Senator Chris Coons (D-Del) joined me this morning to discuss his new essay in The Atlantic on progressives and their emerging collective tension between “progressives” and Christians and other people of faith:
HH: Last week, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat, made his first appearance on the Hugh Hewitt Show. And then he published yesterday a very interesting piece in the Atlantic – Progressive Values Can’t Be Just Secular Values. And he graciously accepted my invitation to return. Senator, good morning to you, good Monday to you.
CC: Good morning, Hugh, great to be on with you again so soon.
HH: I want to begin, we’re going to come to your piece in just a moment. We’ve got 15 minutes here, but with a proposition that we can agree on. We are both followers of Jesus Chris. I think we both say the Apostle’s Creed and we mean it, don’t we?
HH: And so we actually believe in His death, resurrection, ascension and saving relationship with individual human beings. Is that a fair statement?
HH: So I think you will agree with me when I say Dylan Roof acted alone and was evil, James Hodgkinson, he’s the Bernie Sanders supporter who shot up the Congressional delegation acted alone and was evil, Robert Lewis Dear, who was the guy who went into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, shot it up and killed people, he was evil. Mike Xavier Johnson, who was the African-American nationalist who killed five cops acted alone, and he was evil, and James Alex Field, who drove that car in Charlottesville, whether or not he acted alone, he was evil. Can we all agree, do we both agree on those five statements?
CC: Yeah, I mean, Hugh, I think we can and should agree, whether it comes out of our shared Christian faith, or whether it comes from a different perspective, that the wanton killing of civilians is evil, is wrong, and is something we should all stand against.
HH: And it can’t be selective. It has to be across the spectrum. And it has to embrace the alt right and the whacked out left. It has to include Islamist takfiri extremists, Shia and Sunni variety. We just have to stand for that. That’s not a political proposition.
CC: Yeah, one of the shocking things about this weekend’s developments in Charlottesville, Hugh, was to see James Fields use a tactic that was recently made widely known by ISIS. That’s literally one of those moments of you know, an Islamist and a neo-Nazi following the same approach to a similarly evil end.
HH: Now Vice President Pence was in Colombia last night, and this is what he had to say, Senator Coons, cut number 15.
MP: We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK. These dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms.
HH: Now I would guess you agree with that, but you share my disappointment that the President didn’t say the same thing on Saturday morning. Am I right about that?
CC: Yes, it would have been the right moment for our president to step forward and give a clear, strong, simple denunciation just like Vice President Pence did.
HH: But having said that, now I want to go to your piece. We have to let that go. That’s not the story. The story is the evil and where does it come from, because I actually think our politics are close to breaking apart here, Senator.
HH: And a part of that is the rejection of the Democratic Party, as you write about, of people of faith and painting us as being irrational, gap-toothed, snake-handling, backwoods lunatics. And part of it is my team attributing horrible motives to everything Democrats do to want to control the world, when you know, you’re not rotten. You’re just wrong. How do we get over this?
CC: Well, that’s where I start. This piece that I wrote talks about an experience I have every Wednesday morning where a bipartisan and broad group of senators comes together for an hour just to listen to each other. It begins by trusting each other, and every week, a different senator stands up and shares from his or her faith experience or faith background. And it has been, in some ways, the most valuable, the most important thing I’ve done in 7 years in the Senate to get to understand people who have very different politics than I do. You know, we, one of the commitments we make to each other is to not go into the details of what anyone says. But I’ll tell you that when John Barrasso spoke one Wednesday morning, when Mike Lee spoke one Wednesday morning, I learned things about them, their families, their histories, their struggles, their faith that really helped me better understand them as people. I still disagree with them on policy matters, but I can’t, I can’t feel as sharply partisan about them as people, and it’s opened up opportunities for me to work with them and talk with them and understand them, because we’ve been vulnerable to each other in this way through this weekly prayer breakfast.
HH: I want to read the two paragraphs from your Atlantic piece about that. “I remain optimistic that faith can help bridge even the most profound political disagreements. Most Wednesday mornings, the first item on my schedule is what I have often called the most important hour of my week, the Senate Prayer Breakfast – two dozen senators, liberal and conservative, Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Protestant, Jewish and Buddhist, come together to hear each other and to pray. We do two simple things that rarely find their way into our schedule at any other time of the week. We trust each other, and we listen. We hear our colleagues’ suffering and struggles, their purpose and their path, their principles and their priorities. We share their humanity building personal connections that help us to bridge our political divides.” Now part of the problem, Senator, and I wonder if you agree with me on this, is that I want to be careful with my percentage here, but I’m going to say upwards of 90% of the media do not share that experience, would reject that as irrational, and would mock it. What do you think?
CC: I’m not going to give a percentage, but there are too many in our world who have seen or experience religion or a faith community as a negative thing. And I open the piece by saying it’s striking to me, it’s troubling to me that 44% of self-described liberal Democrats in a recent Pew poll think religious organizations have a negative impact on the United States. We could spend a whole hour on how that’s come to be. In some cases, you know, folks have had bad experiences in the faith community in which they were raised. They’ve been mistreated, or they’ve been, they come to the conclusion that the church they were raised in was simply hypocritical or didn’t meet its own ambitious or lofty goals. It’s important, I think, to say the first foundational point for those of us who are people of faith, and who also happen to be Democrats, is to speak up for how our faith informs our work so that the folks we serve alongside, the folks we represent, don’t think that it is only people of faith in one party, and only secularists in another party. It shouldn’t be a partisan dividing issue. In fact, at the greatest moments of American progress, our faith has helped pull us together – the differences in our faith, and the commonalities in our faith. Yesterday, last evening here in Wilmington, Delaware, a group of several hundred citizens came together for a positive, peaceful, I won’t even call it a demonstration. It was a gathering in solidarity with Heather Heyer, who lost her life in Charlottesville, to remember the two Virginia State Police officers who died in the helicopter accident, to pray for peace. And as I looked around, the hundreds of people who gathered at a part, they seemed to me to come from every background. And I spoke briefly and said I know there are Republicans, independents and Democrats here. There’s folks who are young and old, black, white, Latino, every possible background in our city gathered in a matter of hours, a group that was as large as the group of, you know, self-described neo-Nazis and white supremacists who had months to organize this parade they did in Charlottesville. Let’s remember that people of good will and people whose faith background motivates them to try and reach across whatever divisions there are to try and see their political differences as differences with neighbors. We outnumber this very small number of hateful people who caused this tragic incident in Charlottesville. I remain convinced that America is a good nation, and that Americans are good people. And I think, you know, the things that divide our partisan politics right now cannot be so great as to deeply divide the American people.
HH: Now I believe we’re kind of in the 17th year, maybe the 20th year of derangement in politics going back to the Clinton impeachment, but through Bush derangement syndrome, through Obama derangement syndrome, and now making Trump, the President, the center of every story when I didn’t like his remarks. I thought they were inadequate. But I also don’t think he has anything to do with the precipitating of the Charlottesville attack. I just think that we’ve got to calm everybody down and say to them, most Americans, you know, Americans are all threatened by North Korea right now.
HH: You know, if that hits Guam or Hawaii or Alaska, it’s not going to have R or D on it. It’s…
HH: So do you, how do we do that? Can some Democrat stand up and say hey, the President isn’t responsible? And can some Republican stand up, like I have been doing and others, and to Cory Gardner and others and say the response was inadequate, Mr. President? Isn’t that the way to do it without going to the 10 on the rhetorical scale?
CC: Yes. One of the things I did both last night and online yesterday was to retweet or to talk about the clear and strong posts that came out promptly, the statements from some of the most senior Republican senators, Orrin Hatch, for example, whose brother, Jesse, one of his heroes, died in the Second World War, and put up a really memorable post saying my brother didn’t die fighting the Nazis in Europe just for that hateful ideology to reemerge here in the United States. There were strong statements from Marco Rubio, from Cory Gardner. So one of the things I tried to emphasize yesterday is that opposition to Nazism and to the Klan isn’t just a Democratic Party thing. It is something all Americans can see those hateful views as un-American. And while I was upset and disappointed by President Trump’s statement, it’s been addressed. He’s restated the point. You played the clip by the Vice President. We face a determined, aggressive, hostile enemy from North Korea. You know, you earlier in the show were talking about how China has just made an announcement that they will by the first week of September cut off huge amounts of imports from North Korea. That’s a good thing. And I don’t hesitate to say that’s a significant accomplish by the Trump administration and by their diplomatic efforts. I think we all need to be clear about the things that confront our country, whether it’s the opioid and heroin crisis, or the rise in violent crime in some cities, or the challenges we face improving our education system, or the threats we face from around the world. If we were to pull together more in facing them, I think we’d made more progress.
HH: Now my idea du jour is that Chris Coons, Angus King, Tom Cotton and David Perdue go into a room somewhere and come up with an infrastructure/immigration bill, because I think you four are all reasonable. You’re all people of great conviction and intellect, and I think you could come up with something that people would agree with. And it’s a new gang of four. I told Jeff Flake on Saturday the gang of 8 did not work for a variety of reasons. But there is a solution there. Does any of that go on where a small group of avowedly very different-minded people but of good character get together to try and reason together as they did in 1787, which was a four-month persuasion process to get to the Constitution?
CC: I do spend time working with Republicans on public policy issues. Tom Cotton, just to pick one of the names you put out there, Tom Cotton and I, Tom’s the senator from Arkansas, have worked hard on a bill to protect American invention, to strengthen our patent system so that small inventors, of folks who come up with new breakthrough solutions to technology challenges, can defend their inventions in court. There have been some big changes that have weakened that. Don’t get me going. I can be a real geek on this subject.
HH: Yeah, you’re endangering my ratings right there.
HH: That’s ratings death.
CC: Sorry, but you know, that’s the beginning. And Senator Cotton and I have talked about some other issues. We are pretty far apart on the ideological spectrum. But starting with small bills that maybe don’t get a lot of attention, I think, can lead to larger bills. And Senator Hatch and I have been talking about immigration issues. We’re still pretty far apart. But we are spending time meeting with each other. Our staff are meeting with each other to try and see if there is some path forward. It is one of the biggest unaddressed structural challenges for our country and our economy, figuring out how to address immigration so that what immigration there is, is legal, and the legal immigration that happens really adds to our families and to our economy.
HH: It’s a great piece, Senator. Come back often. I’ve got it posted. The exercise of grace is really what it’s about, bipartisan exercise of grace in both directions, and I hope it spreads. Have a great week, Senator Coons, come back early and often. Congratulations on a very provocative piece. It’s probably going to earn you a little bit of heat in your own party. We will see. Be well.
CC: I suspect it will. Thanks, Hugh.
End of interview.