[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]
#35. Michael Gerson. The Scribe b.1964
In modern American culture, where the language of politics influences the thinking and actions of not just its public officials but also its people and its institutions, speechwriter and columnist Michael Gerson is certainly the most influential evangelical rhetorician of the last generation and a powerful literary craftsman at the nexus Christian faith and public life.
Today a columnist for The Washington Post, Gerson emerged professionally as a sure bet to make a mark in the public square. We were colleagues in the late 1980s on Chuck Colson’s personal staff at Prison Fellowship, Gerson drafting speeches and columns soon after graduating from Wheaton College. I was Colson’s chief of staff, so technically Mike worked for me, but only in the same way that press secretary Robert Gibbs works for White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. In reality, Gerson dealt with Colson almost entirely, and he served him with great skill.
The first major speech in which he had a significant hand was Colson’s 1993 acceptance speech at Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, when Colson received the Templeton Prize. That speech, The Enduring Revolution, demonstrated the powerful use of language, spiritual images, and rich content that would have a much larger megaphone when Gerson served as the chief speech writer for President George W. Bush.
In The Enduring Revolution, Gerson/Colson penned these words:
“Christian conviction inspires public virtue, the moral impulse to do good. It has sent legions into battle against disease, oppression, and bigotry. It ended the slave trade, built hospitals and orphanages, tamed the brutality of mental wards and prisons. In every age it has given divine mercy a human face in the lives of those who follow Christ — from Francis of Assisi to the great social reformers Wilberforce and Shaftesbury to Mother Teresa to the tens of thousands of Prison Fellowship volunteers who take hope to the captives — and who are the true recipients of this award. Christian conviction also shapes personal virtue, the moral imperative to be good. It subdues an obstinate will. It ties a tether to self-interest and violence.”
After writing for Colson, Gerson went on to write for Senator Dan Coats, for Bob Dole’s and Jack Kemp’s presidential campaigns, and at U.S. News and World Report—before joining the Bush team and eventually serving in the White House.
Gerson has said one of his favorite speeches was given at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, a few days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which included the following passage: “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.”
Gerson also coined “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “the armies of compassion.”
Gerson was criticized during his time as “The Scribe,” as President Bush called him, for his Christian influence on Bush and on the content of his speeches and policies. This criticism came from political opponents and others who object to religious content in government discourse and indeed to any suggestion that there are spiritual aspects to personal convictions and decision-making.
Gerson addressed the topic of religious content in political life in a talk to journalists at a forum sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 2004. He outlined the five aspects of religious rhetoric in public addresses:
1. Comfort in grief and mourning, and we’ve had too many of those opportunities: in the space shuttle disaster, 9/11, other things where people are faced with completely unfair suffering. And in that circumstance, a president generally can’t say that death is final, and separation is endless, and the universe is an echoing, empty void. A president offers hope – the hope of reunions and a love stronger than death, and justice beyond our understanding.
2. Historic influence of faith on our country. We argue that it has contributed to the justice of America, that people of faith have been a voice of conscience.
3. When we talk about our faith-based welfare reform . This is rooted in the president’s belief that government, in some cases, should encourage the provision of social services without providing those services. And some of the most effective providers, especially in fighting addiction and providing mentoring, are faith-based community groups.
4. Literary allusions to hymns and scripture . In our first inaugural, we had “when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side;” or “there is power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” in the State of the Union. I’ve actually had, in the past, reporters call me up on a variety of speeches and ask me where are the code words. I try to explain that they’re not code words; they’re literary references understood by millions of Americans. They’re not code words; they’re our culture. It’s not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot’s Choruses From the Rock in our Whitehall speech; it’s a literary reference. And just because some don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s a plot or a secret.
5. Reference to providence, which some of the other examples have touched on. This is actually a longstanding tenet of American civil religion. It is one of the central themes of Lincoln’s second inaugural. It’s a recurring theme of Martin Luther King – “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice;” “we do not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.” The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God. That seems presumption to me, and we’ve done our best to avoid the temptation. 
Since leaving the White House, Gerson has often criticized fellow conservatives in his columns (and they have returned the favor). One of Gerson’s first Washington Post columns was entitled “Letting Fear Rule”, in which he compared skeptics of President Bush’s immigration reform bill to nativist bigots of the 1880s. He has also been critical of some elements of the Tea Party movement and libertarians. His book “Heroic Conservatism,” published by HarperOne in 2007, established Gerson as a continuing voice for compassionate conservatism, which is often seen in his twice-weekly columns, and which has pitted him from time to time against the most conservative elements of the Republican Party.