The Endless Skirmish Between Liberalism and Religion
The death of a speechwriter to George W. Bush prompts me to revisit my views on faith in politics
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The death of Michael Gerson last week hit me surprisingly hard. It was surprising because I never met or even interacted with Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and later a columnist for The Washington Post. But I’ve been aware of him for about 20 years, he was a minor presence in my first book (The Theocons), he died of cancer at the relatively young age of 58 (which is just five years older than I am), and I’m still grieving my father’s recent death. The last of these has left me more sensitive to suffering, struggle, and loss than I used to be. (Read this moving remembrance and tribute from Gerson’s close friend Peter Wehner to see just how much he suffered and struggled over the last 18 years of his life.)
Calling All Christians
Because news of Gerson’s passing touched me, I’ve been led to reflect on what I used to think of him, his White House colleagues, and the president they worked for—and how that assessment has (or hasn’t) changed over the intervening years. These reflections have been helped along by The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last, a loyal friend to “Eyes on the Right,” who wrote his own moving tribute to Gerson that put the question of his religious faith front and center.
Gerson was a devout evangelical Protestant whose piety led him to champion the Bush administration’s arduous (and remarkably effective) efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. It also convinced him years later to reject Donald Trump and everything he stood for, and to devote a good portion of his writing since 2016 to trying (and largely failing) to persuade his co-religionists and fellow conservatives to reject the populist demagogue.
This cluster of commitments and public stands leads Last to generalize in a way that directly challenges the kinds of arguments I made in The Theocons (and somewhat revised or moderated in my second book, The Religious Test). Here’s Last:
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….
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.
Has politics warped American Christianity? Absolutely. Last is also right that politically engaged believers now often espouse a version of faith that is more a symbol of political and cultural identity than an expression of devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In the final chapter of The Theocons, I talked about the danger of politics polluting Christianity. Given the trajectory of the religious right over the intervening 16 years, those passages hold up quite well. But I’m afraid I still can’t give a blanket endorsement to Last’s call for the opposite—namely, “more Christian influence in our politics.”
Religions in Politics
Last’s case begins with the example of Gerson himself and his salutary influence on the Bush administration, but then it moves on to the usual examples of religion playing a positive role in American history: the people who were moved by their belief to fight for the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century and to protest for civil rights a century later. This is a vision of Christians acting like Old Testament prophets, rising above politics and partisanship to render stern judgment from on high, calling the nation to a new (or renewed) commitment to its highest theologically founded moral ideals.
I admire those religiously inspired interventions as much as anyone who takes morality and politics seriously, but I don’t think those few examples justify an unconditional endorsement of a religiously infused politics.
Appealing to a higher, theological standard of judgment above politics can, in theory, act as a moderating influence that inspires humility, restraint, and even wisdom. But it often does the opposite—inspiring imprudent acts and judgments. That’s because God doesn’t communicate His wishes to everyone equally, like a righteous activist standing on a proverbial soap box with a bullhorn. That leads to considerable disagreement about precisely what kind of political intervention He favors—and also about precisely who is empowered to speak in His name.
Roman Catholics think God placed the deposit of faith in the hands of the Church, which preserves and hands it down through the centuries and millennia. That makes the institutional edifice of the Church from the pope on down an intermediary between the faithful and God, and therefore a rival source of authority outside of and above the political community. It’s not at all surprising, then, that so much of politics in the medieval world involved conflicts between kings or emperors and popes over which one had the ultimate say in matters of government.
Judaism and Islam each have their own, somewhat less hierarchical and institutional, and more diffuse and conflictual, traditions of scriptural interpretation that guide how the members of each community of faith conceives of the proper interaction between God’s law and the positive (humanly authored) laws that order concrete political communities in the world.
Finally, Protestant Christians, especially in the United States, have typically granted even less power to ecclesiastical authorities and permitted dissenters to branch off on their own to form new denominations when disputes arise. This has led to an incredible proliferation of Protestant churches—and, at the furthest extreme, to the rise of evangelical forms of worship that devolve theological authority all the way down to each individual, producing America’s endlessly churning religious life, with new forms of faith and worship arising all the time, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and dangerous.
Is this good for American politics? I think it’s pretty obviously a mixed bag. On the one hand, we get Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theologically infused crusade for civil rights. On another hand, we get the religiously inspired pro-life movement. On yet another hand, we got an ill-considered foreign policy from Gerson’s boss motivated in part by the theologically grounded, proselytizing impulse to spread democracy around the globe and “end tyranny in our world.” And on a final hand, we get QAnon and somewhat less overtly cultish variations on religiously inspired political hero-worship.
A Call to Humility and Mutual Respect
From the standpoint of liberal-democratic politics, the person who engages in public life for reasons rooted in faith is a potential civic danger. When that person’s faith is fervent and certain, or when the believer is unwilling to compromise or accept the need to “rule and be ruled in turn” by those of other faiths and no faith, the result can be civil strife or efforts at using government power to impose religious edicts on the pluralistic polity as a whole.
Of course, the religiously devout aren’t the only people who are prone to act in a way that fails to exemplify the spirit of liberality or civic generosity. As I discussed in my second book, the “New Atheists” of the 2000s did much the same thing out of anti-theological conviction. Those who adhere to certain extreme secular ideologies of the far left and right often fall prey to similarly illiberal impulses, too.
Liberalism is better off when these tendencies are tamed. The best way to accomplish that goal is to rely on civic education that instills lessons in epistemic humility and mutual respect for fellow citizens. But of course, such education will only receive political support if our fellow Americans already want to produce humble and respectful citizens in the first place.
I hope it’s clear that my appeal to civic education isn’t an endorsement of excluding religion from politics entirely. (“Tamed” above doesn’t mean “wiped out.”) Fearing that my occasionally sharp rhetoric in The Theocons made it sound like I was endorsing the Jeffersonian metaphor of a strict and high wall of separation between church and state, I proposed a different image in The Religious Test: a constantly moving skirmish line between politics and religion, with the two sides pushing each other back and forth across a battlefield over time. To preserve what’s best (most decent and admirable) on both sides of that line, each must be granted a degree of authority and autonomy to push back against the other.
Religion sometimes helps, but it sometimes harms. I agree with Jonathan Last that the country would benefit from more Christianity in its politics—provided it was the kind of Christianity Michael Gerson professed and practiced. The problem, though, is that Gerson was an uncommonly decent and humble Christian. We can’t expect as much from all of our neighbors. Which is why it is wise not to place too much faith in … anyone—be they princes, priests, ministers, or would-be saviors on either side of the skirmish line.
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I had intended to comment on JVL's Triad about religion in the political and civil sphere, but by the time I got around to it, there were already 100+ comments and I didn't bother. The reason I mention this is that--as usual--Damon has said what I wanted to in a much more thoughtful and eloquent manner. I tend to be very wary of mixing religion with politics, mostly because of my increasingly cynical view of human nature (oh, how I miss my idealist college years). However, I absolutely recognize the good that religion can provide society and specifically politics. Damon's call for a humble application of one's beliefs to political ideals and actions is one that needs amplification on a national scale. The problem--which is one as old as humanity--is our tendency to warp and abuse religion for selfish (and/or nefarious) ends. It's a shame that religious people like Gerson appear to be the minority in public life, while demagogues like Marjorie Taylor Greene dominate the spotlight.
On a lighter note, and in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, I'd like to indulge a bit of kiss-assery and thank Damon for his outstanding work. I became aware of his work thanks to The Bulwark and when he announced this project, I subscribed without hesitation. Your weekly missives are a delight to read and I learn something from each one. Keep up the excellent work and I hope you have a great holiday.
Good morning Mr. Linker.
I first became aware of your writings during the 2016 presidential campaign, recognizing your views as the exact opposite of mine, but expressed nonetheless by a thoughtful sincere human being. I’ve been viewing your Substack ‘Eyes on the Right’ column for several months, and your headline this morning ‘The Endless Skirmish Between Liberalism and Religion’ caught my eye more than any other. But this article was behind a paywall. It persuaded me to subscribe (your welcome).
I’m going to try to describe me in a paragraph or two to keep this comment a comment and not a book. But I’m hoping I can intrigue you enough to want to correspond and get to know me as a devout Christian, but one that is (was) frustrated to no end by the Michael Gersons and David Frenches of the world. And, for that matter, frustrated by the Damon Linkers of the world for espousing a worldview that I believe is flawed at the foundational level.
As a Christian, I believe the most important political aspiration in the United States today should be the preservation of our Constitution as it was originally written and amended. It is based upon Judeo-Christian principles, ensures religious freedom, and is the best framework ever put into practice that promotes a pluralistic society. As a Christian, I believe in a pluralistic society and have no thought whatsoever of imposing my Christian beliefs on others, although I want to have the freedom to try to persuade others that it is a worldview like none other.
I believe that Donald Trump, in 2016, was the best hope for Christians in their goal of preserving the Constitution. I believe that Donald Trump has been a net-positive influence since he walked down that famous escalator. Until his entry into the 2024 campaign and his denouncement of his more polished protégé, Ron DeSantis, I believed he was the best candidate for the Country. I no longer believe that.
Christians don’t need to, and shouldn’t, enforce a Christian character test on their political choices. Donald Trump was the favorite of Christians of most stripes and of working-class Americans (of all races) because he believed in them, and the freedoms embedded in our Constitution. And he wasn’t afraid to play the Washingtonian ‘Game of Thrones’ we call American politics. And, for the most part, he played the game better than anyone else.
If you have more interest in my thinking (which I believe is the thinking of tens of millions of Americans), I hope you might have interest in reading The Biblical Christian Worldview – 2016, by P B Turner, available at Amazon or pb-turner.com. If not, I still plan on reading your ‘Eyes on the Right’, at least until my subscription runs out. Have a blessed day.