Listening In: Peter Wehner


WARREN SMITH, HOST: Peter Wehner, first of all, welcome to the program. It’s really great to be with you. I’ve read your stuff for years and we’ve met occasionally off and on. But I think this was the first time I’ve ever had an opportunity to sit down with you, sort of like, you know, for an extended time. So if I could take advantage of that before we get into your book, and just ask you a little about yourself. What do you do here? And maybe tell me a little about your spiritual pilgrimage and what brought you to this place at this time. 

PETER WEHNER, GUEST: Sure. It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me on. I’m an admirer of your work and the Colson Center and so it’s delightful to be with you. Yeah, I’ll take those questions in order. In terms of what I do now, I’m a senior fellow and vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is a think tank, a public policy organization founded in 1976.

And, interestingly, I was associated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center soon after I graduated from college. I came out on an internship. I was at University of Washington and one of my early jobs was a special assistant to the president—then Ernie Lefever—and I was here until I was hired as a speech writer by William Bennett, who was then a young secretary of education for Ronald Reagan. 

SMITH: We’ll talk to me, if I could just interrupt for a second, Pete—In some ways it’s like a Hollywood story how you ended up working for William Bennett. Come to Washington and start working for Secretary of Education doesn’t happen. Tell me how you ended up working for Bennett. 

WEHNER: Yeah, it is an interesting story—a little bit of background. So I was born in Dallas, grew up in Washington state. The east side of the state is a city called Richland. And it’s very different than the west side of the state. East side of Washington state is rural, flat, conservative politically. And the West side, of course, is liberal. I went to school at the University of Washington—political science—and I did a couple of internships. I did an internship as junior—Washington state senate. And then as a senior there was a program that brought me out to D.C. and I was an intern at the Center for Strategic International Studies. Make a long story short, I got a job that summer that was my senior last quarter at a University of Washington. Got a job with the Center for Strategic International Studies. Then was hired at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Bill gave a speech when I was at Ethics and Public Policy Center and I was really impressed with it—both the quality of the speech and, this is important, which is you can tell when a public official, if they are the product of their speech writers or not, which is when you take the text away and they have to speak extemporaneously and do Q&A, you know. How much is under the hood. And Bill was really, really impressive. And so I was quite taken by his approach and the nature of what I thought his project was as education secretary, which was the deeper purposes of education, which is the educational character, the education of mind and heart and soul. 

I wrote a piece in the Washington Times, it was over the transom piece that I wrote on what I thought the essence of the Bennett agenda was. 

SMITH Well, that’s the first piece of this that’s amazing is that you’re a young guy just sending an article in over the transom to the Washington Times, which I’m guessing gets about a hundred submissions a day over there. And it got published. 

WEHNER: And it got published and at that time, the Washington Times was more prominent than it is today because there were so few conservative outlets. And, you know, the Washington Post was obviously dominant as the paper of record in D.C., but the Washington Times was the place that conservatives went to read. Less so today because there’s so many more outlets. And so I wrote that piece and at that time I worked real late and so I got in, you know, late 9:30 or 10 in the morning. And when I got in the morning that that piece was published. I didn’t even know they were gonna publish it. They just went ahead and no one got in touch with me. And low and behold it was in there. And there was a message, I still remember. I probably have it in my files somewhere that said Secretary Bennett called. And that was in my early mid 20s at that time. So I called him back. We had a nice conversation. Then a good friend of Bill’s who he knew from graduate days at the University of Texas Ed Delattre was here. There was a football team, a touch football team. I was asked to play, organize, actually, a whole series of pretty competitive games for the team that Bill was the captain for and I was his wide receiver and I got to know him in that capacity.

And I think I figured out when Bill decided he wanted to hire me as a speech writer, which is we were playing a game against former Green Bay Packers and we won the game and we won the game because I caught a touchdown pass. At the end of the game, I got hammered by two of the defensive backs. It got spun around hit the ground, held onto the ball, but had my lip sliced in the process. So I got up, held onto the ball, and I was bleeding. And I think at that point Bill decided he was going to hire me as a speech writer. 

SMITH: That’s amazing. I mean, again, what I found interesting about that story is that, you know, you just come out of Hooterville, shall we say, Eastern—not Seattle, but Eastern Washington, which is you know, kind of an unlikely place like reminds me, you know, can anything good come out of Nazareth, right? And then Bill Bennett discovers you and then you know, you guys have a fruitful relationship. The other thing about Bill Bennett is that, you know, a lot of times I mean obviously being a cabinet official is a high ranking, you know, office in this country. But, you know, let’s be real. They come and go. Some of them are distinguished, some of them are not. But in part because of Bill Bennett’s education, his temperament, the quality of his rhetoric, the sort of the soaring quality and the intellectual depth of his rhetoric, he distinguished himself. And then for you to be on that speech writing team with him must have been pretty special for a young man at your age.

WEHNER: It was special. I actually remember, I went over there in January of 1987 and I was intimidated and I remember getting in touch with people at Ethics and Public Policy Center and said, look, if I flame out, would you guys take me back? Cause I wasn’t sure I could do it. But it really worked out. I had a very good relationship with Bill and his team. Bill Kristol was Chief of Staff. And, you know, I write about this in the book, I’m not cynical about politics. I’ve been involved with it now my entire adult life. And I’m sure part of that is because of my own life experiences and joining at such an early age Bill and that team at the Department of Education. It was kind of a seminar, an ongoing seminar. And I learned the power of ideas in politics and I was around really, really good people and have really been blessed that way my entire political life. And worked with Bill in various capacities up until I joined, you know, George W. Bush where I was deputy director of speech writing. So that was really from ‘87, January of ‘87 all the way through 2007. That was in Power America with Jack Kemp and Jean Kirkpatrick. We were at the Hudson Institute for a short period of time. Bill worked in the George H. W. Bush administration as the so-called drugs czar. So I had a lot of really good experiences with Bill, learned a lot from him, developed a close friendship with him. And still in touch with him and Elaine to this day.

SMITH: Well, there’s a whole lot more I want to talk to you about and I may get to some of those, Pete, later in our conversation. But that does provide a little bit of a transition to your new book, The Death of Politics. Because as you just said you’re a big believer in politics. You’ve invested your entire life in politics—George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Jean Kirkpatrick. You’ve just mentioned a few of the sort of the titans of late 20th century and early 21st century conservative politics. And yet you call this book The Death of Politics. Why do you call it that? In what sense is politics dying?

WEHNER: Yeah, it’s dying in the sense that I think some of the best of the American tradition is dying. And I worry about that. The subtitle’s important, which is How to Heal our Frayed Republic After Trump. It’s not a book that’s focused primarily on Donald Trump, although he makes several cameo appearances within the book. But a lot of these currents and trends that I identify in the book predate Donald Trump. And I’m worried about various aspects of politics—the polarized nature of it, the rancor, the antipathy, the sense that people are talking past each other, that increasingly we view people who hold views that are different than ours, not as opponents, but as enemies, enemies of the state and people who are a threat to all that we know and love. I have a chapter on series of democratic virtues—moderation, compromise and civility—which I think have been tangled up in a lot of ways. And people don’t understand why those are actually virtues. I think they consider them to be synonymous with things like weakness, lack of passion, lack of principle. 

I have a chapter on faith and politics, which has been an issue that has occupied my mind and at heart for most of my adult life. I wasn’t born into a practicing Christian family, so I came to my Christian faith sort of on my own, really, during my high school years and into my college years. But probably two of my abiding passions for my adult life have been faith and politics. I care about both of them. I care more about my faith than I do about my politics, but I feel like faith should inform my politics. I hope to some degree it does. But I’ve also been somebody who’s really from the very outset been also very wary about that relationship. Not primarily because I think the damage that faith can do to politics, but more the damage that politics can do to faith. It’s funny, I think the first thing that I ever had published in my name was in the Tri-City Herald, which was our local newspaper. And that was when I was in college. It was during Christmas break and there was a piece that was written by a fellow in the Herald who was a Reagan supporter. His last name was Mays. And he basically made the argument that any faithful Christian had to endorse a whole series of platforms and issues that Ronald Reagan held.In that case, opposition to the equal rights amendment, increase in defense spending, pro second amendment, and a whole series of other things. Now, most of those issues I agree with, not all, but my first vote for president was cast for Ronald Reagan.

I was not only a big Reagan supporter, I think in large part I was a child of the Reagan revolution and very much shaped my views, my attitudes philosophically and politically. But it really bothered me. And I wrote a piece, a letter to the Tri-City Herald and I said, look, you gotta be very, very careful about this simplistically connecting the dots between the Christian faith in particular policy positions. And I remember at the end of that letter to the editor, I said, you know, it may shock Mr. Mays, but Jesus Christ lived and died for all people—conservatives, independents, and maybe even a few liberals. So that’s always occupied my mind, which is even as I felt like, and to this day believe, faith properly understood, should animate politics. There are a lot of pitfalls, a lot of dangers and the seduction of power is very, very real. And Christians who are involved in politics have to be careful about that. 

SMITH: Well, you know, at the Colson Center we’re fond of quoting Chuck who said politics is downstream from culture. But we also say that even Chuck understood that that’s not always true. That sometimes politics shapes and culture. And you talk about politics, in fact, I’m gonna read you a couple of sentences out of your own book, Pete, if I could. You say, “According to Aristotle, it is evident that the state is a creation of nature and that man is by nature a political animal.” So we can’t avoid politics. We can’t say I’m not going to be involved in politics. You know, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, I think he was quoting someone else, you may not be interested in the dialectic or politics, but politics is interested in you. You also say, “Politics should be and cannot avoid being deeply involved, not simply in policy but in shaping souls.” And finally, “Political philosophy thus becomes a sort of moral theology. The Paulus assumed the tutelary function we tend to ascribe or once ascribed to to the church.” In other words, yes, politics is downstream from culture, but politics also shapes culture, is a shaper of the way we live, the way we interact with each other.

WEHNER: Yeah, no, that’s right. And it’s well-stated how you built on those points that I made. That line about politics will be interested in you, I think it’s a Trotsky line, actually. 

SMITH: Troskey through Christopher Hitchens, right? 

WEHNER: Yeah. No, exactly. And I knew, by the way, Christopher Hitchens and had theological discussions with him, which I’m happy to get into if you want to. But to your question, yeah, I do believe that. And I agree with what Chuck Colson said as a general matter culture is upstream of politics and often shapes politics, but not always. Sometimes politics is upstream of culture and there’s a real synergy that happens and it’s difficult to know, you know, which bears more on the other. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, one of the ways it is is that the law, it performs a restraining function. It creates, you know, justice and the opportunity for sort of ordered liberty, but it also performs the didactic as well. And laws, of course, are functions of a political process. So it’s inevitable that those two are related and can’t be extricated for moral concerns.

WEHNER: Well, that’s right. I mean, laws are often, usually in fact, the manifestation of a certain moral view in our moral lives. That’s exactly what it was. It’s essentially putting into legislation saying there’s certain things that we affirm and certain things that we discourage. And sometimes they’re legal, sometimes they’re civil, but it is an expression of a kind of moral life. And that’s really all the way down. Whether you’re talking about things like laws against murder to, you know, drug use and prostitution. What priority you give to, you know, to the environment and the care and protection of the environment, welfare reform, a certain view of individual responsibility, you know, all of those things. So there’s no way that you can, in my mind, separate politics and morality. I’m going to say that there was a book early on in my life that was shaping to me and several people that I know—Mike Gerson, who I know worked very closely and was a close friend of Chuck Colson, who’s a very close friend of mine, former colleague—and the book was written by George Will and it was called Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does. And George actually in his different position now than he was then. He’s more of a libertarian. But that view, which was based on Godkin lectures that George gave in 1981 and turned it into a book—the book was published in 1983—made this argument that statecraft is soulcraft. And he actually argued at that time that there was something of a defect in the American founding because the founders themselves were more skeptical about the power of government to shape morality. They were more Lockian than they were Aristotelian in that sense. But I have felt that politics has that capacity to shape our moral sensibilities, not all the time, for one thing. There are times of great moral urgency where some issues are more important than others. Some moments are more important than others. You know, the obvious ones would be slavery and the segregation and the abolitionist movements, the pro-life movement and others. Most of what politics does most of the time is relatively prosaic, but not unimportant. But there are those moments of great gravity, moral gravity where politics has a lot to do. Most of our moral lives are shaped beyond politics. They’re shaped in our families, our churches, our schools, communities, neighborhoods, affiliations. Our life experiences are huge. Our dispositions, our temperaments are enormously important. So, what goes into the shaping of a person’s moral architecture and the shaping of their sou is of course very complicated. 

But politics, you know, is important. And I think we ought to pay attention to it. And that’s the reason I wrote the book, one of the reasons, but the main reason that I wrote the book is that I do care about politics because I think politics while it involves a lot of things is finally and fundamentally about justice. And you can’t be indifferent to justice.

SMITH: Pete, I’d like to dig down into a couple of aspects of the book. Obviously, we can’t do the whole book. Stipulate for the record, if you want to know what’s in the book, go read the book, right? But you mentioned, for example, George Will being more Lockian then Aristotelian as he has evolved over time earlier in our conversation. And I bring that up to ask a little deeper question about that because you really cite three people, three political philosophers as being generative, defining in terms of the American experience. One of them is Locke, John Locke. One of them is Aristotle. And the other is Abraham Lincoln. Say more about why you picked those three as being exemplars of political thought for Americans today. 

WEHNER: Yeah. You know, originally I wanted to try and summarize various currents of thought and it turned out to be such an ambitious task that I thought it made more sense to choose individuals to represent different currents of thought. And that’s why I decided to do it individually. And I chose Aristotle, Locke, and Lincoln for a couple of reasons. Aristotle wrote probably still the most important book ever written on politics, which is The Politics and he wrote several others Ethics and others. But that view of which was really symbolic of the ancient Greeks was this notion of politics as an enterprise that involved the shaping of souls.

And that is a kind of current of thought that I thought was important and was significant to me, which is that the politics is about shaping citizens, which is about shaping character. That’s really the first and primary duty of it. 

Locke was central and important for several reasons. He was viewed as the most important philosopher in terms of the effect on the American founders. He himself was not an American, of course, but they read Locke and they were profoundly shaped by Locke and his view of classical liberalism. Now Locke, like those who lived at that time had emerged out of a couple of centuries of these terrible religious wars in the European continent. So, Locke who himself was a person, was a believer, but was very, very wary about the role that faith and politics should play. And felt like the role of the state was to ensure liberty, but was worried about the concentration of power as the founders were. Basically wanted government to play the role of ensuring safety and giving people the room to live their lives, to prevent authoritarian or totalitarian leaders from taking over, but then let people live the lives that the way they wanted. And that really informed so profoundly the American founders in various ways Jefferson, Madison and the others. And this was really what I was referring to earlier with, you know, with George Will. Will was more Aristotelian than Lockian. Although he’s now I think shifted his views to some extent. 

Why Lincoln? To me, Lincoln is not only the greatest American president, but the greatest person Americans produced and maybe the greatest political leader in history. And Lincoln, to me, combined two of the elements of Aristotle and Locke, which was this deep understanding of political theory and political philosophy, but was this great practitioner and a politician of the first rank. In Lincoln, you see this intersection of ideas and the practical outworking of politics and was a remarkable man who so profoundly shaped history. And in my readings of Lincoln, and I’ve read a lot about him, has really moved me. And one of the things that I felt like Lincoln can teach us in this day and age was his, you know, when he spoke both in his first and second inaugural and the first inaugural that we shouldn’t be enemies but friends and that the bonds of affection shouldn’t be broken apart even at as intense a time as the period that he was elected, which was obviously just shortly before the Civil War. And then at the end of the Civil War when he said with malice toward none, with charity toward all. And it was the best biography that I’ve read and arguably the best biography ever written on Lincoln was by Lord Charnwood. And there’s some lovely passages that I quote in the book about Lincoln and how the tenderness and compassion increased even in the midst of this awful Civil War. And that though there was no person who did more to destroy the project of the Confederacy, he himself purged his heart of hate in the words of Lord Charnwood. 

And I just felt like in this time, when there’s so much acrimony and bitterness and frankly hate that characterizes our politics, Lincoln is a wonderful model to look to. 

SMITH: Well, one of the things, and I’d like you to say more about this, Pete, at least that I took away from your book, is that Lincoln in a way recovered for us the Declaration of Independence, especially those opening lines, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In other words—and obviously, you know, the Declaration of Independence was not unknown. I mean, it is one of our founding documents, but in some ways Lincoln helped us recover it and specifically recovered that Christian idea of the Imago Dei. That we are all made in God’s image, and that that is in some ways, I don’t want to say a unique contribution, but certainly Lincoln might stand preeminent among others that brought that back to the forefront of the American conversation. Fair or not fair? 

WEHNER: No, I think it’s fair. I think that’s beautifully put. That is absolutely true. I mean, Lincoln kept coming back again and again and again, not to the Constitution, but to the Declaration. That was the sheet anchor, in his words, of the American Republic and his entire political life. His entire philosophical life was viewed through that prism. There’s a debate, it’s an interesting debate about Lincoln, between Harry Jaffa who was a great Lincoln scholar and Gary Wills, who has written a terrific book on Lincoln, about whether Lincoln essentially refounded the Republic, reinterpreted the founders or interpreted them properly, but whichever one it was, whether he reinterpreted them or whether he interpreted them properly, he was the one that really anchored his politics and America at that moment to that that deep commitment to the American declaration—all men are created equal. And that, of course, was the great debate that he had with Stephen Douglas. You know, Stephen Douglas was not a stupid person. And he made this argument about popular sovereignty. He did not actually argue for slavery per se. What he said is if you’re in a democracy and these western states want slavery, then it’s up to the people that voted up or voted down. And Lincoln said, no, there are some things, some rights that are inherent to people as human beings because they are created in the image of God. And a popular majority can’t vote certain things up and certain things down. There are certain unalienable rights, rights that precede government rights that can’t be taken from you, whether they’re popular or not. And that was really the great debate that defined Lincoln’s career. 

SMITH: So let’s stipulate for the record, Pete, sort of where we are right now. You love politics. You think politics are vital. They’re important. They’re are shaper of souls. They’re unavoidable, as Aristotle said, that we are political animals. And that Aristotle, Locke, Lincoln provide us with language and examples to talk about politics rightly understood. And yet you wouldn’t have written this book if politics was not in crisis right now. And a couple of things I’d like to transition to having you talk about sort of diagnose the pathology. You know, we’ve sort of talked about politics at its best, but now let’s talk about, you know, what’s gone wrong. One of the things that has gone wrong, you said, is that evangelicals lack a coherent vision. So that there’s confusion sort of in the church and in the religious world about how it should and can inform politics.

But the other thing that you talk about, too, is sort of the death of language, words. You’ve got a whole chapter and a lengthy chapter on words, why words matter. We’ve talked about Lincoln, we’ve talked about Bill Bennett, guys that used language in very powerful ways. So let’s transition to that part of the conversation. What’s gone wrong? How have evangelicals lost their way and not provided sort of guidance for the body politic and why is the death of language so important? 

WEHNER: Yeah. I’ll take those in order. In terms of evangelicals and what’s gone wrong, one of the things that I write in the book is that what evangelicals are missing and could learn from the Catholic church—and I myself have grown up as an evangelical, not as a Catholic—but the Catholics have a pretty well articulated social thought, social theory, which is human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

And so they have a kind of intellectual and theological framework that helps them sort through issues. You may agree with it, you may disagree with it, but it is an impressive philosophical and intellectual enterprise. And if you read some of the encyclicals, my favorites were by John Paul the Second, they were really informed. And I think that they help give a roadmap to people of the Catholic faith on how to sort through political and cultural and social issues. 

Evangelicals don’t have that. They don’t have it in part because obviously there are some pretty profound doctrinal issues that separate them. And evangelicals don’t have a Pope and they don’t invest the kind of authority in the church that evangelicals do. And because I’m not Catholic, because I’ve been part of the evangelical movement I think that that’s theologically that makes sense.

But I do think that there’s a kind of cost. And I do think that if evangelicals could take more strides toward coming up with a coherent philosophical framework, that would help. Look, I mean, I’ll be blunt about it. I think that the way that a lot of evangelicals have engaged in politics over the last several decades has not been good. And in some ways I think it’s been actively harmful. I think that there’s been a sloppy theology that’s been involved. I think that a lot of people that represent the evangelical movement treat America as if is like ancient Israel. That’s not my theological interpretation. I think there the church would be the analogous to ancient Israel, not America. I think when people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said that the reason that the attacks on 9/11 happened was because America had gone awry on issues of abortion and homosexuality, that was bad theology and bad things to say. I think that a lot of people took certain ideological views and sacrifice them, baptize them, and spoke as if this was the self-evident Christian position, Christian approach. And I’m somebody who believes in epistemological modesty, including Christianity. And I take seriously the words of Paul when he says that we see through a glass darkly and then face to face. So, that kind of absolute confidence that this is the right Christian position, not just on what a particular position is, but then you get into the very complicated set of issues of what do you legislate. If you believe, for example, that human sexuality should be the subject of legislation, you can go through a whole range of issues—that means same sex marriage, divorce, premarital sex. What is it that the state should pass laws for and against? I mean, it gets complicated. 

So, my point isn’t that the Christian shouldn’t speak to those issues, but my point is that it requires discernment and prudence. Beyond that, I think that Christians in the past and today particularly have conducted themselves in a way that I worry discredits the Christian witness. You know, Philip Yancey, who was one of my favorite authors and as a Christian—

SMITH: And he reviewed this chapter that we’re talking about, this chapter on faith in religion. 

WEHNER: He did. 

SMITH: I’m sorry, faith and politics. 

WEHNER: Faith and politics. And was very helpful. And Phillip is someone I’ve gotten to know over the last several years and has become an important friend and someone who I’ve learned from long before I got to know him. And he wrote a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace. And at the beginning of that book Phillip would ask people that he didn’t know at airports and other settings, “When I mention the word Christianity, evangelical Christianity, what comes to mind?” And he said that the issues overwhelmingly that he heard were culture war issues—abortion, homosexuality and other issues. He said never once did someone say in response to, “What do you think of when I say evangelical?” did the word grace come up. And that is a real problem because a Christian has to understand that at the center of Christianity, theological center of Christianity and what animates it is this notion of grace. And if what is happening is that people in the public square who claim, most claim the title of Christian are through their temperament, their style, their approach radiating, not grace, but ungrace a sense of judgment, harshness, and a kind of venomous approach that is a problem. Now in saying that, I understand that if you take a strong position on orthodox Christian beliefs on, say, example, human sexuality or the pro-life movement, I certainly understand that there are going to be people that are going to go after you hard on the left no matter how gracious you are.

So I get that, but that doesn’t in my mind free us of the responsibility to say that we have to in our presentation, be strong in our convictions and articulate our views, but also demonstrate a kind of graciousness and compassion and sympathy. And I think Tim Keller once said that if you’re talking to people who aren’t in the Christian faith, what you want them to come away from is if they’re not going to be Christians, which is, I can’t take the step to faith, but I wish I could because I wish that were a community I could be a part of. And I think that Christians in their political engagement, cultural engagement over the years—not all Christians, there are certainly been exceptions—but in many cases have done real injury to the Christian witness and the cause of Christ. And that’s a painful thing.

WEHNER: Yeah. I tend not to impute that motive because, you know, it’s hard enough to discern my own motives, let alone the motives of other people. And I’m sure it runs a spectrum and a gambut. I’m certain that in some cases it’s a seduction of power. In some cases, it may be for reasons of fundraising, but I don’t know to whom that applies. Here’s what I think in my conversations with many friends and evangelicals that I know who their views aren’t shaped by fundraising or anything else. This is at the core of it, I would say, or at least one of the things that’s central. Their view is that Donald Trump, for all his flaws, for all his character flaws is in their words a fighter. And they view him as a person who will bring a gun to a cultural knife fight and that delights them no end. And I’ve heard some version of this from many people, but during the campaign in 2016 and today, which is George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain, they were more admirable human beings than Donald Trump. They had more integrity, but they were too genteel. They didn’t understand the nature of this struggle. This is an existential fight that we’re in. That’s the word that you hear publicly and privately.That we’re two minutes to midnight. That if a Democrat wins the presidency, if liberal Supreme Court justices are made, so much of what we love and cherish will be destroyed and lost. And Trump is a fighter and he’ll even fight through means that we ourselves aren’t comfortable with, but he will use them and he’ll be effective and he will essentially slit the throat of the left. And we need to do that because that’s what they want to do.

And the other thing I would say, which is important here is what is attached is that they feel like that the same people that hate them hate Trump. And so this has created a kind of affinity for him. 

SMITH: Then enemy of my enemy is my friend, essentially. 

WEHNER: Yes. I think that’s true. What I’d say is several other things just about Trump and why I’m very concerned about him. One is I think that he is redefining what it means to be a conservative in a philosophical sense. 

SMITH: That his conservatism is really kind of a populism that is not really rooted in true classical liberalism or what we would call modern conservatism.

WEHNER: Exactly. And there are a whole series of issues that you could go through from free trade to America’s role in the world, limited government, the concern with debt and deficits, to many other things. Just look at his love affair with Kim Jong Un. This is extraordinary. The conservative movement is one that celebrated Ronald Reagan when he referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Now you’ve got Kim Jong Un who is leader of probably the most brutal police state in the world, which is saying something. But also, according to various Christian organizations, the worst persecutor of Christians in the entire world. Donald Trump talks—is not only obsequious with Kim Jong Un, but speaks about him as if he is a brother, that there is this deep love between them. Now when is the last white evangelical leader that you know, who has challenged Donald Trump for that? And that gets to what my concern with the evangelical movement is as it relates to Trump. Not that they don’t agree with his policies, but that they don’t speak truth to power. That they’re not willing to challenge Trump when he crosses ethical and moral lines. 

SMITH: So your position would be affirm him when you can, whenever he does something good. Maybe an executive order related to some pro-life policy. Praise him for that as we would any politician who did that. But don’t become so closely aligned to him that we cannot speak truth to power. That we need to remain independent. We should not render unto Caesar what properly belongs to God, which is an allegiance to the truth. 

WEHNER: Exactly. That is exactly right. What’s the Christian distinctive that we bring to politics? It should be several things, but one of them should be this sense that people get that our allegiance isn’t partisan. It’s not ideological. It’s not based on party, but it’s based on the Lord and when he would call us to do. 

And the idea with Donald Trump, if you take a step back and if people can drop their ideological blinders, this is a man who is a pathological liar. He dehumanizes people in a way that we’ve never seen before. There’s a cruelty and a crudity to his approach to politics that is just frankly antithetical to Christianity and a Christian ethic. It’s a Nietzschean ethic. It’s might makes right. It’s the will to power. And that is the kind of thing that Christians should call out. And what’s so disturbing to me is not only that there aren’t that many Christians in leadership positions in the political realm who will call it out, but they’ve become his sword and his shield. They are defending him. If you go back and look at the arguments that evangelicals made during the Bill Clinton era and the Monica Lewinsky scandal—and I remember it well. I worked for Bill Bennett. He wrote a book called The Death of Outrage which I helped him with. And Republicans almost to a person, and certainly evangelicals, took a moral 2×4 upside the head of Bill Clinton. They said that character matters. That this effort to compartmentalize was the argument that the Clinton supporters made at the time, which is if he’s an effective president, then you can overlook his moral transgressions. And it was evangelicals above all that said you cannot do that. That ethics and morality matters. That the president sends a moral message. He’s an example to our children and to the rest of the country. And that we can’t set that aside. Then you go to the Trump era. And many of those very same people, not only jettisoned the idea that character matters and morality matters in a president, but they’re defending him.

Now the rest of the world sees this and they say, Oh, I get it. This is all a power game, isn’t it? Morality turned out not to be an end, but a means to an end. It’s a political club. If you can use it against liberal Democrats, by all means do it. But if it’s a Republican, if it’s Donald Trump, then set it aside, then morality doesn’t matter. And that is a kind of hypocrisy that I think is undeniable and I think that it has done real damage. I’ve heard, I can’t tell you, Warren, the number of ministers that I’ve heard from, people who have been involved with parachurch organizations in the past and currently, reporters who have met with young evangelicals who tell me about the tremendous damage, particularly the generational damage that’s being done to Christianity because people are seeing this and they’re thinking there’s nothing distinctive that Christians bring into the political sphere. They’re acting just like the National Education Association or the labor unions. It’s completely transactional. And when you no longer speak truth to power as a Christian then you’ve lost a lot. 

SMITH: So what’s the case for hope? That’s the name of the final chapter of your book. Given all of that and how now shall we live? 

WEHNER: Yeah, I’d say several things. The first thing is that the American capacity for self-renewal is extraordinary. And if you look through the American experience and the history of America, we’ve faced many more difficult moments than this. Politically and in the life of a nation. Politically, if you go back to the really the first contested election in American history of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams, that was a brutal affair. And it almost tore apart the young republican. We recovered from it.

You had the Civil War, obviously, which literally split the country apart. 700,000 deaths in a country of almost 30 million people. That would be the equivalent of 7 million today. The late 60s and early 70s, when the sexual revolution, the cultural revolution hit this country. The Vietnam war. Civil rights. Streets that were burning, cities that were burning, universities were being taken over. March on the Pentagon. The Kent State, which the National Guard shot students at Kent State. It was a very, very difficult and raucous time. I say in the book and the research of the book in an 18-month period between 1971-72, there were five domestic bombings a day. 

SMITH: A day. Yeah, I remember that from the book. That was stunning to me. I did not remember that. 

WEHNER: So that’s important, too, which is to remember context. 

And the third thing I’d say is that sometimes viruses create their own antibodies. And I believe that in the life of an individual and life of a country, that when there are certain qualities, certain virtues, certain attributes that are central and important but you begin to take them for granted and you forget why they mattered to begin with. And when they’re stripped away from you, you’re reminded of why you cherished them to begin with and why they’re worth upholding, why they’re worth defending and why they’re worth fighting for. And I believe that as we see decency stripped away in our public life and humanity stripped away and the dehumanization and the cruelty and the crudity—and that’s not confined to the right, left has its version of it too—nobody is not complicit in what’s gone wrong.

But as we see that play itself out in politics and in the broader society, I think, and I believe and I hope that people are going to say, we can do better. We can be better. That the heart is oriented toward hope and higher things and noble things. And if we can present a picture of the good life in a way that’s appealing, that articulates why we care about advancing the good and the true and the beautiful, that you can win people to that cause. And that in politics and in our Christian lives, if we can do that, that people will come. And so that’s really my grounds for hope. America’s recovered from harder periods from this. 

And I do see in the country at large—it’s true in my own experience and true and in the experience of people who travel much more than I—that you do see a regenerative process going on. David Brooks writes for the New York Times—close friend of mine and he has a project at The Aspen Institute called the Weave Initiative. And that’s an effort to identify essentially healers from all across the country that are doing tremendous work locally. And David is trying to connect them and to make The Aspen Institute a convening forum so they can learn about each other’s work and compliment each other’s work. But I see that going on. It’s a very American thing. It’s very Tocquevillian observation of America, which is when things are wrong, Americans can roll up the sleeves and they have a can-do spirit. And I believe that will happen with politics. I think this is a low moment now. I think between now and the 2020 election, it’s going to be—politics is going to be brutal. We’re just going to have to acknowledge that. But we’re in this for the long game. 

And the other thing I’d say is people, the Christian faith is we’re not called be successful. We’re called to be faithful. One of the things I’ve noticed in my life as a Christian and as Christian politics is an awful lot of people who are Christians and get involved in politics, I think begin to believe that God’s will depends on them and whether they win, whether we win or not. And if this president doesn’t win or this legislation doesn’t get through, that God’s will will be thwarted. And that’s not it. God is sovereign. Almost is at the earliest outset of my Christian journey, one of the things that attracted me to it was this sense that we are part of a drama and that it’s a drama with an author and it’s got a beginning and a middle and an end.

And when you’re in a particular chapter of a book, and it may be a chapter of great sorrow and grief and pain and those things are very real and you should never mitigate those things in the life of a person. But chapters aren’t books and chapters end and they give way to other chapters. And in the end, I think our lives as individuals and our life as a country and indeed the history of this world, that there is an arc and we’re part of this drama and we’re actors in the drama just as for Christians, God was a participant in the drama and the person of Jesus. That’s the incarnation. But there is a beginning and a middle and an end. And the end is written by God and it will be a glorious end.

And at any given moment in time, you fight as hard as you can for the things that you believe in, you try and shape history in the direction of justice. You try and be a witness for the things of Christ, but it doesn’t in the end will depend on us. It depends on God. He’s strong enough. He’s good enough. He’s in control enough that we don’t have to walk around as people seized by fear. It’s one of, as you know, one of the most frequent injunctions in the whole Bible is fear not, be not afraid. And I think more Christians should enter politics in a way that we’re true to those words, that they be faithful and that they fear not. 

SMITH: Peter Wehner, thank you so much for being on the program. 

WEHNER: Thanks. I enjoyed it a lot.


(Photo/Ethics and Public Policy Center)

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