Former “Meet the Press” host David Gregory has surprised the media world by releasing a new book centered on his faith. In “How’s Your Faith?: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey,” Gregory offers a humbling account of his strained relationship with his mom, the challenges of being in an interfaith marriage, and his departure from NBC, which he says came with both pain and positivity. On Thursday, we spoke at length about how a simple question from President George W. Bush ignited his newfound passion for examining his relationship with God. Since it was the day after the second GOP presidential debate, I also couldn’t resist asking for his take on the 2016 race.
You shared that Pres. Bush was the source of your book’s title. I was wondering if you spoke to Pres. Bush during the writing process and if you are open to following up with him to talk about faith again?
“I would love to talk to him about faith anytime. I have met with him, we have discussed faith. He’s read the book and I think he’s good with it. I don’t think he expects any royalties for inspiring the title. He’s been inspirational to me – his own path, his own faith journey. As I was beginning to study the bible and deepen my faith, it was something that had an influence over me and I really respected it and respect it still. He asked the question because he heard from a mutual friend that I was studying bible and on this path. He asked the question numerous times, but the one I write about is 2008 when he talked about how I had just gotten the job at ‘Meet the Press’ and we talked about the world a little bit and about facing public scrutiny, but then he asked me the question, ‘How’s your faith?’ I thought he’s always kind of startling in his directness and how searching the question is and I’ve always thought it’s just such an important question to ask myself, that anyone can ask themselves, because it invites a self-examination. It led to a conversation between us of his own faith, being in the bible every day and how important his relationship with God was to him during the most difficult parts of his presidency.”
Another person who was influential in your faith journey was your wife Beth. What kind of impact has examining your faith had on your marriage?
“The context here is that when we got married, she was a Christian, grew up as a Methodist. I’m Jewish and we agreed we would be a Jewish family that we’d raise the kids as Jews. But, she challenged me to go beyond who I was growing up and to really know the faith and to lead us on a spiritual path...There’s up and downs. I think she feels there’s a lot of sacrifice and feels regret in some ways about her decision to give up her faith and be able to share it with her kids. I think I was kind of selfish about it in the beginning, not realizing how much of a sacrifice it was to give me the gift that she gave me. But I think we got to a place where it is a good place and I try to be respectful of her traditions. I go to church with Beth, sometimes we go as a family. I think we pursue a religious life. Whether it’s through service opportunities with our kids or through prayer or through ritual, it feels universal enough that can really encompass and respect her.”
You’re very candid in the book about sharing the shaky relationship you’ve had with your mom in the past. Why did you choose to share that story in this book?
“It’s something I was sensitive about. There’s no question that my mother’s drinking and her arrest in front of me was a pivotal moment for me in terms of coming of age but also putting on a lot of emotional armor. Giving me some grit and making me go within myself and find my own path toward transformation, which was ambition to become a journalist and to be on television. I found ambition through that pain and confusion and desire to withdraw. But, she agreed to share her story – I think that is something she struggles with still. She obviously struggles with the memory of being arrested in front of me and handcuffed in front of me when I was 15. But she is someone, being in a recovery program and being in recovery for nearly 30 years now, who feels that it’s worth it. It’s worth sharing if it can help people in the way she’s helped herself. I wanted to share that story because I think there’s a lot of people who can identify with going through that dysfunction, who may have experienced it themselves. And I really do feel like the spiritual journey began with an attempt to understand my finding out my family dynamic in those years.”
Something else I think readers will appreciate and relate to is the humility you show in the book, especially when you write about your exit from NBC. Can you share what you believe were a few positive outcomes from your departure from the network?
“I think one of the things was that, for me, my faith path was something that I felt was really important and was deepening and I was learning a lot and I was growing in faith. One of the humbling experiences after leaving was this question of identity…I was really struggling and have struggled this past year. I’ve had my ups and downs with the question of ‘Who am I?’ If I’m not on television then who am I? What’s my identity? Do I have standing anymore? Will people talk to me? Do they care about me if I’m not the guy who’s on television? If I don’t have the title and I don’t have celebrity? So, one of the positive things, was to get more grounded in faith and understand that humility is what growth is. Humility is where I can be more vulnerable and understand that I’m always an underdog. David Brooks writes in his book that ‘humility is understanding you’re always an underdog against your own weaknesses’ – and that I can live with that and be okay and understand that there is a true identity. I am a journalist, I am a husband, I am a father, but I also believe that I am a person of faith who is in a relationship with God. That’s big and important and it’s the most important thing of all. That’s where I can stand up more and stand tall. So I think that faith is strengthening. What’s positive is moving from a place of growing in faith to really feeling more grounded in faith, to understand that faith is hard, that I’ll stumble, that I’ll make mistakes, that I’ll sin. But, that’s part of being on a faith path, it’s part of being a human being. So I think that realization in embracing that is something that’s been really positive that’s come with the space of having to go through something that was really hard and understand what role faith plays when that happens.”
Is it safe to say that you’ve forgiven NBC?
“Yeah, absolutely. I’m very grateful for the experience at NBC. If I’m honest I still struggle with some of the things that happened because I’m disappointed by them. But I think what I understand is that NBC taught me some of the most important lessons in my life. NBC taught me what was truly important. I also have friends there, and I love the 20 years I had at NBC. The experiences they afforded me to have, the platform that they gave me, I love the work. It’s unfortunate how it ended, but I hope it’s on to better things.”
I was intrigued when in the book you mention your struggle in the idea of surrendering to God. I was wondering if your experience with NBC has changed your mind, since the experience there seemed out of your control?
“It’s interesting, I haven’t really thought of it in that way. I think at the time I thought that there were things that I could control or try to influence and I was trying to do that until I realized that it was taken out of my control. But I don’t know that I think of that in terms of NBC as much. It’s still something that I wrestle with…I guess I struggle with the idea whether ‘Am I in control of my life? Is God really in control?’ I don’t know that I believe that God is in control of everything that happens. As a Jew I believe that we have free will and we are responsible for our actions. But I guess it’s something I’m still probing. Tim Keller talked about how things go on in parallel, that God can still have a plan for the world and yet individuals make decisions and do things and have consequences and have to live with those consequences. I just would say I’m still struggling, I’m still wrestling and haven’t really worked that out.”
He paused, before adding:
“One thing I do believe, is I’m a believer in the presence of God. I believe that God is close. Whether it’s in joy, pain or personal failure, I believe that God is close. That much I feel in my life.”
I was interested to know if, on your spiritual journey, you were reluctant to share your faith with others in the media? Or, is the media more receptive to religion than the American public may think?
“I think it depends. I haven’t really been reluctant to share it with people I knew, kind of all along the way. I do think there is secularism in the media. It’s certainly been covered through politics. And in the realm of politics, faith and having an internal life can be overtaken by culture wars and policy wars in which faith is invoked. So, I think culturally, geographically, there are real differences and often the media is a more secular environment where faith isn’t felt as deeply, is not always practiced, and is not taught as openly as I’ve found it in other areas.”
Do you think faith should play a role in politics?
“Yeah! Because I think it’s a part of leadership. I’m just curious to know about a leader’s spiritual life, the role that God plays in their life and their own kind of spiritual growth over time. Have there been times of transformation? How do they think about big questions like who they are and who they are going to be? How essential to their life is that? So yes, I think it does play a role. I don’t believe that faith and being a faith-filled person somehow gets in the way of making rational decisions or policy as president. I think that we understand the principles of the country and the founding of the country. I’m not saying that’s always the case. But I think that often leaders, and I write about this in terms of President Bush, rely on a faith in God and a relationship with God for strength, for comfort, a courage of convictions – not as a prescriptive way of how to make decisions.”
Especially after last night’s debate, are you itching to get back into covering politics?
“I love politics and yeah I definitely was watching the debate from my hotel room last night thinking, ‘this is how I’d answer the question or this is how I would do it’ so yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, some of the coverage and the discourse disappoints me, but I enjoy being in it. I miss the work and some of these bigger questions.”
If you were covering the 2016 election, which candidate would you most like to cover?
“This is sort of a raucous period, but it’s sort of a sorting out period for conservatives. I think what I’d really be interested in doing right now is I would love to have a long conversation with Donald Trump in which, I would not be interested in figuring out what the phenomenon is with Donald Trump, I would just try to understand what it is he believes and really ask him very pointed questions about what he would do, how he would make decisions and have him go through a series of follow ups of the consequences of those decisions. I mean I thought North Korea was a perfect example of frankly the shallowness he’s demonstrated as a candidate thus far. He says that we don’t talk about North Korea and that they have nuclear weapons and that we’re not talking about it, we’re not doing anything about it. Well, North Korea has been an issue that presidents have thought about as you know, going back to when they broke their pledge during the Clinton administration. So I’d be very curious to know how a President Trump would challenge the North Koreans. How would he try to sway China to observe more influence over North Korea? This isn’t policy minutiae. These are the practicalities of what you would face if you were president."
“How about Syria? Which is, if the Russians started flying bombing sorties over Syria in support of the Assad regime, what would President Trump do? Would he confront them? Would he shoot down a Russian plane if it came to that? Would he be willing to militarily confront Russia? Because there are implications of that that are useful to know. And I’m not going to make a judgment whether that’s the right thing or the wrong thing but that would be useful to know and that would really help our discourse. Because I think these go to questions of temperament, leadership and the practicalities of being a politician. I mean I love how it’s so in vogue to be the anti-politician, but the reality is these people are running to become the top politician in America and there is such a thing as politics that requires compromise, operating the machinery of government and even the likes of Reagan, the great champions of being the outsider, understood how to compromise. So, I just always kind of laugh at this notion.”
What should be the most important issue in next year’s election?
“I think there is, this will sound kind of amorphous, but there’s an anger in a lot of country with the idea that people feel the political system is rigged against them. That people don’t have the kind of opportunities to get ahead that existed before, and who don’t trust big institutions to look out for them. They may not trust the company, they may not trust the bank, they don’t trust the media, and they certainly don’t trust government. And I think speaking to that is really a question of leadership and temperament. I think a great many people take the measure of a politician and say, ‘Okay if I close my eyes, can I imagine this person in the Oval Office?’ Do I feel like they have the right temperament? Do they have the right judgment? How do they make a decision? How do they handle adversity? How do they handle scrutiny? So I think the question of leadership is ultimately what it comes down to, which is do I trust this person as a leader? I always feel like that’s the most important issue.”
What’s next for you?
“I don’t have immediate plans. I’m having a lot of interesting conversations, I’m a journalist, I love journalism, I love doing interviews. Writing the book has been an amazing experience I’ve not had before. I, as you can tell, am very moved and interested in faith and I would love for that to become a part of my journalism as well because I think a lot of people are interested in it.”