Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Gerson on Faith and Politics

In his weekly Washington Post column, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offers advice to Democrats on how to appeal to religious voters, and then offers more general advice to how Christians should look toward their faith on public policy issues. I think that his advice to Democrats is wrong. His advice to Christians, however, is spot on.

First the bad advice. Gerson, using Obama's speech to the UCC as a starting point, offers this advice to Democrats:

For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion. But Obama still missed an opportunity. By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ -- among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations -- he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.

John Green of the Pew Forum describes that transition in generational terms. Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.

Appealing to this group will require a three-step recovery program for Democrats. First, candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.

Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars -- such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad. Obama's speech showed little creativity on such matters.

Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn't seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.

So what is my problem with Gerson's three-step program? I think that Gerson misses the boat with the third point. I think that "moderating" positions on issues like abortion and homosexuality will only cause a loss in votes among those who are already on our side. For every vote gained by moderating positions on these hot button issues, we are in danger of losing two we already had. In my view, the problem is quite different--we need to articulate why being pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. And we need to offer quite concrete policy proposals on exactly how we intend to reduce the number of abortions in America.

But Gerson got something quite right. He is wise to warn Christians of all ideological stripes that the Bible is not a public policy manual:
The whole enterprise -- there are examples on the right and left -- of asking "What Would Jesus Do?" on the earned-income tax credit or missile defense is presumptuous. Jesus, were he around again in the flesh, would probably be doing sensible things such as healing the sick, embracing outcasts and preaching sacrificial love. After all, he showed little interest in issuing a "Contract With the Roman Empire." But his followers eventually found that "love your neighbor" had political consequences, leading them to challenge slavery, infanticide and the mistreatment of women and children.

This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim "Thus sayeth the Lord," spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

Read the entire column here.

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