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?