Michael Gerson: There’s a capacity for intolerance in every religious faith and there’s a message of brotherhood and unity in every faith. The key comes to emphasizing one at the expense of the other. And that’s maybe just the way human beings are constituted.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is a podcast about big decisions. The kinds we face when failure is not an option. The kind that Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn the boats. There was no turning back. Starting from my time as a Navy pilot, I’ve learned a lot about do-or-die decisions. I’ve drawn inspiration from history and from people with whom I’ve served. There’s almost nothing I respect more than the person who believes in something enough to risk everything for it. Because history belongs to those who burn the boats.
In our first episode, I talk to Michael Gerson, presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush, who authored some of the most memorable lines of that presidency. In the years since, he has become a powerful voice of dissent in the Republican establishment. I talk to Mike about the role faith plays in democracy, tensions between politics and friendship, and the limits of empathy in today's political climate.
Michael Gerson, welcome to the show. You're a columnist, political commentator, and presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush, some of whom's most notable lines during his presidency are your words. I'm thinking of the rallying cry, “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” as one of them. There are many more, but I think the theme that runs through your speechwriting for President Bush that resonates most with me and will probably be the defining aspect of your legacy, your contribution to President George W. Bush’s words, is the theme of faith. I'd love to get your thoughts on how faith, and in particular your Christian faith, informs the way you chose to serve President Bush?
MG: Yeah, well, it's great to be with you and that is a topic that is close to my heart. I am a person of faith and the president was as well. But when you're in government, your goal is to be pluralistic, it’s to be welcoming of all faiths. So the rhetoric becomes a little different when you're president than you would as a private citizen. You're not just speaking for yourself. There are some people who are secularists who believe that all religious language should be scrubbed from our public life and I disagree with that vigorously. I think a lot of the great movements of conscience in American history, whether it's abolition or the civil rights movement or women's rights had roots in religious reasoning, religious language, and that still needs to be true. But you do have a responsibility when you're in government to be welcoming of all faiths and people of no faith at all. And we tried to do that, to speak to these issues of human rights and dignity from a religious perspective, but also to leave room so that we weren't imposing anything on others.
KH: How well do you think that balance is being struck today, when I fear that faith is being repurposed as a tool of division? Am I am I overstating it?
MG: No, you're not overstating it at all. I've been a real critic of where really the majority of the Evangelical movement has headed as one of the most loyal elements of the Trump coalition. I find that very hard to justify. You know, the situation there is that this is a group that feels like they have been outsiders. They've been condescended towards by elite culture. It’s a very defensive group of people and Trump came in and said, “I'm going to be the bully who defends you.” Now, that's politically understandable, but it has nothing to do with the Christian approach to public life, which is the pursuit of the common good, which is the defense of human dignity. And instead of being distinguished by those characteristics, this has become a very partisan movement at this point and they’ve allied themselves with someone who flirts with white nationalism and that's an alliance that in the long run is going to cost Evangelical Christians and others a great deal. It's going to be deeply discrediting to their standing as religious leaders and and that I think ultimately is a bad thing, because I do believe that religion can play an important role in our common life and I'm very disappointed and disturbed in the way that religion is being currently utilized in our politics.
KH: You make it clear though that your faith and your religious precepts have been a motivator for your outspokenness, for your defection, one of the most high-profile defections from the Republican Party. And I would love your thoughts on that, because you clearly have a different interpretation of what your faith requires of you than a large number, perhaps the majority if the polls are correct, of Evangelical Christians.
MG: I certainly do and it is, to some extent, a theological and philosophical difference. I think that the great tradition of Christian social thought and engagement puts the common good at the center of Christian social engagement. Not just seeking your own good at the expense of others, but actually being known for the defense of everyone's rights, for the pursuit of everyone's good. So the common good is one element. In the Catholic tradition, solidarity is another element, which means the justice of a society is judged by the treatment of its weakest members. That I think is a great Christian contribution to our public debates. And that I think is not being clarified today. I mean the Christians, I think, should be at the forefront of defending the rights and dignity of say migrants or refugees or defending the religious rights of Muslims, not only their own rights. In Catholic social thought, there's another principle called subsidiarity, which says that institutions closest to individuals provide best for their needs. And that does mean that we need a healthy civic sector, respecting the rights of religious institutions and encouraging them to be part of the solution to social problems. But right now, I don't think we're seeing really any of those elements - solidarity or subsidiarity or a Christian notion of the human person. So I think that a politics that doesn't include those elements is not reflecting the best of the Christian tradition and I've made that case.
KH: You make it very eloquently, especially when you talk about solidarity, but there's the other truism about faith, that its central conceit is this presumption of a special relationship with the divine. I mean, that's what defines a faith, this assumption that its adherents are more right than than other adherents, and I wonder if faith by its nature can foment tribalism. Is that a concern of yours?
MG: Well, it certainly, just as a matter of history, has sometimes done that, there's absolutely no question. The content of your faith makes a huge difference. Christianity at its best has put the rights of the individual to freedom of conscience and the dignity of individuals and has taken those and injected them in our political life in ways that have been profoundly positive. if you look at something like, say, the Wesleyan movement in Great Britain and the United States at the foundations of the Second Great Awakening, Wesley was not a democrat. He was a strong monarchist. But he believed that every human person had the ability to choose for God, that this message was addressed to everyone and that God had concern for everyone. When you hold that type of view, as many did in the Wesleyan movement, it became the basis of a democratic culture in Great Britain and the United States. It became, you know, a culture that honors the priority of conscience. There's nothing more important than the ability to make choices and those have to be free choices, they can't be compelled choices, and I think that that's very consistent with democratic theory. And it certainly was in the development of democracy, the unfolding of democracy in Britain and the United States. Another example of that would certainly be the Civil Rights movement in the United States, which in many ways was based in the African-American prophetic tradition of Christianity, but that tradition made clear that justice includes everyone. So I think you can find examples both ways.
KH: You certainly can. There seems to be the weaponization of Evangelical thought for the dehumanization of others and it raises for me the specter- you just talked about democratic theory. That's relatively new when compared to the history of faith and I wonder if these values that you're upholding, the rights of the individual, the collective good as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and democratic theory are a blip in the history of faith traditions, or if we have the potential to return to something in faith traditions that is more original and will get us over this horrible period where faith is being used to dehumanize others.
MG: it's an interesting argument. I mean a lot of Enlightenment thought about political philosophy came out of an era of religious wars that were the bad example. They were what societies don't want to do. I mean, we've had periods in Western history where religion has played a destructive role and, you know, America reacted against that tradition with both Enlightenment thought, but also then a kind of strand or form of Judeo-Christian ideas that was consistent with Democratic ideas. And both of those played an important role in the American founding. You know, the priority of the individual came both from Enlightenment thought and from the, really the Second Great Awakening in the United States, the religious ideal of human dignity. Now that has, you know, sometimes been badly abused in our history. It's not unprecedented, for example, for religious people to resent outsiders and immigrants. You saw with the great immigration that took place in the early 20th century, late 19th century, that a lot of Protestants reacted very badly to the arrival of, you know, Irish and German and other migrants that they considered to be really less than human in some ways. So you do have those examples, but then you have examples like I've been talking about, where you have the opposite. There's a capacity for intolerance in every religious faith and there's a message of brotherhood and unity in every faith.The key comes to emphasizing one at the expense of the other. And that’s maybe just the way human beings are constituted.
KH: Well, there certainly is that potential for intolerance in every faith and hopefully that is realized seldom, but there is always the exclusive nature of faith, that conceit I referred to of a special relationship with the divine and its potential as we're seeing now to separate people. I wonder if you can point to a period in our history, in American history, where faith traditions of all stripes have been deployed in a way that has united us, that has brought us together. I'm looking for some reassurance that we can return, if there is a place to return to, to a faith tradition that brings us all closer together instead of highlights our differences.
MG: Well, I think what's necessary here and what has often been shown in American history, is a principled pluralism, the idea that human beings have certain rights and certain dignity and that they have the capacity to choose major things, including their view of the universe and salvation and their view of human dignity. In a pluralistic system, you're essentially recognizing the rights of others to come to other conclusions. And that I think is related to a Christian notion of humanity. This idea of the individual as capable to choose eternal things is actually encourages, should encourage, a kind of pluralism that says we can't impose those views on others. And so you have traditions in the United States like the Baptists, who were very concerned about church-state separation because they had been persecuted when there was a majority faith or a established faith. And their tradition, up until recently in our history, was very much a tradition committed to pluralism and the separation, appropriate separation, of church and state. And so, I look at American history and I think it's undeniable that our country would be more cruel and less just if religious people did were not captured by some notion of what it means to be a Christian in public life and other traditions as well. There is an essential exclusivity of any orthodox faith of believing that others are wrong, but being wrong does not mean that they lose rights. That I think is where you, you know, where the danger comes is the assumption that if someone is wrong that they have fewer rights in our society.
KH: I'm trying to translate that value as you've described it into something universal or even, forgive me, secular and the word that comes to mind is empathy. Empathy as the antidote to tribalism, to Trumpism itself. What do you think of that translation?
MG: I completely agree with that. That is a value that also has roots in non-religious sources and in religious sources and comes from a variety of motivations, but this idea that we identify particularly with those who are oppressed or outsiders and that we recognize essentially, you know, a dignity in them that is the same as we apply to ourselves. And putting yourselves in the shoes of someone else, that is a really important democratic skill. There are certain things about being a citizen that need to be exercised like muscles. One of them is, as I was talking, a concern for the common good, but I think another one is an ability to put yourself in the shoes of other people. To treat people the way you would want to be treated yourself. Now, of course that has religious resonance in a lot of different traditions, but it is a democratic habit that needs to be cultivated in our society. I mean, kids need to be taught empathy when they're growing up in order for them to be citizens who take their common responsibility seriously, their responsibility to others. And so we need things like principles like that to take us out of ourselves to take us out of a natural selfishness that I think is a reality of human nature and allow us to be involved in a common enterprise with other people that we care about even when we disagree with them and that's the democratic ideal.
KH: I'm not just encouraged but emboldened by your description of the religious resonance of empathy, but more importantly the democratic resonance of empathy and this idea that it takes practice. But I wonder how you exercise that muscle in such a large and diverse country where not everyone can visit a migrant camp, not everyone can serve on the front lines of some of our nation's greatest social challenges. Outside of religious traditions, how do you provide that training or does it depend on a faith tradition to teach empathy?
MG: I think in many ways our faith traditions teach that. I think though, that there are other schools of empathy in our society now. I think family to some extent is an institution that takes us out of ourselves and forces us to be committed to others. But that then expands into local communities where I think every single American has the opportunity to show their concern for their neighbors by being involved in a kind of civic effort. And yeah, I've been a big supporter for example of national service. Not a compulsory system, you know, like the draft, but a social expectation of service that would allow young people to take a year of their lives and spend it in pursuing the common good, in serving their neighbors. That to me would be a school of empathy and an opportunity to teach young people the importance of service. You know, we are a democratic system, a pluralistic democratic system, that depends on certain values that are not cultivated by politics itself. They're usually cultivated in other circumstances, in communities and in families and religious institutions and charitable institutions. The health and strength of those institutions really matters. They're training people to be involved in causes larger than themselves.
KH: I'm glad that you mentioned national service, because a question I have been dying to ask for 19 years now is why wasn't there a push for that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? When there was that moment of national unity, why couldn't we have issued the rallying cry then for Americans to come together in a real way and serve alongside each other?
MG: I can show you the speeches where that was a challenge that was made and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the applications for Americorps, which is a Clinton-era program of national service, and for the Peace Corps doubled and tripled. People really did want to be involved in those efforts and-
KH: Well, sure. And it’s harder to get into Americorps today as it was then, than it is to get into Harvard, but the slots didn’t-
MG: No, I agree with that. I don't think it has ever been funded and expanded the way it needs to be. You know, I'm involved in an effort to promote national service and there are probably close to a million people in the United States that want to serve in some capacity or another but aren't accommodated by the structures that would allow them to do that. There are hundreds of thousands of people that want to be more involved in their communities, that want their children to be more involved. Right now we're not meeting that demand. I completely agree with you. I mean, we expanded these programs in the aftermath of 9/11 in incremental ways and that's what the Congress was willing to do. And I think we need a candidate - I don't really see one on either side - who takes up this cause and makes it a centerpiece commitment of a presidential campaign. It should be.
KH: I wonder if maybe we are at another critical moment in the history of this movement, as I would define the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but with as much division as we have within our society and the very few things that can unite us to overcome them, I wonder if there is an opening here for some genuine progress on the national service front.
MG: Well, I think your insight is exactly right. I mean, when you want to build unity, it's not always helpful just to get people in a room and have them argue it out. Sometimes it's helpful to give people that have different views a common goal, something that they cooperate on and agree on together and work on together. That I think can build those ties of respect that say my opponent is not my enemy. And this is one reason I think service is so important. It's not just dialogue. It's finding ways for people of different social, political, and economic backgrounds to mix with one another in ways that humanize people that seem very foreign to them. We don't have many sources right now of that type of mixing that expose us to people of good will who disagree with us or come from a very different background. You know, I think that that those common experiences can be very important in America.
KH: Does that notion have a limit though, this idea that “my opponent is not my enemy”? When does this universal value of empathy reach its breaking point?
MG: Well, I don't want to be unrealistic about this. We have a political system, a democratic system, that's designed for disagreement. It's presumed by our founders and built into our founding theory that we're going to factions that support this, factions that support that, they're going to need to compromise and come to some type of agreement. So we have a system that assumes disagreement. But I think a system that is undermined by contempt or a belief that other people are not true citizens or true Americans, that I think puts sand in the gears of that democratic system, makes it impossible to come to compromise, makes moderation impossible and civility much more difficult. So there is something big at stake here. I'm not presuming that people are going to agree on everything. I mean, that's not the nature of a democracy, but when they hold one another in contempt and particularly when they think of one another as lesser Americans, that makes democracy very very hard, it undermines the theory of our system of government.
KH: But surely given the the outrages we are witnessing, many perpetrated in the name of our government, there are things and I dare say people who deserve to be held in contempt and I'm wondering how empathy butts up against that? At what point do we have to call out the money changers in the temple?
MG: Well, I don't think that that empathy and kind of democratic citizenship is inconsistent with holding views very strongly. I mean, I'm a columnist, I hold views very strongly and I also have been very very critical of the president, both of his record and his character, because I think-
KH: Do you empathize with the president?
MG: You have to empathize with him as a human being, because he's a human being. You know, in a lot of faith traditions, including mine in the Episcopal tradition, we pray for the president every Sunday. It doesn't come naturally to me, given my political views, but it actually is an important exercise, but that does not diminish my zeal in criticizing the president for a particular reason: he is engaged in the type of dehumanization that undermines our political system. He is the one that’s excusing and encouraging the type of anger and resentment and dehumanization that makes democracy difficult and he does need to be called out on that. Now, I don't think that that is itself dehumanization, that I think is serious politics. And what we're deciding in public are not minor things. They're very important things about our common life and we should feel strongly about them. But when I get into a situation where I disagree with someone strongly and I'm thinking that they don't have good intentions or they're not good Americans, I think you can cross a line. And it's a line I try to watch, but it's a hard one for a columnist.
KH: Maybe it would help me to understand better what you mean then by empathy, because I find it very hard after a certain point to empathize with the hate group, to empathize with perpetrators of those dehumanizing rallying cries.
MG: You've identified the hard cases and they're very hard for me. But I look to someone like Martin Luther King who talked about the strength to love and the fact that he did not respond to his oppressors, people that were brutal oppressors, with brutal hatred. He felt like that was diminishing to himself and to the country. He did something unbelievably difficult, which was you know to tell his followers who were being beaten and dogs put on them not to hate their oppressors. That- I don't know if I could do that, to be completely honest, just in my own case. But it is an example, a historical example, that it is possible to believe something so strongly you're willing to sacrifice your life for it, but to do so in a way that does not turn your other citizens into your permanent enemies.
KH: And do you think that extraordinary example of a commitment to pacifism in the face of unthinkable brutality is equally applicable today, especially for those in positions of political power?
MG: Yea, well, we're fortunately not in a situation like the late 1960s with riots and with protests and with political assassinations, but I think that it's very very important to be clear that this is an important moment where some of the most important things about our country are being clarified and the definition of our nation in many ways is being clarified, either is an ethno-nationalist definition, which means that anyone coming from the outside is going to adulterate it or make it less pure, and then another view of the nation that says it's rooted in ideals, enduring ideals of the Declaration that anyone can join by sharing and ultimately citizens can live in a diverse society by being committed to certain common themes and ideals. That is a very important choice and I'm not going to minimize that and I'm not going to back down when people dispute it, but to some extent, the point you're trying to make in that case is a point about human dignity and universal human rights and dignity. To live consistent with that ideology that we're defending, that has to mean the people I disagree with deeply are still involved in the same national enterprise that we are, that's what the view means. I think it's very important to have a friend or two friends who disagree with you about politics. And what that does is two things: one of them, it shows that friendship is more important than politics. But it shows that people can hold very different views from you and not be bad people. There are bad people, I don't want to diminish that, but for the most part we're talking about disagreements in our country that I think need to be bridged with empathy and humanity and that's a larger challenge.
KH: It feels like today we are at a point that we haven't been at since perhaps the ‘60s where friendship is no longer more powerful than politics. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard from people who have not only become alienated from friends, but become alienated from family because of politics. And I know that has always happened on a small scale but it seems epidemic these days.
MG: I completely agree with that. I do know a lot of friendships that have been broken in Washington DC because of the events that have happened within the Republican party and within our broader politics, but I guess I would say that that's a bad thing. It's something that we need to combat. I have cases where you know friends with different views, we don't argue those views every time we meet. We have other interests that we emphasize and other belief systems that we share, I think there is a way to approach this that takes disagreement seriously without sundering friendships and I think that should be our ideal, at least should be our effort to move in that direction. People in a society, when you approach this kind of deep disagreement and division, they look into the abyss of what our country could become and they're warned back. We can't go this direction. If we go down this path, it's going to destroy us all, it's going to destroy the community that we share.
KH: Well, we have stared into the abyss before as a country. You invoked Dr. Martin Luther King and the trauma that was the year of 1969 when we very nearly came apart as a country. We are fifty years removed from that. What do you think people in our positions will be saying about 2019 fifty years from now?
MG: Well, I think they're going to say that we're just a country that is deciding whether we define ourselves as a nation at the expense of others or whether we inspire others. Right now, we have a form of politics that says that the other is the danger, the other is the problem, whether that's Muslims or migrants or refugees or whatever group you're talking about, that they are undermining our country. That is a type of politics that if it prevails leads to very dark places. A lot of people in politics right now are going to be judged for the rest of their lives, the rest of their careers, how they respond to that message. Do you define America by exclusion or do you define it by idealism? I think a lot of people are failing that test in my community, coming from a Republican background. That doesn't mean they will always fail it, but right now I think the signs are not particularly good, so I do think the stakes are quite high.
KH: Well, Mike, it's been wonderful having you on the show. Illuminating, in parts hopeful and in parts alarming. It’s been a pleasure having you. Thanks again to Michael Gerson for joining me. He was a presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush and is now an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post and hosts “In Principle” on PBS.
This is a podcast about big decisions. Decisions like Alexander the Great made when he ordered his troops to burn their boats. Like Mike Gerson made when he spoke out against the Republican Party, a party he dedicated his career to. But I wanted to hear about what big decisions you’ve made. So for this first episode, I asked my friends and family: what decisions did they make when failure was not an option? Here’s what they said:
Speaker 1: So what's the question? It's whether I've made a decision that I fully committed to and couldn't get out of? Well, I mean, I married you, didn't I? I probably could've gotten out of that. I still might get out of that. But it was difficult and I fully committed to it.
Speaker 2: A decision that I fully committed to was where to go to college. I remember agonizing over it and weighing pros and cons for ages and I decided at the very last minute. And it was perfect. It was exactly the right place for me. And I think I'd be a different person now if I had decided differently.
Speaker 3: I was fortunate to do 11 years as an officer in the Air Force for Combat Medics. And it was actually during my last deployment in Afghanistan, leading a 12-person team there. And our mission was pretty simple, it was if you got hurt as a service member or you're an Afghan civilian and you'd been hurt by American forces, we're going to get to you, patch you up and get you to the hospital as quick as we could. And we had actually just gotten to the ground and we're doing our handover, so we had another team that had been there for four, six months, handing things over, showing us the ropes, make sure we don't hurt ourselves kind of deal. The old team, so the noncommissioned officer from the other team, was basically just briefing us. And they're telling us a story that they'd gotten a call, a mission just a couple of days ago, where an Afghan mom and her baby had been hurt in the crossfire between Marines and the Taliban. And so they got spun up, they flew out there as quick as they could, and it was really bad situation. They'd saw where they were going to land and there was hundreds of Afghan civilians that are coming out from the village. When the helicopter is on the ground, it's really dangerous where someone with a gun, or a rocket belt grenade could hit that giant Hilo on the deck, as we call it. And so there was no other options, they had to land in this area. And so the PJ's are supposed to search every single person getting on the aircraft, American or Afghan, or anybody very thoroughly to make sure they don't have weapons and that kind of stuff. But because there's hundreds of civilians, they did a really cursory pat down of the mom, as well as the baby. But then in the culture, we always ask for a male escort so she had her 12 or 13-year-old son apparently with her as well. So they did all that really cursory pat down, and they got onto the helicopter and were flying towards the hospital as quick as they could. They had seen blood. The mom had been holding the baby in a blanket and there was definitely blood on the outside of that blanket. And so the mom is freaking out because it's super loud on this helicopter, we have a bunch of American military guys, their gear and their guns, and all this kind of stuff, and we're talking in a foreign language. And so just saying the mom is completely terrified and screaming, yet the PJ's in the back are trying to do the medical assessments to help where they can. And so they tried a couple times to ask for the baby, and they finally tugged on the baby's hand like please let us check out the baby so we can do the medical assessment on it. The mom would not let go. And so the PJ had to pull the baby away. And when he did so, a grenade had fallen out. Thank God the pin was still in, so no one was hurt. But the noncommissioned officer from the other team that was telling the story was just trying to enforce onto us that during the next couple of months on this combat deployment that we can't trust anybody. You got to have eyes in the back of your head. And so for me, I'm like, "How do I lead my team? What do I say to my team to get them to focus on a bigger mission of what we're trying to do here and not live with fear and live potentially out of hatred?" As soon as the other NCO stopped talking and finished up his brief, my NCO turned to the team and, pardon my French, he said, "I don't give a shit who gets on this Hilo, you're going to treat them like your mom because we're Americans and that's what we do." And he just walked away. And that's exactly what we did. Every single Marine that got on that aircraft that was hurt, missing limbs, every single Afghan civilian, and in fact, every single Taliban member that had gotten hurt, we provided them the best level of medical care that we could provide. Those words of advice really stuck with me. And it was later on that deployment I finally had the courage to ask my NCO Mark why he said that. And he's like, "Listen, Tom, the things that keep me up at night are not the things I've seen, not the Marines missing legs. It's the times where I allowed the situation and the challenges in front of me to take the moral low road. That's what keeps me up at night is when I use that as an excuse to choose the easy option, to choose the easy out." He told me, "After you see a couple of Marines and your buddies missing limbs from IEDs and gunfire from the enemy, it's really easy to feel hatred towards the enemy. But it's really hard to act with courage and kindness to every single person that gets on your aircraft." So those words really stuck with me. And it is definitely difficult when you get folks that want to push you a different way, but choose to take the higher road. It's definitely the more difficult road, but it’s an important road to take.
KH: Next episode, I’m talking to Mikie Sherrill, former navy pilot and federal prosecutor and current representative for New Jersey’s 11th congressional district. We talk about the challenges of pushing back against leadership and about reaching across the aisle to do what’s best for her district and the country.
And we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when you made a tough decision to stand up against leadership by leaving a voicemail at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to [email protected] The number again is 216-245-5461. We can’t wait to hear from you.
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.