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Katherine Kersten on conservatism and religion

Here’s the second installment of my interview with columnist Katherine Kersten. I asked her about where conservatism is headed, President Obama and the role religion plays in her world view.

Katherine Kersten
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Katherine Kersten: “There are fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the assumptions they make about how the world works and about human nature.”

Part One: Katherine Kersten on liberals, same-sex marriage and life at the Star Tribune

Here’s the second installment of my interview with columnist Katherine Kersten. I asked her about where conservatism is headed, President Obama and the role religion plays in her world view.
MinnPost: What do you think is the future of conservatism?

Katherine Kersten:
I think it’s pretty encouraging that the latest polls show significantly more people describing themselves as conservatives. In a recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of those polled called themselves conservative, versus 36 percent who called themselves moderate and 20 percent who called themselves liberals. What we are seeing is a spontaneous uprising against the profoundly illiberal people who are currently running the country.

The same is true of polls asking people about their party affiliation — more and more people polled by Rasmussen and Gallwup are swinging to the GOP. I think this switch is one of the reasons that the Democrats are making this incredible health-care push now. If Obama and company can create a huge, new middle-class entitlement of the kind they’re pushing over the objections of the majority of the American people, I suspect they think they can create a base that will not desert them for decades. If their health care plan passes, they will have their fingers deep into the middle class in a way they haven’t had before. This will be very difficult to overturn. It will make many Americans new wards of the state, or at least begin a move in that direction.

That said, I think it’s heartening that the majority of the people in Maine, of all places, turned back an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage — despite the incredible pressure of political correctness….

MP: Conservatives can be found in both political parties, but they seem to have found a more welcoming home in the GOP. Do you think the party is having problems being identified as “too conservative”? More precisely, to you think the GOP isn’t as inclusive as we might wish it to be? 

It depends on what you mean by “inclusive.” “Inclusive” is the left’s word, and it presumes a whole worldview.

I think most conservatives would agree that it’s not good that, demographically, 95 percent of black Americans voted for Obama, and 90 percent of blacks consistently vote Democratic, or that Hispanics also tend to vote for Democrats. I would agree with the idea that we need to be populists in the sense that we overcome the stereotypical notion of what a Republican is, or what a conservative is.

On the issue of gay marriage, for example, there is fundamental agreement among black Americans and conservatives — and that put [Proposition 8, the Defense of Marriage Act] over the top in California [in 2008]. The pro-gay marriage folks might have won there, had not so many black Californians come out to vote on the issue. That’s one area of agreement between conservatives and black voters, and you see the same thing — potentially — with many Hispanics and school choice.

I think a lot of black Minneapolis residents are very much in favor of having the chance to get their kids out of failing inner-city schools by sending send them to charter schools. And they certainly opposed race-based busing, which was a great crusade of the left. These are the folks who had to pay the price for that utopian scheme, which did nothing to improve black academic achievement — and everything to gut our central cities of the middle class.

We conservatives have to keep reminding people of what our world view is all about — its fundamental principles, including the idea that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. We have to remind people to look at the language of the founding documents to accurately discern what is meant by the term “rights,” and the fact that with rights come responsibilities — something that is rarely discussed.

MP: There are nine GOP gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota so far, all of whom call themselves conservatives. Has anyone particularly impressed you? 

At this point I’m just watching. It’s so early. I think we need some time to see how the candidates develop their programs. I do think it’s interesting how we hear from the media how conservative and right-wing the Republican candidates are. That’s a typical kind of ploy, a sort of sleight-of-hand that they [the media] often use. I see this happening with [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty. We’re hearing now what a right-wing guy he is. In fact, he’s done a number of things that have upset conservatives.

MP: Can you be specific?

I love Tim Pawlenty and I support him strongly. But take his push for ethanol, or his support for drug importation from Canada. Many conservatives took him to task for these things. But talking up “green energy” is the kind of thing that a lot of people say you have to do to get elected in an agricultural state. On balance, Pawlenty is a wonderful fiscal conservative and a staunch social conservative.

MP: How would you rate the Obama presidency so far? And where do you think he’s trying to take us?

He’s a guy who has minimal experience outside of Chicago politics — and people were saying Sarah Palin was inexperienced and unqualified to lead the nation!

Obama’s voting record was the most liberal of any member of the Senate. It’s no surprise to me how quickly his popularity has plunged. People are seeing who he is. He’s at the left end of the liberal spectrum, certainly. He is an elitist, he is somebody who doesn’t know what it’s like to, say, run a mom-and-pop restaurant. He doesn’t know many ordinary people, he basically knows people like himself — the chattering classes, the intellectual and political elite. These are people who think they are entitled by right to run the country, because they’re smarter and more “caring” than the rest of us. 

I think it’s astonishing how out of touch Obama and the Democratic leadership are with ordinary Americans. The fact that we are in such dire straits with unemployment, that so many families are truly suffering, you would think this would move a person like Obama, who likes to talk about empathy and compassion and social justice — the usual train of buzzwords that we hear from him. His policy priorities suggest that it doesn’t. 

What have we gotten so far from Obama and company? We got the unbelievably expensive stimulus — which has done little or nothing to address our unemployment problem, and we got tax and health care policies that are making our economic problems much worse. Does anyone really think that, with this record, Obama and the feds are qualified to run our health care? 

Job creation — real jobs, not government-sponsored jobs — is on the back burner while the Democrats ram through a government-directed health plan, never mind that two-thirds of all Americans say they are pleased with their current health care. The Obama plan entails huge tax increases that will be disastrous, and will create a terrible drag on the economy. All this will make it harder to increase genuine employment in the coming months.  

MP: What do you think an Obama presidency will be like if health care does not materialize?

I have a lot of friends who thought that the messiah had come when Obama was elected.  I don’t see that same level of enthusiasm among them now. I think people are disappointed, even people on the left. Obama is not a leader in the sense that he’s not out in front shaping this health-care bill, at least not visibly. I think that weak, waffling leadership has been one of the hallmarks of his presidency. He’s allowed congressional leaders to shape the debate. Maybe that’s calculated. On the other hand, he certainly plays rough politically. He takes no prisoners.

I think people are now getting a better idea of who Obama’s compatriots really are — the Rahm Emanuels of the world, the really rough players. Obama rewards his friends and punishes his enemies — and he and his buddies are old hands at using what Saul Alinsky, the radical political activist, called the “politics of personal destruction.”

MP: One sees liberal luminaries flocking to people like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or celebrating Che Guevara or Trotsky — the president’s own communication director allowed as how she is particularly impressed by Mao Zedong. What is it about the liberal mind that opens itself so readily to this totalitarian impulse?

That is a very interesting and complicated question. It’s a question that’s addressed by Paul Hollander in his book, “Political Pilgrims.”  Hollander is a Hungarian; a man who saw what life was like under Communism and fled as a young person in 1956. He’s now a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Thomas Sowell has written about this question, too, in his fantastic book, “The Conflict of Visions.”

I think the illiberalism you’re talking about results from a combination of several things. In reality, the world is what you might call a tragic place. Human beings are limited in their abilities, they are greedy, they are lustful. They have violent tendencies. Yet the left tends not to see this, to be utopian in its assumptions about how fully we can eradicate evil and solve social problems. Folks on the left tend to think there’s evil in the world because other people — who aren’t as well-intentioned as they are — have chosen NOT to do anything about it. Leftists think they know how to end evil in the world, and so the fact that it still exists means that the rest of us just don’t have the will, or the good intentions, to solve these problems.

From my perspective, we must face the fact that evil is endemic to the human condition. As a result, we have to celebrate the institutional structures and the cultural beliefs — Judeo-Christianity, for example — that allow us to rise above it and to limit it in certain ways.

Folks on the left would say, all we have to do to solve our problems is “educate” people properly. Obama is a good example. He seems to think, for instance, that we have disagreements with Iran simply because there are misunderstandings between them and us. If only we could talk — use diplomacy — eventually we’d come to an understanding that would satisfy all parties. I say, baloney! The world contains evil people who desire power. You have to have military might — and be willing to consider its use as a last resort — if you want to negotiate successfully with a Saddam Hussein or an Adolf Hitler. 

There are fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the assumptions they make about how the world works and about human nature. But I think many on the left also have a profound will to power. They cloak it behind terms like “social justice” and “egalitarianism.” Well, we know where that can lead. The will to power — no matter how ostensibly pure the motives behind it are — can lead, in the end, to the sort of utopia that Lenin and Stalin created….

MP: With the shootings at Fort Hood in Texas fresh in our minds, what do you think about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan?

He’s an example of the kind of threat that we must be very concerned about. We still don’t have all of the details, but we do know that political correctness got in the way of assessing the threat he posed. There were many warning signs of his Islamist beliefs, and essentially nothing was done. As a result, 13 people lost their lives and 29 were injured. 

It’s true, of course, as the military brass have pointed out, that you certainly don’t want to tar all Muslim soldiers. We need Muslim soldiers among the brave Americans fighting for our security. We need native speakers of Arabic, and Farsi, in the military. But when you have a clear trail of warning signs, as in Hasan’s case, you must absolutely act on that. 

This was a man who was heavily influenced by Islamic extremism, who planned this attack, who shouted “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is great!” before he opened fire. He clearly raised questions on the part of his colleagues and others for many years, and nothing was done. Apparently for reasons of political correctness. 
MP: We’ve talked of different world views in different contexts. What is yours?  

Well, I believe that truth exists. This is probably the biggest difference between me and some of the liberal — in fact, illiberal — folks we’re discussing. They live in a world of relativism. Unlike them, I think that truth exists, and that our lives should be focused on pursuing that truth. I think that good and evil exist, though sometimes there are gray areas. Anybody who fought on Okinawa or helped to liberate Buchenwald can articulate what true evil looks like.

I think human civilization is fragile. Today, many of us are not mindful of that. We forget it easily because we live in a place that’s been so stable and prosperous for so many years. I think we should feel terrific gratitude toward those who came before us. Everything we have is a result of their sacrifice, work and discoveries. Here, I guess I’m a populist, as well.  I believe in common sense. I agree with Bill Buckley that we are better off being ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.

In my view, one reason that Obama’s political class — the political and cultural elite — has the power it does is that we live in a media-dominated world where articulate people have great power. The average person doesn’t have that sort of ability — or public opportunity — to express himself. What he does have, however, is prudential wisdom, a knowledge base that comes from his experience, from tradition — or what has been called the “democracy of the dead.”

MP: Religion is a constant theme in your writing and your conversation. How have your beliefs shaped the way you think?

There was a sort of Catholic presence in my family, but not much more….

It wasn’t until I went to Notre Dame that I really began to see the value of my religion. I had grown up hearing that religion is a crutch, that it’s for people who can’t face the world. In other words, for people who aren’t very smart, aren’t very strong. But when I got to Notre Dame, I found that the smartest people I met there were thinking Christians. I came to see that the Catholic Church is about faith and reason, and the way these two complement one another; how faith is informed by reason, and how reason uninformed by can be dangerous.

When I say dangerous, I’m thinking of the Nazi doctors who experimented on concentration camp inmates, and of Lenin. These are people who did terrible things in the name of reason and of science….

My religion also helps to shape my view of the human condition, what Thomas Sowell has called “the tragic vision.” Christianity teaches about the Fall, about Original Sin, and that’s a way of saying we human beings are limited in our abilities, that we must struggle constantly to overcome our negative impulses. Natural Law is an important sub-stratum of my thinking. I believe that life has purpose and meaning, and that it is not an accident. If it were an accident, why should anyone care about doing — or discerning — what is right? How could you even think in terms of good and evil? Those words make no sense if you believe that the world, the cosmos, is here by accident.

My Christianity shapes my view of man, of what he is capable. We have the capacity to reason, a desire for wisdom. At the same time, though, we have the capacity for selfishness, for self-delusion. I think this is one of the differences between people on the left and those of us on the right: We tend to think that our opponents are mistaken, that they are well-intentioned but wrongheaded. They, however, tend to think of us as not just wrong, but evil — of having bad intentions or, at best, being uncaring. You certainly see that in some of the comments about my recent same-sex marriage column….

I believe in the importance of hope. From a Christian perspective, human beings are pilgrims, we are on a journey, and we don’t need to invest too heavily in the problems of the day because our hope is an eternal hope. Hope can be immensely helpful in virtually all situations. I came to understand that more fully when I read “The Lord of the Rings,” which I think is an extended treatise on the virtue of hope. The book makes clear the value and importance of hope, and the importance of resisting despair. It also demonstrates that hope is a form of humility. In other words, the way things turn out doesn’t depend on me, doesn’t all ride on me, but that there is something greater.

Part One: Katherine Kersten on liberals, same-sex marriage and life at the Star Tribune