Here's a special interview for graduating students worried about jobs, and for parents who want to know what their children often learn in college. Eric Teetsel, 28, grew up in a military family and became used to moving around. After managing the Values and Capitalism program at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., he has just taken a new position as executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, a project designed to bring together Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians in support of life, marriage, and religious freedom.
Three years ago you were an academic adviser at Colorado Christian University and thinking that you could some day become a dean of students-but you were open to a change. My experiences as an Army brat taught me that God is sovereign. He really is in control. I hated moving, leaving my friends, and being uprooted. Every time I moved I hated it more. It took 10 or 12 instances of that occurring before I realized there's always a newer, better opportunity that God has in store for me.
So how did the opportunity to go to Washington come about? I got a call out of the blue from a friend about a think tank in D.C. that was looking to hire someone to reach evangelical college students with programming about free markets. I laughed and said I am in no way qualified to do that, and what's a think tank? I applied just as a favor.
Then an AEI person called you? I was blunt and free with the person on the other end of the phone. I said, "Look I don't know who you are and I don't know anything about economics, but if you're looking for someone who knows Christian higher education, I can do that piece." I got a second interview. They flew me out.
Freedom in job interviews is another word for nothing left to lose. Absolutely. I had no shot at getting this. I couldn't believe they were still talking to me. I didn't really want it. I loved Colorado. All my friends were there. I could ski. I ended up getting an offer in about three weeks. All the experiences of moving had taught me that I needed to be aware of the moments when God is directing your life.
Before we talk about the past three years, let's fill in some of your background. You were a high-school Republican? I was fervently pro-life: That was a huge part of it. I had no comprehension of economics or free enterprise. Social issues were compelling my conservatism at that point.
You went to a Christian college. I experienced what most students who go to Christian colleges experience in terms of having their assumptions challenged by professors. I remember going home after my freshman year and arguing with my mom about whether evolution was true because I had taken freshman biology and suddenly my views were radically different. I remember my mom crying.
What did you learn about evolution in your freshman biology class? That our understanding of something like the first two chapters of Genesis doesn't necessarily have to be literal. It was the most vague sort of biblical hermeneutics.
Last year you wrote in one column, "The preponderance of liberalism throughout the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities would shock and anger the majority of parents who send their children to these schools." What's an example of that? I'm in a class about how to work with students who are struggling with sexual identity issues. I went expecting to learn strategies and techniques for compassionate shepherding of a student in a situation like that. Instead, our lecturer said the real problem is Christians who tell students facing these issues that homosexuality is wrong. If we would just embrace it there would be no problem.
I suspect you disagreed. He went on for a while. Finally I raised my hand and, as respectfully as I could, said, "Sir, wouldn't you agree that there's a whole theology of human sexuality that goes from Genesis straight through based on a heterosexual model?" He said, "No, I wouldn't agree, and I'm going to invite you to stop speaking now for your own good." I was shocked. I thought we were in class to engage in conversation.
Since you have managed the Values and Capitalism project, I'll ask: What did you learn about market systems during your seven years as an undergraduate and graduate student? In one course my professor of economics said, as an aside, "I am a capitalist and I will never apologize for that and neither should you." That was the only time in seven years of Christian education I heard anything like that. But professors of communication or theology freely opined on economics from a decidedly leftward-leaning position.
You started doing more reading while you were working at Colorado Christian. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea that I could and should be an advocate for the free market because of my Christian convictions. Reading Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism for the first time, I asked, "How is it possible no one ever said that to me?"
Which people do students at Christian college often hear? Guys like Shane Claiborne, Donald Miller, Jim Wallis come to speak at campuses.
What obstacles do conservative Christians face in communicating a different understanding? While there is an approach to conservatism that deals with the issues society faces in a humane way, we're not known for caring about people, even though our policies do. Meanwhile, the policies the left promotes do not help poor people. We need to make the moral case for budget reform based on the understanding that we should take care of the least among us. We need to show how continuing to spend on programs like Medicare and Medicaid without regard to the long-term implications is in no way beneficial to the poor.
And now you're moving on to a new position that has you staying in Washington and directing the Manhattan Declaration movement. How did that transition happen? I heard about the position and talked with folks. It moved very quickly-a month from initial contact to hiring. I saw on manhattandeclaration.org that the declaration itself now has about 525,000 signatures.
Many people understand one of the lasting lessons that I'll take away from AEI: The family is the cornerstone of society. Broken families have dire economic consequences, and-to start at the beginning-life and marriage are at the core of human thriving.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Eric Teetsel: