[Editor’s Note: Peter Wehner is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, former senior White House aide for President George W. Bush. He has written a new book called The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. Speaking to Kathryn Jean Lopez, Wehner talks about what he has described as “death-match” politics is doing to us and what can be done to change course.]
Lopez: If we have come to think of politics as “nasty, brutish, and depressing,” what is that doing to our souls?
Wehner: It’s damaging them. Just as culture influences politics, politics influences culture; it’s part of the water we swim in. And when the water is polluted, there are consequences. Now I don’t for a moment believe politics is anything like the most important thing when it comes to the state of our souls. But it matters. And we know from history that when a nation’s politics goes bad, really bad, it can be soul-crushing.
What ought to be the Christian difference in politics?
Christians should bring to politics a certain anthropology, by which I mean a belief that people have intrinsic worth because they are made in the image of God and should therefore be treated with some degree of dignity. Dehumanizing those with whom we disagree is not what Christians should be characterized by. That doesn’t mean that they don’t call out evil acts or people doing evil things; Jesus called out the religious authorities and hypocrites in his time. Yet there should be lines we don’t cross.
But it involves a good deal more than that. Christians should be deeply committed not to power but to justice, the common good and moral excellence. When necessary they should act with urgency. They should stand up for the weak and defenseless, the vulnerable, the stranger and alien. Christians should never allow themselves to become pawns in political power games and should maintain a safe distance from the principalities and powers of this world. And their involvement should be characterized by a certain generosity of spirit, a healing touch, and now and then by grace.
As a general matter I’d say Christians need to be less fearful and more hopeful, less anxious and more confident that God is sovereign and his purposes don’t ultimately rest on their efforts. Christians engaged in public life should model calm trust rather than panic and vitriol born of anxiety. We are called to be faithful, not successful; to act with integrity, not to become just another special interest group whose worth is measured by its influence on the politically powerful.
James Forsyth, the senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian, a wonderful church where I and my family attend, put it to me this way. “We need a gospel culture as opposed to a political culture. Jesus challenges all our categories – political, theological, ethnic, racial, cultural.” And then he added, “What we need is a humble remapping of cultural engagement.” That sounds right to me.
What’s the examination of conscience you’d hope all religious believers do about now?
Let me speak for the Christian faith, which is the one I know best. It seems to me that followers of Jesus need to ask a series of interlocking questions: Am I acting with moral and intellectual integrity? Is my involvement in politics compromising my public witness? Is my faith being subordinated to my political ideology? Am I acting in ways that radiate fear or hope? Grace or grievances? How is my conduct in politics lining up with the “fruits of the spirit”? Most of us can do better than we are.
Several years ago Steve Hayner, who was president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, told me, “Political convictions that lead toward redemption and reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.” This isn’t a prescription for a particular kind of political involvement. It’s certainly not a road map on how to deal with complicated public issues. It is, however, a reflection on how Christians should engage the world, including the political world. There is great wisdom in Steve’s insight.
How does discernment work in politics?
Discernment refers to the ability to apply principles to particular issues in particular circumstances. Discernment is good judgment, wisdom, insight; the ability to take into account a variety of facts and circumstances and make the right decision in light of those things. So for example, for those serving in government it’s not enough to come down on the right side of an issue, which can be challenging enough at times; you also need to factor in the chance for legislative success, the cost of failure, timing and sequencing, and how that issue fits into a larger agenda. There’s no book you can pull off the shelf to tell you exactly how and when to act.
Where do we go from this moment on abortion?
It seems to me the pro-life movement needs to continue a multi-pronged approach – challenging through the appropriate means pernicious legal decisions, prudentially advocating pro-life legislation in the states, offering humane alternatives to abortion, and continuing to win hearts and minds.
There’s encouraging news on this front. The number of abortions in America is now at the lowest rate since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided. The number of abortions per year have dropped from 1.6 million in 1990 to fewer than a million based on the most recent data. That’s far more than there should be, but far fewer than there has been. And it’s worth noting that the number of abortions declined during the two-term presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which should remind cultural conservatives that good things can happen even when we have liberal presidents.
What do you hope—and pray?—might be some of the most practical takeaways from your book?
I hope people who read my book will come away believing that politics matters; that politics can be saved; and that we have it within our power to save it.
We are citizens in a self-governing nation, so we have it within our capacity to shape our future, to write wonderful new chapters in the American story. But it’s not inevitable that we do so. It will require focus, will and effort.
There are things we can do at a national, state and local level, in our communities and in our daily lives, to make our politics and our nation better. There are obvious things we can do, such as voting in elections at every level and rewarding leaders who demonstrate integrity and appeal to our better angels, not our worst impulses. There are plenty of practical ways we can influence those who represent us. We need to care enough about truth to reject propaganda from politicians who spew them. We can venture out of our ideological bubbles, listen well to each other, and recover the true purposes of dialogue and debate, which is to seek truth rather than victory.
One of the things I argue in the book is that our broken and acrimonious state of politics reflects the broken and acrimonious state of our nation. And so we can do more to become healing agents in our communities and in individual lives. We can model civility, temperance, humility, tolerance, honesty, compassion, decency and grace in our relationships. We can learn from neuroscience that witnessing kindness inspires kindness. Christians can look at politics not simply through the prism of culture wars but culture care, to use the lovely phrase of Mako Fujimura of Fuller Seminary. One person acting alone may not be able to do much; many people acting together create a culture.
The most important thing we can do is to change our attitude toward politics, to recognize that if we get it wrong, so much that we know and love stands to be swept away. And when we get our politics right, it can lead to greater human flourishing.
At the end of the book, I write about Bobby Kennedy’s five-day trip to South Africa in 1966. It included a speech at the University of Cape Town, where he warned against “the danger of futility: The belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.” Kennedy then added this:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
We’re not living in South Africa in 1966; we don’t have to overthrow an apartheid regime. But the point still holds – we need to stand up for ideals; we need to act to improve the lot of others; we need to strike out against injustice where we find it; and when we do, those ripples can create great currents of justice.
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