A political ‘truce’ on abortion?

WASHINGTON-MARCH 19: Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), speaks on Capitol Hill March 19, 2003 in Washington, D.C. Daniels testified before the Transportation, Treasury, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

He hasn’t exactly reached Sarah Palin levels of media saturation, nor is he about to host his own syndicated talk show like Mike Huckabee — but Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is generating quite a bit of excitement within the ranks of the Republican party. Based on his stellar gubernatorial track record, more than a few people want to see him run for President. (I should confess that, having written a cover story for National Review on the governor last year, I’ve played a minor role in spurring the chatter around Daniels.)

Anyway, unless you’re a political junkie, you might not have noticed that last month Daniels did something quite surprising for a Republican presidential contender. In another profile by Andrew Freguson of The Weekly Standard, Daniels said this:

Beyond the debt and the deficit, in Daniels’s telling, all other issues fade to comparative insignificance. He’s an agnostic on the science of global warming but says his views don’t matter. “I don’t know if the CO2 zealots are right,” he said. “But I don’t care, because we can’t afford to do what they want to do. Unless you want to go broke, in which case the world isn’t going to be any greener. Poor nations are never green.”

And then, he says, the next president, whoever he is, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the economic issues are resolved. Daniels is pro-life himself, and he gets high marks from conservative religious groups in his state. He serves as an elder at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, in inner-city Indianapolis, which he’s attended for 50 years. In 1998, with a few other couples from Tabernacle and a nearby Baptist congregation, he and his wife founded a “Christ-centered” school, The Oaks Academy, in a downtown neighborhood the local cops called “Dodge City.” It’s flourishing now with 315 mostly poor kids who pursue a classical education: Latin from third grade on, logic in middle school, rhetoric in eighth grade, an emphasis throughout on the treasures of Western Civilization. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in,” he told me. His social-conservative credentials are solid.

So a leading Republican and possible presidential candidate is saying we may have to de-emphasize social issues… whoa. Shortly after Ferguson’s piece appeared, I was at a meeting where Daniels was again asked about this truce, and he even declined to commit to reinstating the “Mexico City policy” — an executive order federal banning funding for NGOs that fund abortion efforts repealed by Obama. While the former Office of Management and Budget director is primarily known as an economic policy wonk, again, Daniels isn’t just nominally a social conservative. A few days after his comments on the Mexico City policy, someone at a big family values organization expressed a bit of bewilderment about what was going on, telling me that Daniels was “categorically” one of the most pro-life governors in the country.

So what exactly is going on? After I wrote a column plumbing the depths of what he meant by a “truce”, Daniels called me up to affirm he’s serious as a heart attack about the proposal. (Though a few days later, he did tell his former OMB colleague Michael Gerson that “I would reinstate the Mexico City policy.”)

Okay, so what does this have to do with GetReligion you ask? Well, I was looking up some info on Daniels and came across this interview with an Indiana TV station. It’s from this past December, before all the truce talk. Daniels spoke openly about his faith, and it seems relevant in light of his talk of a truce:

Mark Mellinger: You’ve talked about your own personal faith very little. What is the Gospel? What is its primary significance to Mitch Daniels?

Governor Daniels: It’s true. I don’t talk about these things too openly for two reasons.

One is [that] although faith is very central to me, I also take very seriously the responsibility to treat my public duties in a way that keeps separate church and state and respects alternative views.

Secondly, I’ve sometimes referred to it as a Matthew 6 Christian. If you read that chapter, it’s the one that talks about praying in private, not giving your alms in public, not being ostentatious about your faith. And I’ve always liked that notion and thought that was a pretty important instruction.

Mellinger: But theology has to shape your life, right? I mean, the external actions that we see you take, [they're] driven by what’s inside. Isn’t it all a result of your theology?

Daniels: I hope it is; hope it is, except we all fall short of that.

To me, the core of the Christian faith is humility, which starts with recognizing that you’re as fallen as anyone else. And we’re all constantly trying to get better, but… so I’m sure I come up short on way too many occasions.

There’s more juicy stuff at the link, in particular Daniels condemns “aggressive atheism,” of which he said “leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists.” So in the span of six months Daniels has provoked the condemnation of both atheists and social conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, who used his opposition to Daniels’ “truce” proposal as the hook for a fundraising letter.

While the presidential talk around Daniels hasn’t died down, he’s certainly become a more controversial figure since his proposed “truce.” But almost all of the coverage of Daniels’ “truce” comments – myself included – has centered on the political horserace angles.

In my experience, Daniels is very thoughtful and careful guy. I bet if some enterprising religion reporter were to call up Daniels and ask him how his personal faith informs his decision to call for a truce on social issues, the result would be mighty interesting. (Somewhat unrelated but worth noting — another interesting wrinkle with regard to Daniels’ faith is that he’s the grandson of Syrian immigrants and was once honored as National Public Servant of the Year by the Arab-American Institute.)

As the race for 2012 heats up, and if Daniels does indeed prove to be a contender, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be ahead of the curve in helping voters get a bead on his religious perspective. So, if any religion reporters are reading this — how about it?

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The one comment Gov. Daniels made that really struck me is a comment I have also made in many places and been duly ignored or just brushed off as though I were making it up. I have said repeatedly that it is funny how, if the Catholic Church does something someone in the media or elsewhere is opposed to, suddenly the Inquisition of 500 years ago is usually at least alluded to. Everyone is aware of–and constantly, regularly reminded of that blot on the Catholic historical record.
    But whenever the bloody horrors of the 20th Century perped by atheists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler are mentioned somehow their total hatred of religion and basic moral values and/or their embrace of atheism and a determination to “convert” or kill all religious leaders and believers is ignored. It is almost as if the horrendous 20th Century–the Century of Atheist Power- has fallen into George Orwell’s memory hole.
    I wonder how long it will be before the Gov. is clubbed into silence on this issue???

  • Jerry

    “I don’t know if the CO2 zealots are right,” he said. “But I don’t care, because we can’t afford to do what they want to do. Unless you want to go broke, in which case the world isn’t going to be any greener. Poor nations are never green.”

    A bit off topic, but that reads as if he said he did not understand science and does not care but feels free to insult scientists as zealots and ignore their findings because he’s decided they’re wrong because he believes doing nothing won’t have serious consequences.

    As to your primary question, Mark, I agree. Given his attitude toward science, I can only wonder how he really feels about religion and hope this gets explored further.

    And we must be in the end times because I agree with Deacon Bresnahan’s posting.

  • dalea

    What would a ‘truce on social issues’ look like? Makes a good sound bite but I have no idea what it would mean. This really deserves a follow up.

  • Lynn

    Abortion is the greatest moral failing of my generation (and the generation before me). It is time that this heinous assault on the most innocent of our society be outlawed at a national level with a constitutional amendment.

    I REFUSE to vote for any candidate at any level who will not fight for that. Mitch Daniels is on that list now – how disappointing, because I am from Indiana and have appreciated most of what he has accomplished here.

  • Lisa

    I can understand truce on some minor social issues but there should never be truce on ending the killing of unborn humans.

  • Peggy

    I’m glad to hear that Daniels is a solid Christian, but his truce is a bad idea. They can’t trust the Dems to stick with a truce. It’s too late anyway. Gay “marriage” is already going through the courts and must be addressed. Mexico City must be re-instated. ObamaCare, not just abortion funding, must be repealed.

    Now, one might suggest that social issues might be de-emphasized in the next presidential campaign b/c the underlying economic and cultural stability (ie, liberty & private property) of our nation are at great risk. Daniels or the GOP candidate might also talk about the lack of trust in the feds–the current administration–as well. The next presidential election is going to be about the lousy governance of O and the Dem party. Much of the citizenry are alarmed at O taking us over the cliff and usurping liberties and private enterprises. If Daniels wants to say that’s what the election’s about, he’d be right. He wants to get the votes of non-social conservatives, tea partiers, who are alarmed about the Dem agenda. He thinks the social agenda has to be taken off the table. He’s wrong. It can be made part and parcel of the underlying stability issues. Christian voters will be even less happy w/Daniels than they were with McVain. And we saw how that turned out.

    You can’t play nice guy against these folks. They’re playing for keeps. They are not giving up. See the Politico survey of liberals’ laments that O’s not liberal enough. [Amazing that they think so.]

  • mark

    Just a reminder here folks — this is not a forum for political discussion. Keep it focused on the journalism aspect, please.

  • http://www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com Magister Christianus

    I, too, am from Indiana and have appreciated Gov. Daniels’ fiscal conservatism. I would love to see this issue followed, however, and to see if he will maintain this “truce” once the presidential election mechanism swings into motion. It is not necessarily a sign of being disingenuous to set forth an idea at one point in one’s political career and then move in a different direction after seeing one was wrong. To do so merely to garner votes, however, is disingenuous, and I hope this is not the case with Gov. Daniels. He seriously needs to re-think this. It is not enough to cite Matthew 6. Yes, we pray in private and do not make a show of our faith, but at the same time, that faith must actually shape our actions, or it is lip-service faith the kind of which James condemns.

  • Kristine

    I like that you are already connecting the dots on Gov Daniels. I am not a Republican, but a pro-life Democrat,(we are the ones who get spat upon from both left and right.) but depending on what direction we are heading too far into, I can be convinced to change my mind and my vote. I think I see where he’s coming from on this truce. It appears (to me) that he is signaling which issues are his priority, which ones will get crisis management treatment,and which ones he can wait on. To be honest, I think the generation coming of age right now seems much more personally conservative on abortion than any generation since Roe v Wade. (That is anecdotal – I don’t have stats right at my disposal.) Perhaps science and social pressure may bring about the decline of abortion, and the eventual cultural recognition that it is the taking of human life.
    I disagree with his stance on climate control, and a bunch of other things, but it IS good to see coverage of his world views, and see that he appears to be more complex and nuanced than some ‘black and white’ voters would like him to be.

  • Peggy

    I am sorry. You are correct. I am not sure what the journalistic angle would be but to ask Daniels to elaborate. Does he envision the Dems to participate in the truce? What would be his goals, his ideal of a satisfactory truce? How would it comport with his religious views to hold off on actions that might reverse RvW or halt gay “marriage”? [Actually, I think these things are mostly the purview of states and then the courts to adjudicate once the state law is challenged--as we have seen. Not really a fed concern except judicial nominations. And maybe Daniels would say that.]

    A journalist could also ask some Dems or progressive Christians such as Wallis, or interest groups such as Human Rights Coalation or NARAL what they think of this idea? Would they be willing to participate in a truce to get the economy back on track? I suppose conservative interest groups should be asked as well what they think of this idea. I think we already have a bit of an idea about that.

  • Matt

    A few clicks reveal that Tabernacle Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis is a member of the PCUSA (the largest and most liberal of the major Presbyterian denominations), but was part of the “Confessing Church” renewal movement of a decade ago. Worth mentioning?

  • Bill R.

    The two questions asked by the interviewer, Mark Mellinger, were quite exceptional. The first question was refreshing, but the second was simply jaw-dropping (in a good way). Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he works for a local TV station, but I could never imagine a reporter from, say, the NYT asking even the first question (“the” Gospel?! Sounds creepy…), much less the second one (theology can shape your life?! Not in my secular democracy!).

    Despite the interviewer’s obvious willingness to GetReligion, I was disappointed that Daniels basically refused to give it. He barely answered the first question and plainly dodged the second. If a social conservative like Daniels evades such important questions about how belief informs practice, then I’m not optimistic about getting an answer from public figures on the rest of the theological and political spectra. For instance, what if someone had asked those two questions of Nancy Pelosi a couple months ago when she talked about the need to live out the gospels (she used the plural, if I remember correctly) in connection with health care and the USCCB?

    Which brings up a relevant point for this blog: for the media to “get” religion requires more than just reporters asking the right questions – it requires interviewees who can give honest answers, and a public that can stomach them.

  • Dave

    I have a thin overlap of agreement with Peggy, from the opposite direction: I’m skeptical of a truce because it cannot be enforced and I don’t trust the other side to cease its efforts voluntarily.

    Bill R, I have to go with a narrower view of whether the press gets religion. The press cannot, by internal reform, assure that interviewees will answer questions about their theology, nor secure a readership that can cope with that dialogue. It can set the table for such outcomes by inviting them.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I would actually like more coverage of the bit about “aggressive atheism”. Some actual history could stand to be gone over. Both Daniels and Bresnahan above seem to think that Hitler was an atheist, for example… and I’m not sure either have a handle on what “[Sam] Harris, a [Christopher] Hitchens, a [Richard] Dawkins” actually say about morality.

  • mark

    Again, people — please stick to the journalistic issues at hand. This is not a forum to weigh in on Gov. Daniels.

  • Bill R.

    Dave, I agree with you. My point was simply that “getting religion” is not solely the responsibility of the press, but also of public figures and the public at large. Even if the press (e.g. reporter/interviewer) gets religion, that doesn’t guarantee that a particular interview/article/piece will get religion.

    Ray, I too thought Daniels’ statement (“All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists.”) was shockingly hyperbolic. Mellinger was obviously sympathetic on this point and wasn’t going to object, but that quote clearly should have been challenged.

    Regarding the third question in the interview, Mellinger’s question was about specific atheists (or at least a specific group of atheists), but Daniels’ answer was about atheism as a set of metaphysical propositions (another semi-dodge). What is clear is that Daniels believes (and I agree with him here) that atheism, as a worldview, offers insufficient impetus for moral behavior and insufficient restraint for immoral behavior. Daniels’ answer did not really address Mellinger’s question, but by the same token, the issue of Daniels’ familiarity with the arguments of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins is immaterial to Daniels’ point. He may have read the New Atheists and rejected their arguments, or he may not have read them at all, but he probably bases his opinions about atheism on other sources and lines of reasoning.