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Calvin January Series: Former Bush speechwriter talks on Politics and Religion

January 12, 2012

The speaker at today’s January Series lecture was for Bush policy advisor and speechwriter Micheal Gerson.

Gerson was introduced by Calvin President Gaylen Byker who acknowledged some of Gerson’s political background and his involvement with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gerson himself referred to his work with Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Chuck Colson and said of Colson that he would be “remembered as one of the great reformers of the 20th Century.” According to SourceWatch, Gerson has also been a policy advisor for the ultra conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

The former policy analyst also spoke a bit about his relationship with George W. Bush, in the most sanitized and superficial way. Gerson said the former President had a locker room humor he was not used to and that he found it difficult to just “hang out” with Bush. Gerson also mentioned his involvement with the pseudo justice group run by rock star Bono, ONE.

Gerson laid out his talk by wanting to identify the ways in which Christians can engage themselves in the world. He said that often the statements that public Christians make in the world today gives us an indication of their theology. He mentioned the various responses to the earthquake in Haiti, where some religious leaders would say it was an act of God against devil worshipers, while others chose to focus on relief work.

Gerson acknowledged that Jesus was an enemy of the state, “although he never espoused a political theology.” Gerson said that often those who mix religion with political power results in oppression, but he also said that the failure of Christians to response to contemporary politics, can also result in injustice.

The conservative Christian then went on to speak about the evolution of the Religious Right, beginning with their response the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He said they organized and became deeply involved in the political process.

Gerson says that one of the unexpected partnerships that occurred within the conservative sector was how evangelicals and Catholics came together, despite a history of mutual suspicion. Catholics such as Scalia and Pope John Paul II are highly respected in evangelical circles for their “principled stances.”

Gerson did acknowledge that the language of the Religious Right often was alienating and off-putting and that the issues they have got behind often made people view the religious right as merely a tool of partisan politics.

According to Gerson the most important manifestation of Christians in the world is to engage in justice. He then cites Dr. King and his letter from a Birmingham Jail. Up to this point there were mild contradictions in Gerson’s presentation, but referencing King was over the top. How could someone who has been connected to Washington powerbrokers, conservative think tanks and the Religious Right hold up this powerful statement from Dr. King? He said that what made King’s letter so powerful was the notion that those who are being oppressed can’t wait and cannot be patient.

What the former Bush speechwriter then said clarified both his notion of justice and it further exposed his true colors. Gerson said the best example of his experience of religion and politics was Bush’s decision to fight AIDS in Africa by passing legislation known as PEPFAR. Gerson talked about seeing the results of this US aide program and how it saved lives.

However, there are other perspectives on this matter, particularly African voices that take a different view. One such view is a criticism of the conditions imposed on African nations with the PEPFAR funds, such as an abstinence only policy, no use of condoms and denying African nations the ability to make their own genetic AIDS drugs.

These critiques cut through the cloud created by the justice rhetoric that Gerson used throughout his talk. The PERFAR funding is the best example of religion in politics, because it not only imposes one groups set of values on another, it maintains the status quo and never challenges systemic injustice by emphasizing personal responsibility. This is the relationship between religion and politics that Gerson embraces and we shouldn’t be fooled by his claims to love justice.

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