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Former Bush White House Advisor Pete Wehner on faith and politics in City Of Man

Thursday, October 7, 2010

GWB: We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss. And today, we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who love them. On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel. Now come the names. The list of casualties, we are only beginning to read. They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport busy with life. They are the names of people faced death, and in their last moments, called home to say be brave and I love you. They’re the names of passengers who defied their murderers, and prevented the murder of others on the ground. They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States, and died at their posts. They are the names of rescuers, the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others. We will read all these names. We will linger over them, and learn their stories, and many Americans will weep.

HH: Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. That is President George W. Bush on September 14th, 2001. And excerpt of that speech appears in a brand new book, a very unique book, City Of Man: Religion And Politics In A New Era by my guest, Pete Wehner. He’s also co-authored it with Michael Gerson. Michael Gerson, of course, chief speechwriter to President Bush, Pete Wehner, the deputy assistant to the president, head of the Office of Strategic Initiatives. Pete is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And City Of Man is an important and very, very different book from those in this line of books. Pete, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

PW: Thanks for having me on, Hugh. I appreciate it a lot.

HH: Now Pete, I opened up with that, because you guys put that into City Of Man up close, Page 34, I think, to focus, and it really does have the effect of focusing the attention of the reader on the fact that your theory, your theology of politics, really, as discussed in this book, comes out of a shared experience of eight years in a White House at war, eight years in a White House struggling with issues of theology and God, and the nature of the United States. I don’t think there’s actually been a book like this in American history written by two guys who are actually in the middle of a war this way. Is there?

PW: You know, I don’t know that there has been. There have been books that have dealt with this question, which Mike and I take up, about the relationship between faith, and in our case, Christianity and politics, and of course, St. Augustine, the City of God and so forth, but one that takes this particular tack, and relies on the experience of people in the White House that I think is, you know, this is explicitly about our faith and struggling with these issues. If there is a book out there that’s done this, we’ll really not familiar with that.

HH: Yeah, that’s why I’m eager to spend this segment and the next three with you, and then have Mike Gerson back on next week, because I think City Of Man, and there are many, many books written about the intersection of politics and religion. I’ve written two. Chuck Colson’s written ten or fifteen.

PW: Right.

HH: Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote one a couple of years ago called Render Unto Caesar, which I thought was the best in a long time. You know, there’s, there’s all these different things.

PW: Right.

HH: But the idea of someone coming out of the White House and reflecting upon the theology of action in the middle of political life, I just don’t think it’s been there. So with that preface, I think that’s why people ought to read it. Let me ask you the first hard question.

PW: Sure.

HH: Could there have been a Lincoln without a John Brown?

PW: No. I think Lincoln was a product in part of those who were around him. I mean, Lincoln himself was a kind of unique figure in America’s history, and I think he would have made the same arguments. But John Brown helped set the context, which allowed Lincoln to make his arguments and to prevail.

HH: Well, the reason I bring him up is that you guys are pretty critical on Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, and on, occasionally, Jim Dobson as I have been for the first two on other settings. But I always have that in the back of my mind. They are playing a particular role.

PW: Right.

HH: And you have priest, prophet and theologian as the three roles you set out there. Could Reagan have been Reagan without Falwell? Could we have had the conversation we had about God and politics in America without Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell talking as they did after 9/11?

PW: Yeah, no, those are fair questions, and we do try to be fair to the religious right. People will have to judge for themselves whether we are. And since you raised it, I actually want to spend some time saying what we think that they did well…

HH: Please do.

PW: …which is number one, they overcame a kind of historic hostility between Evangelicals and the Catholic Church, which I think was very good. Secondly, they were a hugely influential force in the pro-life movement, something that Mike and I are very, very sympathetic to. Third, they were stalwart allies for Israel. And it’s very understandable what happened, which was there was a kind of modernist and postmodernist assault in the late 1970s. You had Roe V. Wade, you had the attempt to regulate Christian schools and so forth, and this was, what we argue, an understandable defensive reaction to this assault. So we think that they did things well. It’s not a completely critical look on the Christian, toward the Christian right. But at the same time, we feel like there were some mistakes made, mistakes made in theology, and mistakes in tone which hurt their cause, I think which one can argue hurt the Christian faith. And even if one’s not an advocate of this, if you just look at the data itself, there’s no question that people who are themselves sympathetic to many of the policies of the religious right, became increasingly uncomfortable with sort of the tone and the style of engagement, and we share some of that concern, and we try to address them.

HH: But as a matter of historical necessity, if they had not arisen when they did…

PW: Right.

HH: Could Reagan have won?

PW: That’s a good question. I mean, I suspect that Reagan probably would have won. He defeated Carter 44 states to 6. It was an overwhelming victory. I don’t think he would have won by as large a margin as he did, but there’s no question that the religious right and Falwall and Roberts, and what they represented assisted him, and indeed assisted Republicans in the 1994 takeover of the House. I think they were important, but I don’t think their role was dispositive.

HH: You know, I was making notes on City Of Man today on an airplane flying across the country, and the guy next to me thought I was possessed, because I kept making these long notes, because there are pros and cons on both sides.

PW: (laughing)

HH: On the one hand, this aggressiveness in the public square has led to a lot of youth thinking that that’s simply not their Christianity. On the other hand, if it wasn’t for the aggressive sort of heirs of Falwell, Prop. 8 would not have passed last year in California, and Prop. 19 would be much closer to passing right now but for the African-American Church, which is, oddly enough, aligned with what is called the religious right, right now in California.

PW: Right.

HH: So it’s a delicate balance, and I guess that’s your theme, isn’t it?

PW: It is. It is a delicate balance, and I don’t pretend that we know exactly what it is, and I don’t pretend I as an individual have gotten it right. I mean, we write about our own struggles, even within the White House on this whole question of tone, which I’m happy to get into. But the argument is that it is. It’s a tight rope. I mean, you’ve written about this, and you know it. This is a tightrope that we’re walking. Unless you believe in two propositions, which we don’t, which is first, that you just simply aren’t involved in politics, or second, that there’s full immersion. Then, you’re on a continuum. And the question is how do you engage these issues in a way that’s principled and responsible and with conviction, but in a way that doesn’t hurt or vulgarize your faith, and that stays on the right side of these various lines. And it isn’t easy, and there’s no cookbook that you could have for it. What you can do is just examine the record and analyze it, and hold it up, and you know, open it to debate and see what people say. As I say, the religious right, we’re sympathetic to many of their positions, and we try and credit them where we can.

– – – –

HH: Pete, would you set people, give them a brief description of your faith, where you fall on the theological spectrum right now, so people can kind of get a compass reading on you?

PW: Sure. I’m an Evangelical Christian, wasn’t actually, didn’t grow up as a Christian, converted at the end of high school, and probably viewed as an orthodox Christian, go to a PCA church, McLean Presbyterian here, believe in the authority of Scripture, and believe in the resurrection of Christ. So I think I would fall under the category of a sort of traditional, orthodox, Evangelical Christian.

HH: And Mike’s there, too, isn’t he, Mike Gerson, your co-author?

PW: That’s right. That’s right. Our faith is very, very similar.

HH: Okay, and I also want to direct the audience to Ethics and Public Policy Center, probably the preeminent center in America for the kind of conversations you and Mike have here. You’ve got amazing people there – George Weigel…from across the faith spectrum as well. What’s the reaction around there, and generally among Evangelicals to those who’ve had a chance to read City Of Man?

PW: So far, it’s been good. It’s been favorable. And even from people who were secular and non-Christians that I’ve heard from. You know, I think that when people step back and get away from the push and the pull of daily politics and try and think these things through, most people understand that these are complicated issues. Nobody’s gotten them perfect. But they’re real important to deal with. And you know, one of the things Mike and I try and do in the book is, precisely because the religious right was in many ways a reactive movement. As I said earlier, it’s an understandable reaction to the kind of modernist assault that occurred. But it’s also important to take a step back, and to think through certain first principles, questions like what’s the role and purpose of the state, what’s the role that I’m arguing in foreign policy, what’s the proper tone and engagement that one deals with. And these are perennial questions that every generation has to apply those principles to the issues of our time. And that’s one of the things we hope that the book is going to do. And so far, we’ve been pleased with the response.

HH: Now Pete, you were in the White House for the entire eight years, I believe. Am I correct about that?

PW: Almost. I left in 2007.

HH: Okay. And so most of those are the war years.

PW: Right.

HH: You’ve got a few months before the war begins. Did anyone ever sit down, given the amount of theology, given the President’s faith, given so many people around him who have faith, was there ever an in-depth discussion of proportionality and the other aspects of just war doctrine that you can recall that you can point to?

PW: Yeah, I’ve had it, actually, with people like Mike in the White House. I didn’t have those discussions with the President, but I wouldn’t have at that time. But that…people were familiar with the just war theory. And in fact, I believe there were some speeches that were given that addressed that very question. So yeah, this is an issue that we struggled with both as public officials and as Christians. I think people would actually be surprised how often these questions of faith and politics were discussed, at least I can testify for myself, with people within the White Houses. And because, you know, politics and faith are both central to my life and to Mike’s life, so I think that would probably make sense.

HH: But what comes across in City Of Man is it’s not that cartoon that the left has of fundamentalists praying to Jesus and being told to invade Iraq, or doing something to bring about the End Days.

PW: Yeah.

HH: But rather these very difficult Augustinian questions of proportionality, and of the ability and efficacy…

PW: Right.

HH: …of the use of weaponry. But it’s an amazing experience to have a book like this issued from. Is there another one coming, because this is just a beginning. It’s rather short. It’s pointed and it’s short, and there’s lots more to write about.

PW: It is, it is short. I don’t know if there’s another one coming. If it seems to make sense, if there are other questions that come up, you know, we’d certainly be willing to do it, because it’s an issue that we have a passion about. And just to return to the question you asked, which is a very good one, I remember a series of conversations I had when it was revealed that the whole issue of enhanced interrogation techniques, which I didn’t know in advance, it was a very highly secret program, and it was confined, really, mostly, to the national security staff. But I had conversations with people in national security staff, and elsewhere in the White House, about the morality of it, and from a Christian perspective. How do you deal with this? And I’ve written about it, really, since I’ve left the White House, because I think it’s a complicated moral issue. But you know, we went back and forth, and when the archives are revealed and the emails come out, people are going to find some, I hope, interesting theological discussions about some very practical and pressing issues.

– – – –

HH: So Pete, if the theologians you cite in this book, Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer, and many others, had access to everything that you had access to, and Gerson had access to, do you believe that they would credit the conduct of the war, as it was done by the President and his team, as just?

PW: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if all of the theologians that we cite, where they would come out, because I think this is a very hard question. And different theologians are going to come down on different sides of it. I do know that I felt like, Mike and I felt, and the President feels that the war met the criterion in terms of being a just war. And I think actually when history is written, it will be seen as a war that liberated people and advanced the moral good. But I’m not arrogant enough to think that there would be unanimity about great Christian minds on this, because I think in several ways, in the City Of Man, war is the most complicated question of all…

HH: Yup.

PW: …the most difficult of all. There’s a tremendous bar that you have to cross to do it. In retrospect, because Saddam Hussein didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction that we thought he did, that the bar is even higher. And we recognized that at the time. But given what we knew at the time, and what we thought, and I think and hope how this thing is going to end up, I think that the war would be justified on Christian grounds.

HH: Now Pete, if the mark of a great argument is to know its weakest point…

PW: Right.

HH: What is the weakest point in the just war argument as applied to the war as it’s been conducted, or as it was conducted when President Bush was in office?

PW: Well, I think in light of the fact that he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, that the threat didn’t rise to that level, and that you could have contained him. You know, this is a counterfactual question. We don’t know whether we could have contained him.

HH: Right.

PW: …but that you could have contained him, and wouldn’t have had to pull the trigger, literally and figuratively, and you would have avoided conflict. So I think that that would be, I would think that would be the strongest argument. On a different level, not having to do with just war, but I think in terms of how we conducted the war, and some of the mistakes we made in terms of the execution of the war, which we later corrected, but we corrected them, frankly, late in the day, I think we’re open for criticisms on those grounds, too.

HH: Did the administration, because you write at great length about the abolitionists. I love that stuff, because the abolitionists, of course, were the hard-edge of the rhetorical sword for fifty years.

PW: Right.

HH: And they are, in many respects, the forerunners of the religious right in the culture wars of the last 25 years.

PW: Right.

HH: They’re the tip of the sword, and they’re rhetorically very difficult. You praise the abolitionists, you have some praise for the religious right but not a lot. It’s hard to have one without the other. But did the administration do what it needed to do when it came to communicate the moral urgency of the war?

PW: I think we did, actually. And if you’ll recall, there was a quite high public approval before we went to war, much higher than the first Gulf war. And the U.N. was on board, and most Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and many others, voted for the war. So I think we did make the moral argument. The reason that the war went south in terms of public support and political support is that we encountered real difficulties. The post-major conflict portion of the war, when the insurgency began and continued, and we seemed to be losing ground, the country grew tired and weary of the war, and with understandable reason. But it also led to what I think was President Bush’s greatest single decision as president, which was the surge. People forget now, but there was just tremendous, almost overwhelming pressure, including from Republican leaders, to get out of Iraq. One of the leaders in the Senate came to President Bush and met with him one on one, and told him essentially he has to leave Iraq, because he was destroying the Republican Party. And President Bush, to his everlasting credit, got angry and said that he wasn’t going to make the decisions based on that. But I think the reason that the support for the war went down wasn’t because we didn’t properly make the moral arguments. I think you should go back and read those speeches. They’re pretty powerful moral arguments.

HH: Or the Library speech. Oh, the Library speech was a very powerful one. Let me ask you, Pete, the moral seriousness of the Bush White House, I know you’re on the outside now. This book is a testament to it. And whether or not it was right, or people will agree with it, the seriousness, I don’t think, can be disputed, except by people of bad faith. Do you see that level of moral seriousness in this White House?

PW: You know, that’s, it’s hard to tell, because you never know what’s going on behind closed doors, and you don’t know the kind of conversations that people are having. You know, I think both of us probably tend to want to credit people unless there’s evidence to the contrary about good motives. Having said that, there’s a level of hyper-partisanship and attacking of critics coming not just from the White House, but from the President, that’s quite alarming to me, and quite unusual. If you compare President Bush to President Obama on that score, it’s not even close. President Obama is a tremendously harsh critic, and I think he’s hurting the tone of public discourse in America, which is one of the subjects of this book, and one of the chapters we devote to. And there is a kind of ruthlessness, an almost Nixonian attitude in this White House, from what I can tell publicly, which I find disturbing. And I’ll tell you, when you’ve got that kind of mindset, and you’re in the presidency, and you have that kind of power, it’s a dangerous combination. And I hope that they revisit their attitude, because they’re going to get clubbed on November 2nd. And if they double down on this approach, it’s going to be bad for them, and I fear for the country.

HH: It’s a very powerful wrap up to City Of Man on tone and approach and persuasion and argument, which I would recommend to every reader. I do want to get two very difficult things in like the five minutes we’ve got.

PW: Sure.

HH: One is that you argue that America was designed to be a nation where all faiths are welcome, not one where one faith is favored. As a matter of history, Pete, I think you’re wrong. I think that there were established churches throughout the colonies that remained established. They were slowly disestablished. And that Christianity or Judeo-Christianity was a preferred faith, though others were not to be shut out. Are you guys confident of your history of America’s founding when you wrote that?

PW: Well, I think the argument that we made, I’m pretty confident about it, but I’m certainly open to being corrected on it, really was the Constitution, which obviously comes later than…the founding of America. And there’s no question that if you go back to the pilgrims, that they had views indeed that they viewed America as the new Israel, which was a theological argument Mike and I…

HH: Hang on that point. We’ll come back and I’ll let you finish our conversation together.

– – – –

HH: Thank you, Pete Wehner, for joining me. And I’ll have Mike Gerson on next week to continue the conversation about your brand new book, City Of Man. But I want to give you the last two and a half, three minutes here to pick up on this. Especially in light of the situation in which we’re in right now with the Mosque controversy…

PW: Right.

HH: …with the controversy over what the ABC News special this past weekend was about Islamic militants, et cetera, so what is the design that works here?

PW: Yeah, just to finish up what I was saying, I mean, the Constitution itself has a Establishment Clause, and I think that’s very important. And I think it’s important both for Christianity and faith, and for politics. And people like Madison understood the importance of keeping the Church and the state separate. We after all, broke from England in part for those reasons. So the founders themselves weren’t uniform in their views. They weren’t uniform in most of their views, because like human beings, they had differences. But I think when you talk about the people who shaped the Constitution, the view was look, we’re not going to favor sectarian faiths, or one religion over another. Now that doesn’t mean that when you get into issues of the role of militant Islam, or Islam in America and what the implications can be in the war on terror, that you’re not cognizant of those things, and I certainly don’t think that the building of the Mosque near Ground Zero can be justified on Constitutional grounds in this sense. And no one’s disputing, at least no one I know is disputing that they have a Constitutional right to be there. The issue really was one of prudence and judgment. And if, in fact, the imam wanted to do what he said he wanted to do, which was to increase good relations and comity between people of the Muslim faith and people not of the Muslim faith, I think he did exactly the wrong thing, and indeed he antagonized relations in a way that troubles me.

HH: Well, Pete, I hope people give you a lot of time on this. Have you got an appointment set over at BookTV yet, or on any of the longer conversation shows about books?

PW: You know, we’re in touch with C-Span, and I hope we’re going to do it. And we’ve done, you know, different interviews, Morning Joe and with CNN. So we’re doing, I think we’re going to be on Hannity. So we’re trying to get these conversations. Sometimes, the shows are shorter, and I must say, I appreciate the time with you, because these are complicated issues, and in fact, you just need time to talk through them.

HH: You do.

PW: Because there aren’t easy answers to them.

HH: Well, we’ll have Mike back, and then I’ll follow up. I do believe in if anyone is serious about religion and politics, left, right or center, they have to go get a copy of City Of Man, because as I said at the beginning of these four segments, I don’t think there’s a book like this in American history about theology, written by someone…there’s Bonhoeffer’s books, written having decided to take on Hitler, but I don’t think there are people who have come out of a position in which they were actually policy input into a war who wrote a book about theology in the public square. So my hat’s off to you, Pete Wehner. Congratulations.

End of interview.

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