I read about this on the God’s Politics blog this evening…
Michael Gerson is regarded by many as one of the most talented (and controversial) speechwriters today. Having spent five-plus years as the top White House speechwriter, Gerson, a graduate of Wheaton College, is the man responsible for such memorable lines as the poetic “soft bigotry of low expectations” and the infamous “axis of evil.”
Gerson has a new book releasing this month, Heroic Conservatism. I don’t normally write about books I haven’t read yet, but the God’s Politics post got me curious.
According to the Washington Post (where Gerson is now an op-ed columnist), he writes in his book that “traditional conservatism has a piece missing—a piece that is shaped like a conscience.” In his own column, Gerson wrote earlier today that some conservatives are proposing a false choice between big-government liberalism and “freedom, reduced to a single principle of unrestricted economic choice.”
Gerson, an evangelical Christian, believes many of his fellow conservatives are drawing from the well of libertarianism. He proposes that Catholic social thought—which maintains the dignity of every human life, the importance of the family and community, and solidarity with the poor, among other things—would make a better foundation for those whose politics lean toward the right.
(As a side note, one aspect of Catholic social thought that conservatives especially resonate with—the sanctity of life—is also cause for discomfort among some of them. In addition to its opposition to abortion, this tenet of Catholic social thought maintains that war and capital punishment must also be rejected in favor of life.)
Focusing mostly on what Catholic social thought says about the poor, Gerson writes:
The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules—free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government—asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread—it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.
This obligation to protect has never, in Jewish and Christian teaching, been purely private. Hebrew law made a special provision for the destitute—requiring that a portion of harvested crops be left in the field to be gathered by the poor. The Hebrew prophets raucously confronted the political and economic exploitation of the weak.
Speaking as one who doesn’t feel at home among the labels or parties at either end of the political spectrum, I think both sides of the aisle (and everyone in between) would benefit from more thinking like Gerson’s.