Michael Gerson

Washington, D.C.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser.
  • Books by Michael Gerson:
  • City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
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  • Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)
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Recent Articles

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, June 5, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By MICHAEL GERSON

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- In addition to being an act of sacrilege, Donald Trump's (literal) elevation of the Bible following the Battle of Lafayette Square was a culmination of the president's approach to communication.

In front of St. John's church, the president removed a syllable from his monosyllabic rhetoric and only held up a symbol. His awkwardness in handling the Bible made even his silence inarticulate. This approach does have the advantage of making the lives of White House communications staffers simpler. Instead of his next speech on agriculture, Trump could simply hold up a carrot. When communicating on law and order, he could have jackbooted enforcers of his whims throw flash-bang grenades and pepper-balls at citizens assembled in lawful protest.

Sorry, Trump already thought of that.

The problem with symbols, however, is that they don't interpret themselves. In other settings, holding up Holy Scripture might have been the president's way of saying: "BIBLE GOOD!" But the context here is more sinister. Following the brutal clearing of Lafayette Square, Trump seemed to be using the Bible as a symbol of conquest. It was a bit like planting the flag at Iwo Jima - except without the courage, honor or patriotic purpose.

Christian symbols have been used this way before. In 312 AD, on the night before a decisive battle for control of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine claimed to have the vision of a cross of light in the sky bearing the command, "In this sign, you will conquer." Few seemed to notice the irony of using a symbol of sacrificial love as a battle standard. And a dangerous precedent was set of applying religion as a tool of tribal conquest.

Trump is our cut-rate Constantine. He seeks to employ the sacred as a means of political influence. And more than that, he is now using the Bible to sanctify the physical abuse of peaceful protesters. It is a strategy that doubles as blasphemy. Trump is, in effect, proposing his own bent Beatitude: Blessed are the brutal, for they shall dominate the battle space.

My main concern is not for the standing of the Bible. Having weathered the barbarian invasions, it is likely to survive mishandling by Paula White and Donald Trump. But there is a genuine threat to democracy when citizens spiritualize their political differences. An opponent can be defeated; an infidel must be destroyed. And that seems to be Trump's intention: to convince evangelical Christians that opposition to his will is really opposition to their faith.

Trump is attempting something ambitious and revolting. He is trying to reshape the content of Christian social engagement in his own image. He is making the claim that brutalizing protesters, disdaining migrants, excluding refugees, discriminating against Islam, and treating opponents with casual cruelty are the natural elements of a biblical ethic. And he is using the Bible itself as a kind of talisman or fetish, carried into culture war conflicts. "In this sign," Trump seems to be saying to his followers, "you will conquer."

But for Christians, the Bible is not a charm to be borne into battle. It is not the words and pages that are holy; it is the message they contain. And that message, as Jesus summarized it, is this: "He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

This statement of purpose stands in judgment of almost everything for which Trump stands.

There are those on the evangelical right who have clearly abandoned this conception of scripture. They display not the transformed heart of the believer, but an iron stomach of a political operative. They will swallow anything. If Trump stepped on the Bible, they would interpret it as "the foundation of his life." If Trump lit it on fire, they would regard it as "lighting the way to a better future." Their tolerance for sacrilege is the revelation of their true priorities.

The good news of Jesus Christ is not the story of a triumphant tribe. It is the story of extravagant, creative, sacrificial, relentless divine love. If the biblical account of that love is true - as evangelicals would uniformly contend - trading it for the gospel of Trump is an act of monumental foolishness.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By MICHAEL GERSON

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The forces of chaos, disintegration and hatred are ascendant in America.

The streets are on fire. Historical injustice and present provocation are reagents that have combined in an explosive manner. People questioning the fundamental fairness of our country have been left without adequate answers. And people who organize to spread anarchy, and people who push for a race war, and people who engage in opportunistic looting, and people who spread disinformation and conspiracy theories, are not allowing a crisis to go to waste.

The country is sick and getting sicker. America has somehow managed to experience the severe economic and social consequences of a national lockdown while remaining the hottest spot of a global covid-19 pandemic. All pretense of social distancing seems to be breaking down, and a further, cruel culling of our elderly population seems to be an acceptable outcome for many politicians.

The economy is experiencing a swift-onset great depression. Massive unemployment is feeding a sense of social desperation. And America will be at a lasting disadvantage against economic competitors who responded to covid-19 more promptly and effectively.

Donald Trump is not responsible for these problems in all their aspects. But America is getting a very costly civics lesson. As many warned, presidents invariably face crises. It is the nature of the job and the world. Such a time of testing was delayed for Trump until the last year of his term. But the reckoning has arrived. Suddenly, electing a television entertainer - with no knowledge of history or experience of the world - seems less amusing. Suddenly the desire to apply a wrecking ball to American politics seems less responsible and appealing amid the ruins. Suddenly, as the culture war edges toward violence, the election of a "fighter" seems less than helpful.

Every crisis America now faces has been made worse by Trump's limits as a leader and a man. We needed a president who could imagine what the American experiment looks like from the perspective of those who find its promises fraudulent. We got someone incapable of empathy. We needed a president who would be data driven in matters of public health policy. We got someone driven by irrational enthusiasms and the advice of cronies. We needed a president who could calm destructive passions. We got someone who now urges the militarization of his fight against the left. We needed a president capable of speaking across differences. We got someone whose only authentic public communications are expressions of rancor.

This is the main (and rather obvious) lesson of Civics 101: If you elect a politician who is professionally incompetent and emotionally unwell, you will pay a price.

It doesn't really matter, in the end, if you camouflage Trump support as social analysis. It may well be true that the Trump movement is rooted in the suffering of rural and small-town America. It may well be true that some of Trump's supporters have been dislocated by profound economic and cultural changes and are angered by the condescension of elites.

The problem with this kind of argument is that there is no tissue of connection between means and ends. Trump as president has no discernable tie or relationship to such valid cultural concerns. This argument is like saying: "The problem of cultural and economic inequality is growing in our society, therefore let us eat more rutabagas." Or: "Drug abuse is increasing in rural America, therefore let us engage in more naked karaoke."

A man of Trump's character, background and talents is the answer to precisely none of the great challenges of our time. His election in 2016 was an act of irrationality and folly by a powerful, noble and indispensable nation. It has made us more pitiable, more degraded and more replaceable than before. And this likelihood was obvious to anyone with a single grain of foresight.

For all those who called Trump the better of two evils in 2016, it should be clear that the choice was really between a flawed but qualified Democratic candidate and a flawed and manifestly unfit Republican one. Now the unity of our country is under severe strain, the justice of our country is under close questioning, and the leader of our country is a crank with a keyboard. So enough with explaining Trump or explaining him away; he must be defeated.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, May 29, 2020, and thereafter)

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the slow suffocation of George Floyd and the bigoted libel against Christian Cooper differ in many details. But they have at least one thing in common: Had it not been for video evidence of these abuses, many Americans on the right would have given the white aggressors the benefit of the doubt. And some have still done so.

It reveals a great deal about the nature of our culture war that skepticism about black victims -- attempting to portray their background in the worst possible light -- is the default position of many on one side. And this is the main reason that some conservatives (like me) refuse to share the same political coalition as right-wing populists, even though our policy views sometimes coincide. Given our country's history of racism -- expressed in slavery, redemption, segregation and continuing white supremacy -- it is simply wrong to join any political coalition that welcomes and features racists. This is, or should be, a moral dealbreaker.

There are a variety of other valid reasons to oppose President Trump's reelection. There is his casual cruelty (expressed most recently in vile and baseless accusations of murder). There is his incompetent governance (which began the fight against COVID-19 too late and may be ending it too early). There is his use of power for corrupt, self-serving purposes (like urging a foreign country to dig up dirt on a political rival or undermining the criminal investigation of cronies). There is his ongoing attempt to undermine confidence in free elections, just in case November brings an unwelcome outcome.

But none of these provocations is as threatening to the identity of the country as Trump's refusal to isolate and repudiate the contagion of racism.

When Trump retweets and elevates a racist figure, or praises protesters carrying Confederate flags, or singles out black athletes, journalists and politicians for attack, this is not only an individual moral failure on the part of the president (though it certainly is that). It represents the incorporation of racial bias -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not -- into his political appeal. He knows it, but, most important, bigots in his own party know it.

One reason the president does not focus on the universality of human dignity in his rhetoric is because he systemically dehumanizes migrants and refugees as rapists, murderers and terrorists. He simply lacks the capacity to talk about our shared humanity.

One reason Trump did not repudiate racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Lansing, Michigan, is because angry racists are his people -- a valued part of his political base. In Trump's eyes, no one who supports him can really be bad. And racists seem grateful to see their views mainstreamed.

Politics does not offer easy methods to transform disordered hearts. But politics can either abet or inhibit racial hatred. It can push back against prejudice, or let it flourish. Is anyone confident that Trump feels an urgent need to address the racial and social inequalities that COVID-19 has revealed in our health care system? Does anyone seriously believe that Trump's Justice Department is organized to aggressively pursue racial justice? On these matters, the president has signaled indifference to inequality.

Who is supposed to care deeply about racial justice and reconciliation in the Republican coalition? I would have hoped that religious people would make such moral commitments a priority. Yet (in general) they haven't. It is the kind of failure that does grave injury to their Christian witness.

Historically, the most effective attack on the role of Christianity in society has been that it is an epiphenomenon -- that Christians employ mystical language to justify their tribalistic interests. In this view, religion is more of a mechanism to rationalize a preexisting political and social worldview rather than transforming it. (This is precisely what Southern slaveholders did when they provided religious justifications for slavery.)

What would the agenda of right-wing populism look like without evangelical Christian influence? The movement would probably be less pro-life. But much of evangelicalism's policy contribution to the Trump agenda concerns the defense of religious institutions themselves. And on racial issues, the absence of religious people would make no discernible difference. While rhetorically repudiating racism, they tolerate and enable it.

People of faith should apply a moral yardstick to any political coalition they join. They should strive to add some humanizing element to the political world. In Christian terms, the Kingdom of God is not some future blessed state. It becomes present when believers live by a different set of values in the here and now. The nature of those duties can be debated. But they do not include providing an alibi for racism.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

About
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser.
Books
  • City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
  • Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)
Reviews
"Mike Gerson is a gifted writer and an original thinker, not to mention a dogged reporter, and he provides unique insights on politics, religion, the future of the conservative movement and other important topics. He brings a new and different perspective to our op-ed page." -- Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor, The Washington Post
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