“Grace Breaks Through the Din”: Peter Wehner’s Faith-Based Political Optimism

A conversation with former White House speechwriter and political columnist Peter Wehner as he prepares to speak at Wheaton next week.

When Peter Wehner walked into work late one morning in 1985, he had a message from someone regarding an essay he had just published in the Washington Times. The caller? President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett. 

Peter Wehner, who will speak at Wheaton on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m in Armerding Concert Hall. Photo from Peter Wehner

 Wehner, then a special assistant to the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, was impressed by a speech Bennett had just given on school prayer. He wrote about Bennett’s agenda for American education, which he praised for its emphasis on education of character, rather than simply boosting SAT scores. Bennett called Wehner the next morning to thank him for the essay. After a series of touch football games with some mutual friends and colleagues brought the two closer together, Bennett hired Wehner as a speechwriter. 

Wehner went on to work for three different presidential administrations, including George H.W. and George W. Bush, and in various communication roles at think tanks. His most significant influences, he says, were the teams he worked on in and around the White House who were interested in the ideological, intellectual side of politics. 

Now, at 62, Wehner is the author of three books about American politics, faith and philosophy — one of which, “City of Man,” he wrote with another Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson ‘86. Wehner also writes a regular column in the Atlantic and contributes to the opinion page of the New York Times. 

On Monday, Sept. 11, the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics at Wheaton College will host Wehner for a talk entitled “Christianity as a Healing Force in American Society.” In advance of the talk, Wehner spoke with the Record about his career and his views on faith and political life in the US. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

I’d love to start by hearing a little bit about how you got involved in speechwriting. What was the early foray into that, and how did you get started with writing for Secretary Bennett back in the day?

I was a person who was interested in a couple things in my life. Sports was one, and, and politics was another. At a relatively young age, I had conversations with my parents, particularly my dad,  about world events and politics.

He was a pretty learned man and we had a cabin in the Cascade Mountains that we would go to every weekend from the spring to the fall. And often on those rides there I would just ask a lot of questions. I went to the University of Washington. Political science was my major. I used to go to Suzzallo Library and listen to speeches of John F. Kennedy. I was captivated by words and the power of words in the context of politics.

I did a couple of internships. Then I was hired at the Ethics and Public Policy Center as a special assistant to the then-president. I did a piece on William Bennett, whom I had followed. I had been to some speeches that he’d given at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. I found him a very compelling public figure, because I thought he was intelligent and I felt like this was a person who took ideas seriously and was able to articulate them.

And essentially what I argued is that it wasn’t just about SAT scores and graduation rates, but it was about education in the deepest and most fundamental sense of education in the Aristotelian sense, the education of character, the shaping of sensibilities. And he called me the morning after

it appeared, and that sort of began a relationship. I will say that that was a really good experience for me as a young person, because that was a really impressive team that Bill had built. Politics for them wasn’t about power. It was about advancing causes and ideals. 

How did the experience of being a Christian in the White House change throughout all the years that you were working there?

I don’t think the effect on my faith has changed much. I don’t think my perspective on faith as it relates to the intersection of faith and public life has changed a lot. I was wary about saying God is calling me to these particular jobs. I’ve never been confident enough to discern how much of what’s happening is my own desires, and how much would be God doing it, and how much is just the way life unfolds. So I never went into these jobs feeling like ‘this is where God wants me to be and I’m God’s chosen instrument’ in whatever job I’m in. For me, it was really much more a sense of faith meaning that you should have moral and personal and theological and intellectual integrity. You always have to be careful about trying to connect the dots too closely. And you always have to be careful about subordinating faith to your priors, your predispositions. 

So that was the way that faith manifests itself in my public life. Most of the time it was, ‘Am I dealing with people and with issues and my circumstances in life with integrity?’

How did you first meet Michael Gerson?

I met Mike in the 1990s. My memory was that the first time I met Mike, we talked about Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a British journalist of some renown and a beautiful writer who came to the Christian faith later in his life. I was struck first by the fact that Mike knew about Muggeridge because he wasn’t really that well known. But also Mike’s thoughtfulness and sophistication on faith. I immediately took a liking to him, and we became very close friends. Really since we met, he’s been the closest of or among the closest friends that I’ve had, for 25 years. 

He was a person of deep faith, extremely thoughtful. We worked together, of course, for several years in the White House. But we were in contact with each other all the time before then and since then. There would be times in which we would talk two or three times a day. 

Wheaton was a big, big influence on him. I really love Wheaton in part because Wheaton was important to Mike, and helped shape who he was.

That’s a great segue into my next question, which is your talk here at Wheaton, which I know you’ve given before, about Christianity being a healing force in American society. Could you give me a few teaser key points?

Yeah, I think there are three elements to it. The first is where we are as a society. By pretty much any metric that you would use to try and characterize where the country is, it would show polarization, division and antipathy. There’s a feeling that we’re at each other’s throats and that there’s not a sense that we’re one country or one people anymore. So the one is to talk about that and to describe that moment. 

The second is the role of the church, that is, the role that the church is currently playing in our public life, in our political life, in our common life. Which I think, by and large in the mainstream, is not helpful; it’s harmful. I’m going to talk some about what the church and what Christians can do to try to heal our country. And that involves a whole series of things, mostly attitudes and approach. How we have to learn to listen well to one another. How we need to model debate. And how to disagree well with each other. 

And we need to model being an attractive community, because American society is characterized by a lot of loneliness and isolation and detachment and this is really a moment in which the church has a great opportunity to give a home and a sanctuary and a safe haven. And I’ll talk some about what it means to model grace. 

In my experience, more than anything else, grace breaks through the din and reaches people who are not people of faith. When people witness authentic grace in action, it deeply moves them. Because grace is so central to Christianity, if we take that seriously, that really does reach people’s hearts and lives in a way that almost nothing else does.

What pitfalls should young Christians be watching out for? 

People get sucked into politics and faith becomes subordinate to politics and political ideology. There’s a book that Sheldon Vanauken wrote, “A Severe Mercy.” At the end of the book, he talks about how he had gotten involved in the anti-war movement in the 1960s.

He felt like the Vietnam War was an unjust war, and that he as a person of faith needed to speak up against it. But then he reflected on what was happening to him and to the anti-war movement, including people who were Christians and involved. And he said, “the cause of Christ became more important than Christ himself.”

He began to hate our enemies rather than loving them. So what he saw was he had given himself fully to the political movement that he believed in. But in the process of giving himself over to a political movement, it began to erode his spirit.

Christians should be characterized by qualities that are different from the world and higher than the rest of the world and more beautiful than the rest of the world. 

I don’t think I’m naive about politics, but it matters. And we need people, including people of the Christian faith who are idealistic and who have ideals. So I don’t think Wheaton students or any other students for that matter, should disengage from politics. They shouldn’t become cynical about politics.

They shouldn’t give up on it, because there’s too much at stake. 

Peter Wehner will speak at Armerding Concert Hall at 7:00 pm on Monday, Sept. 11. The views expressed in this conversation do not necessarily represent the views of the Wheaton Record or Wheaton College.

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes is a senior English Writing major with a minor in International Relations. A native of Portland, Ore., she enjoys learning languages, pasta and over-analyzing TV shows.

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