Journalist and former White House staffer Peter Wehner reflects on truth, morality and politics

A version of this article appeared in Peter Wehner’s book The Death of Politics. To see more from him on this topic, watch Peter Wehner discuss faith and politics on Unbelievable? here.


In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote: “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”


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Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways. 

Just a matter of interpretation?

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilise our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.


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Most of us assume people see issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, health care, tax rates, education, entitlement reform, illegal immigration, climate change, judicial originalism versus a “living constitution”, criminal justice reform, affirmative action/ systemic racism, and many others – through essentially the same prism we do. But it’s rather more complicated than that. 

Our interpretative frame and intellectual and moral tropisms are the product of many factors. The philosopher Cornelius Van Til once said that there is no such thing as a brute.


Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. He worked in the Ronald Reagan and George HW administrations and the George W Bush White House.