians and non-Christians alike) which primary concepts they associate with Christianity, not many would say grace. Many non-Christians in fact might say: “Harshness, anger, judgment.”
To close then: as a nonbeliever, I’ve never fully grasped what Christians mean by “grace.” But I appreciate your practical fusions here of “grace” and “gratitude,” your description of “people who are grateful” being “more able to dispense grace to others.” So even for those of us who stumble on “grace,” could you describe some concrete ways in which experiencing and expressing gratitude can help to bring about a “more humane, decent, and merciful society and political culture”?
Two people at Fuller Theological Seminary have really helped shape my thinking on this, Makoto Fujimura and Mark Labberton. They speak about culture care, as opposed to culture war. They talk about what it means for Christians to view themselves as faithful exiles. Rather than viewing America as the promised land, rather than seeing it as ours to possess and reclaim whenever necessary, Mako Fujimura and Mark Labberton call on us to see ourselves as exiles and as healing agents in this community — as people who lean towards those we might perceive as rivals or opponents, rather than turning away. They call on us to find beautiful and creative ways to engage this culture and to create bridges of understanding.
For me that all gets to this connection between grace and gratitude. When you personally have received grace (a kind of unearned or unmerited favor, an extra degree of love and care and devotion, maybe from people who have stayed with you despite your own failures and flaws and imperfections, maybe from people who loved you and cared for you when you weren’t so easy to love, and to care for), that changes your heart. It changes your outlook. It changes your disposition. I won’t call it impossible, but I have a hard time picturing how you can dispense grace if you haven’t received it. Or maybe I should just say that receiving grace makes it much easier to dispense grace, probably because receiving grace creates space in your heart for gratitude. That makes your own spirit more capacious. That makes you more thankful for all the people in this world who themselves dispense grace, kindness, tenderness, mercy — because we all need these in life. We need these in our individual lives, above all, but we also need them in our political lives.
As a conservative, I have a tendency to recognize how often things do or could go quite profoundly wrong. But that also can make you grateful when things go right. My close friend Yuval Levin has written well on how progressives and conservatives can here help each other. Progressives often might find themselves driven by a sense of unhappiness with injustice. And we need that piston in our democracy’s engine, always pushing for change, always alert to examples of injustice happening all around us. And here conservatives also have something important to say — about not capriciously overthrowing the existing order without knowing what will replace it, about respecting and expressing a deep gratitude for all that we have achieved, about knowing how hard it is to achieve good things. If we could bring more of that gratitude into our public conversations today, we could sand off some of the rougher edges between these two necessary positions. We would feel less acrimony and less hatred for one another.
So now returning to this concept of grace: a big part of it involves recognizing our own failures and flaws, and acknowledging that we don’t live our lives exactly as we ought to, that we don’t see things exactly as we should, that we’ll always remain imperfect vessels. Here again I think that holding onto gratitude could help us engage with one another in a more decent way, for one thing — but it also would help us to learn from each other much more than we do now, and so actually would make us more grateful for one another. We ourselves become less hypercritical when we move beyond the inclination to view those who see things differently than we do as somehow alien or intellectually and morally defective.
Of course I struggle with this as much as the next person. I have to check myself on all those things. And I have my own political beliefs and policy preferences, which I try to lay out in this book, and with which some readers would disagree. To be honest, in this current political moment, I find myself sometimes at loggerheads not just with very vocal Trump supporters, but with former colleagues, with old friends, with people whose party I once considered myself a part of. So I personally try to be extra careful about not looking down on anybody. I want to hear from Trump supporters about their perspective, their life experiences, and how they see things. I don’t expect that they will change my fundamental view of Donald Trump, or that I will change theirs. I just always want to expand the possibilities for us to understand each other a little bit better, and to turn the temperature down rather than up in our politics.