Remembering a real compassionate conservative
I met Michael Gerson once. I sat next to him at an Evangelical-Catholic dialogue at Georgetown University organized by the late Ron Sider. We chatted briefly, but I do not remember what we talked about. Yesterday when I learned that Gerson had died at age of fifty-eight of complications related to cancer, my interaction with him while sitting around that Georgetown conference table did not come immediately to mind. Instead, I thought about Gerson The Washington Post columnist.
Gerson was a compassionate conservative. He offered a vision for Christian politics wholly different from the brand of power politics peddled by the Religious Right. Gerson graduated from evangelical Wheaton College, but his writings were informed by Catholic social teaching, an approach to Christian public engagement that emphasizes the defense of life at all stages of development and a primary commitment to the poor and vulnerable in society. George W. Bush ran on compassionate conservatism in 2000 and Gerson, as one of his speechwriters, often gave him the words to articulate it to the American people. And though the president’s compassion agenda was derailed by the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent war on terror, Gerson carried these ideas forward in his charity work with ONE, his books, and his column.
Over at my almost fifteen-year-old blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I regularly shared and commented on Gerson’s work. When I started writing about evangelicals and Donald Trump I found strength in his powerful critique of the former president and the born-again Christians who embraced him. In June 2020, after Trump appeared at a Washington D.C. church holding a Bible in the midst of Black Lives Matter riots, Gerson described the event with a twist on the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the brutal, for they shall dominate the battlespace.”
In a December 2020 piece critical of Christian nationalist Eric Metaxas, Gerson announced, in language to which all evangelicals could relate, that the radio host had “publicly committed his life to Donald Trump.” He described a 2019 Trump speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee as akin to “hearing a ringtone of ‘Macarena’ during a funeral, and no one can answer the phone.” And needless to say I was thrilled and honored when he used my term “court evangelicals” in a column in which he suggested Trump-loving evangelicals had “lost their gag reflex.” In 2017, I wrote that he was “doing theology” from the pages of The Washington Post.
Gerson pulled no punches when it came to critiquing the evangelical and Republican community in which he was raised. He said the GOP’s spin on gun rights was “wrong—morally and legally.” He insisted that evangelicals who refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine were not pro-life. He ripped evangelical pastor John MacArthur for his claim that social justice was not a biblical concept and called out Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson for his abuse of women.
I always appreciated Gerson’s use of American history in his columns. For example, he said that the conservative response to the New York Times 1619 Project was “disappointing” and he always offered nuanced takes on the ongoing controversy over Critical Race Theory. In one of his last long-form pieces, the cover story of the March 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Gerson gave us a master class on historical contingency, pointing to wrong choices that American evangelicals and fundamentalist had made that led them down dark political paths.
Gerson’s review of a Henry Louis Gates book on Reconstruction included these lines: “The denial of justice [to African Americans] . . . was not just racism, but also the systematic attempt to destroy—through violence, threats and mockery—the dignity, political rights and social standing of blacks in America.” He added: “It was far worse than anything I was taught in history classes. Yet only by knowing this period can we understand how white supremacy became the broadly accepted, and sadly durable, ideology of white America.” And when Donald Trump made a pre-Inauguration Day Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma, Gerson wrote, “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter . . . [this is the] essence of narcissism.”
Gerson was a purveyor of hope. Last Christmas, as he struggled with cancer, he offered one of his most straightforwardly spiritual columns. He described his God as “a God of hope, who offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes. He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burden of our desires, and live in expectation of God’s unfolding purposes, until all his mercies stand revealed.” Amen and amen.
But my favorite Gerson column, which Current editor Eric Miller first called to my attention, was published in 2013 shortly after his oldest son went off to college. I can’t express in words how this column carried me through the pain and joy I experienced sending my own daughters off to college in the far-away land of western Michigan. “Parenthood,” Gerson wrote, “offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it’s a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone’s else’s story. And it is enough.”
I recently signed on to write some books about American evangelicals and politics in the twentieth-century. Earlier this week, unaware of the seriousness of his condition, I started composing a letter to Gerson. I wanted to interview him for the project. I needed to hear his stories about working in the Bush White House and his experiences as an American evangelical in Washington. My books will be weaker without Gerson’s insights, but I am mostly disappointed that I will not get a chance to meet him and learn from him.
Earlier this year Gerson reflected on the death of Christian writer Frederick Beuchner. He wrote that Beuchner taught him to pay attention to “those sudden upwellings of emotion we get from the sublimity of nature or art, when we see a whale breaching, or are emotionally ambushed by a line in a film or poem. We are led toward truth and beauty by a lump in the throat.” I can’t think of a better tribute to what Michael Gerson’s words have meant to me. They were a source of truth and beauty. I only met him briefly, and have never corresponded with him, but I still feel like I’ve lost a friend today. The written word can have that kind of power.
Rest in peace, my friend. And I hope one day—in a place where all suffering and pain will be no more—I will get a chance to do that interview.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current