Mike Gerson and Christian Politics
The problem isn't too much Christianity in politics. It's too much politics in Christianity.
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1. Sliding Doors
Mike Gerson died this morning. Once upon a time, I interviewed for a job with him. He was staffing up the speechwriting shop for the incoming Bush administration. He offered me the gig. I didn’t take it. I’ve often wondered if that was a hinge-point for me.
On the one hand, it probably was. That’s a pretty big fork in the professional road. But on the other hand, over time I became friendly with just about every person Gerson did hire. I probably feel as warmly about these people today as I would have if I’d worked with them for a couple years.
So maybe we all end up where we’re going to end up.
I want to make clear that I was in no way one of Gerson’s friends. I knew him very little. But the way he conducted himself in public life over the last 20 years was exceptional.
Evangelical Christians have, as a class, not covered themselves in glory over the last few years. But Gerson was the real deal. He was charitable to people he disagreed with. He was one of the driving forces behind the Bush administration’s efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. He stood firm against the illiberal drift of the Republican party and tried, repeatedly, to persuade his coreligionists to turn away from the political toxicity which had corrupted their Christian identities.
In this last bit, Gerson wasn’t an apostate. He didn’t change his mind. He didn’t try to bludgeon Trumpy Evangelicals. He tried to remind and persuade. He called his brothers and sisters to fix their eyes on the cross.
He was a guy who was, all the time, working in earnest good faith.
I often hear people complain about the impact of religion on politics, but to my mind, the problem is exactly the opposite. The problem is that politics has warped American Christianity so that it has become more of an identity-based political movement than a devotion to the teachings of Christ.
We could actually do with more Christian influence in our politics, to be honest. The kind of Christianity that values human dignity and cares most for the weakest. That seeks to persuade through love and charity rather than imposing through force and power.
Gerson understood this dichotomy. Here are two passages from the Washington Post’s obituary:
“It is a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse,” Mr. Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It removes one of the primary sources of visions of justice in American history.” . . .
“That’s a different kind of conservatism,” he told the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” in 2007, “a conservatism of the common good that argues that we need to orient our policies towards people that might not even vote for us.”
You can see how both of these impulses have been corrupted as politics infested American Christianity.1
And today, when rad-trad Christians talk about “common good conservatism,” they’re most definitely not interested in orienting policies toward anyone who might not vote for them. They’re talking about illiberal democracy and theocracy, even. They’re interested in power, pure and simple.
At the risk of stating the obvious: This is all quite dangerous.
I wish we had more of the unpoliticized Christianity that Gerson brought to the public square. I hope we get more Evangelical Christians like him.2
Gerson was also a fine writer. This column about parenthood from 2013 didn’t make much sense to me at the time, because my oldest was still very small. But today it reads like a dispatch from my future:
Eventually, the cosmologists assure us, our sun and all suns will consume their fuel, violently explode and then become cold and dark. Matter itself will evaporate into the void and the universe will become desolate for the rest of time.
This was the general drift of my thoughts as my wife and I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college. I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most. . . .
I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life.
But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.
There is no use brooding about it. I’m sure my father realized it at a similar moment. And I certainly didn’t notice or empathize. At first, he was a giant who held my hand and filled my sky. Then a middle-aged man who paid my bills. Now, decades after his passing, a much-loved shadow. But I can remember the last time I hugged him in the front hallway of his home, where I always had a room. It is a memory of warmth. I can only hope to leave my son the same.
Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough.
2. Fantasy Politics
A thought exercise: How could Nancy Pelosi cause trouble for the Republicans in the