Defenders of the separation of church and state deplore no period of Christian history more than the Constantinian epoch. They suspect that Constantine made the world safe for Christianity only by making Christianity a danger to the world. Christian soldiers replaced bleeding martyrs as the altar fused with the sword. The theorist behind Constantine’s political revolution was the much maligned Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. Unlike Augustine, who dismissed Rome as a bastion of brigandage, Eusebius thought the empire was a gift from God, and he was convinced of Constantine’s cosmic importance. Eusebius thought he was living during the climax of history, with church and state uniting under the one aim of divine providence. His panegyrical style strikes us as purplish today, but to his contemporaries, his coordination of historical events with the coming Kingdom of God was inspiring and credible. He was more eloquent than Constantine, but he was only translating the emperor’s self-understanding into a viable idiom. If he were alive today, he would be a presidential speechwriter.
Arguably, he would be Michael Gerson. I mean that as a compliment. Eusebius praised Constantine from afar, but Gerson observed President Bush up close. A graduate of Wheaton College who now writes an op-ed column for the Washington Post, Gerson was President Bush’s chief speechwriter and policy adviser for five years. In his new book, Heroic Conservativism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don’t), he explains how President Bush “came to rely on me to help collect and express his intuitions.” He transformed President Bush’s wishes into words, but he was much more than the president’s muse. Gerson shares with the president a providential reading of history. Like Bush, Gerson is convinced that freedom is the goal of historybecause he believes that freedom is God’s gift to everyone.
Bush intones his speeches with a Texan flatness. Gerson embossed them with biblical cadences. The most prominent example of Gerson’s influence occurred during the 2003 State of the Union address, when Bush declared that “there is power, wonder-working power,” in the idealism of the American people. When journalists complained that Gerson was hiding religious messages in the president’s speeches, he would explain that “these are not code words, they are literary references understood by millions of Americans.” For Gerson as well as for President Bush, political freedom is too precarious to have been brought to the shores of America by any means other than providence, and too important for providence not to extend to the rest of the world.
What grates on the secular ear is the presumption Gerson puts into Bush’s mouth. To critics on the left, Gerson makes it sound like Bush’s policy decisions come straight out of the Bible. To Gerson, Bush’s providential interpretation of American history stands in a worthy tradition best exemplified by Abraham Lincoln. Gerson admits, however, that Lincoln’s doctrine of providence was more tragic than Bush’s. “For Lincoln, this Providence was harsh and just, requiring blood spilled in war for blood spilled in slaverya conception of God that led to resignation before his purposes. For President Bush, this Providence is ultimately loving and personal and concerned to vindicate the righta conception of God that leads to trust and confidence.” The doctrine of providence led Lincoln to deepen his sense of the mysterious and judgmental ways of God, while a more sunny view of God has led Bush to idealize the doctrine of providence.
Most American presidents have drawn from the long tradition of American exceptionalism, so the media’s allergic reaction to Bush’s faith in freedom can be puzzling. Perhaps it is his combination of sincerity and swagger that makes his invocation of God’s guidance of history sound so dangerous. Some of the lines Gerson gives him do sound almost too good to be true, as when the president said, in his second inaugural, “The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictableyet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom.” A line like this pushes the panic button for many secular liberals, but it can be just as troubling to some mainline Protestants. They worry that if President Bush is the providence president, then Gerson is the imperial apologist.
The critics finally got to Gerson, who held a meeting with reporters in December 2004 to defend the president’s choice of words. He correctly noted that Bush’s references to divine providence were within the mainstream of American civil religion. He also clarified the logical implications of his providential embellishments. “The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God,” he said. “That seems a presumption to me, and we’ve done our best to avoid the temptation.”
Gerson’s modesty that day was theologically appropriate. When God chooses to work through an individual or a nation, God should be identified as the source of any good that agent achieves. Gerson is right that a providential reading of history can become self-congratulatory, but this temptation is exactly what the doctrine of providence is designed to prevent. Providence asks us to take our identity from what God has done for us. Providence does not mean that we can identify whatever we do with the will of God.
That note of modesty is often missing from Heroic Conservatism. Gerson is anxious in this book to show how confidence in God unleashes humans to be their best. We can boldly do what we think is right because we know where God is going in history, even if we do not always know the specifics of how God is getting there. Secular liberals will always have trouble understanding how hopeful the doctrine of providence is, because they think that acknowledging God’s power detracts from human potential. God does not compete with humans, just as America’s power is not necessarily at odds with the empowerment of other nations. God can work through America to bring freedom to other nations without sanctioning everything America does.
Gerson is right that providence is a great motivator, but it is also a great humbler. Secularists hear arrogance in every religious invocation, but the jingoism of manifest destiny is foreign to the way providence deepens, rather than eradicates, the mystery of God. Providence points us in the right direction, but it does not guarantee continuous progress along the way. The nineteenth century was the high point for the doctrine of providence in America, but one of the most popular sayings of the day, “Man can appoint, but God can disappoint,” reflected more realism than idealism. On its face, this saying might seem like a denial of the wisdom of God’s ways, but for people used to witnessing the folly of human affairs, disappointment is the only true ground for hope.
Gerson, by contrast, often strikes the note of progress too loudlythough, to be fair, optimism is surely an occupational prerequisite, if not a spiritual hazard, for any political speechwriter. Still, for all his talk about America’s special mission in the world, Gerson’s theology of providence is pretty thin. Idealists want the world to live up to their abstract standards of equality, while the doctrine of providence, traditionally understood, treats inequality as both an enduring consequence of sin and a God-given opportunity for compassion. Gerson argues that idealism is necessary for politics because “when the chance comes to do something, it leaves no doubt about the thing to be done.” Yet even idealists know that there are limits to the good that government can accomplish.
In a revealing moment, Gerson describes his mood as a policy adviser taking part in the give and take of long meetings. “I felt increasingly frustrated by budgetary constraints that made creativity on the domestic agenda nearly impossible.” He longs for the days when evangelicals were the inspiration for most of the social movements in America, from the abolition of slavery to Prohibition. For Gerson, politics is about achieving the impossible, not figuring out what is possible.
President Bush was already talking about compassionate conservatism when Gerson began working for him, but Gerson wants to elevate the president’s agenda to another level. His catchphrase, heroic conservatism, has at least two problems. First, it implies that ordinary conservatism is cowardly and cruel. Have Republicans, as his subtitle claims, really failed to embrace America’s ideals? Second, it loses the alliteration and the elegant repetition of the number of syllables in Bush’s original slogan. When he worked for the White House, Gerson’s prose was edited by the president, but in this case Gerson is doing the revising, and the result is heavy-handed. Bush is no Constantine, but Gerson is a worthy heir of Eusebius.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, The Divine Voice, and Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved.
Heroic Conservativism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don’t) by Michael J. Gerson