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President Bush with Gerson preparing for the 2003 State of the Union speech

Religious people who won't shut up

Books | Presidential speechwriter-turned-author Michael Gerson on the value of public service and engagement for evangelicals

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Michael Gerson grew up in Illinois, graduating from Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis and Wheaton College outside Chicago. He wrote speeches and articles for evangelicals such as Chuck Colson and Indiana Senator Dan Coats. He worked for President George W. Bush as chief speechwriter and then policy advisor from 1999 through 2006. He has a lovely wife and two cute children.

Public service in Gerson's case really was service. Long, long hours. A heart attack at age 39 in December 2004. Putting up with secular liberals who believe, as Gerson writes in his new book, Heroic Conservatism (HarperOne, 2007), "that religion is a private eccentricity or secret vice" and that "religious people should shut up." Putting up with mainline conservatives such as Jeffrey Hart who sneered at Gerson's "form of religious expression, with its roots in the camp revival."

Gerson writes that he often received tepid support within the White House: "The vision of compassion and freedom that seemed so clear in speeches and in the president's mind was sometimes poorly implemented. And some who served in the administration did not share the vision at all." One of the generally untold stories of the Bush administration is the hostility to evangelicals among some of its high-ranking members.

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The sense that the United States is at war, but we refuse to admit it, suffuses Heroic Conservatism. Gerson writes that "America is called to confront a new totalitarian threat to human liberty-the political ideology of radical Islam, given form and power in outlaw regimes and terrorist networks." He sees the crucial role of leadership, yet "the gap between the frightening reality of this war and the indifference of the public and political class is wide and dangerous."

Gerson, who now writes a Washington Post column, sees some GOP leaders as part of that political class. Note the word temporary in the following sentence: "The Republican Party has been at least a temporary home for people like me because of its openness to religious influence and its unapologetic assertion of American ideals."

Gerson learned in Washington how temporary political friendships can be. One fellow Bush speechwriter, Matthew Scully, accused Gerson of egotism in taking sole credit for Bush speeches that were collaborative efforts, and sometimes portraying himself as a lone speechwriting hero.

Gerson touched on that wound but talked mainly about his vision of politics and the world during a question-and-answer session with students, professors, and me at The King's College, New York City. Here are edited excerpts from the discussion.

WORLD: What is heroic conservatism?

GERSON: I was looking for a term that would encompass the idea of taking universal human rights and dignity seriously here and abroad. I'm a conservative, I believe in free markets. But I also believe in an active role in fighting poverty and disease abroad. I'm a very strong social conservative. But I also, as a part of that, believe that there needs to be an active effort to combat poverty, hopelessness in the United States.

WORLD: If you call this heroic conservatism, are other forms of conservatism cowardly conservatism?

GERSON: Yeah, well, pretty much. (Laughs) No, it's just drawing a distinction.

STUDENT: Heroic conservatism seems opposed to libertarianism.

GERSON: It's the standard debate about whether unrestricted markets lead to just social outcomes. . . . [Some people] have a natural disaster and their whole lives are destroyed because they have no cushion. There is no safety net.

PROFESSOR: A jaw-dropping hit piece in The Atlantic basically called you a plagiarizer, a liar. What's your reaction to that and how has your reputation been damaged by that?

GERSON: It's not pleasant, but it's not an unknown Washington experience. As a Christian how do you respond to these things? You have a friend for seven years who's been taking notes on you and puts the worst thing you ever did and I think distorts some things-and you had no idea. That's a very difficult thing.

STUDENT: How do you deal with individual problems of the poor?

GERSON: Some people have problems like addiction, homelessness, and other things, which are deeply complicated social problems that have to do with psychological problems. Some have radical disconnection from family and other sources of community. For those people you can't just say markets are going to work.

WORLD: Can't markets work for health care?

GERSON: We have a market health-care system that doesn't work for poor people. They go to hospital emergency rooms. I want to reform that. I'd want to make it much more individual-based, and subsidize individuals to purchase their own health insurance.

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