OCTOBER 13, 2010
One of the most significant outcomes of the 2010 elections is that conservatism, a philosophy many commentators were writing premature obituaries for just a year or two earlier, is poised for a comeback.
This is a startling turnabout. After Barack Obama’s election, Newsweek proclaimed in a cover story, “We are all Socialists Now.” “Whether we want to admit it or not,” the editors opined, “the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.” .Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue by wide margins, and a new, youthful president in the model of John F. Kennedy with a background as a community organizer prepared to usher in a new era of progressive reform. He vowed to repeal the Bush tax cuts, close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, pass health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation, and end the war in Iraq.
But an interesting thing happened on the way to the liberal renaissance. First, Barack Obama over-reached with the passage of a $862 billion failed economic stimulus plan that relied on government rather than the private sector to create jobs and economic growth. There has not been an economic recovery in U.S. history caused by government spending or federal “stimulus.” This was true during the Great Depression as well, when the financial calamity that followed the stock market meltdown of 1929 was followed by a recession in 1937. The New Deal achieved a lot in terms of the growth of government and many of the aims of the Progressive movement for a social safety net, but it did not generate an economic recovery.
Second, Obama’s health care reform package proved to be the most deeply unpopular social program passed by Congress in modern history. A March 2011 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted one year after the Obama health care plan became law found it was supported by only 37 percent of the American people and opposed by 59 percent. This is roughly the same level at the time of its passage. The biggest entitlement program created since the Great Society is upside down in public opinion.
Third, as if by spontaneous combustion the Tea Party movement emerged from the ashes of the Republican defeats in 2006 and 2008 as the leading opposition force to Obama’s governing philosophy. Initially organized by citizen activists---many of them never involved in politics before----utilizing Facebook and other social media, the Tea Party movement exploded on the national scene in the spring and summer of 2009. According to an election night 2010 survey by Public Opinion Strategies, 27 percent of the electorate claimed to be members of the Tea Party movement and 41 percent of all voters sympathized with its goals and objectives.
In nations around the world (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain) people have poured into the streets to protest spending cuts. Only in the United States did millions of people demand that government programs be cut. An abiding distrust of big government remains embedded in the DNA of many Americans. Their rallying cry was as simple as it was startling: a return to constitutional government and America’s founding principles. They want government confined its enumerated functions, with all other powers devolved to the states, communities, churches, charities, families and individuals.
This is a characteristically conservative conception of a free society, and it is America’s unique contribution to Western civilization. Our founders understood that a free society is possible only when the government is limited by charter and the vital work of building a good society is done by men and women animated by faith in God, individual self-initiative, creative entrepreneurship, and a sense of obligation to those less fortunate.
It is easy to forget how radical the founders were for their time. They asserted in the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal in the sight of God and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They claimed that if any government so formed ever failed to protect these inalienable rights, the people had the right to overthrow that government and start afresh.
America wasn’t settled by a Department of Covered Wagons operating out of Washington, DC. It was settled by free men and women with three tools: a plow, a gun, and the Holy Bible. As the population moved west, these pioneers formed communities and built schools, courthouses and houses of worship. The latter were viewed as indispensable to the social fabric of the young republic.
This is why when Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 it specifically authorized the distribution of Bibles and the propagation of the Gospel in the western territories. The members of Congress understood that America’s greatness lay not in its boundless natural resources or relative distance from the political and social upheavals convulsing Europe, but in the character of its people and in its reliance on God.
This is what John Adams meant when he said, “Our Constitution was designed for a moral and religious people only. It is wholly unsuited for any other.” He did not mean there should be a religious test to serve in government or be active in civic affairs. Quite the contrary, for the United States was the first country to specifically forbid a religious test for public service in a written Constitution. Adams’ point was far more profound: the only way to maintain a free society with a government limited in scope and function, without a standing army or a king or a national police force, was to have a virtuous citizenry animated by a moral compass that derived from religious faith.
It has always been so. In his study of Quaker society in colonial America, Meeting House and Counting House, historian Frederick Tolles pointed out that the same creative and compassionate impulse that led Quakers to work hard and engage in commercial enterprise also led them to found the first lending libraries, hospitals, primary schools, and houses of worship in Philadelphia. Their conception of entrepreneurship and the good works of their religion were one and the same.
George Gilder makes a similar point in The Israel Test, arguing that antipathy for the state of Israel and anti-Semitism have become indistinguishable from hostility to capitalism and the time-honored values that define Western civilization. In this sense, Judeo-Christian values, faith in God, and free enterprise are not disparate concepts, but composite parts of a coherent whole.
This is the vision for society that conservatives must reclaim in our time. Ronald Reagan once observed, “Man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.” Conservative opposition to the expansion of government and chronic deficit spending is not based on an antipathy for the proper role of government in administering justice, securing the borders, or protecting the homeland. It is based on the recognition that wherever government intrudes, it necessarily restricts freedom and liberty.
How to bring this vision into reality? I believe there are four main strategies for conservatives and Christians.
First, we must participate. St. Augustine wrote City of God in 1413 against the backdrop of the fall of Rome. His timeless volume was an apologia for Christianity, a response to those critics who claimed Christians had contributed to Rome’s downfall by undermining its pagan religion and respect for its gods.
The idea that there is a city of God and a city of Man is as old as Scripture itself. In the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen when a mob tries to have him killed for preaching the Gospel. He ultimately appealed to Caesar, the most cherished right of a citizen of Rome. By so doing, he carried the Gospel to the highest level of the Roman government, all as a consequence of asserting and exercising his civic responsibilities. Our earthly citizenship requires that we be registered to vote, pay taxes, be informed and educated, go to the polls on election day, and make our views known to our elected officials.
Second, we must be prophetic witnesses in a world in which good and evil are always battling. Eric Metaxas’ wonderful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures this idea in the life of a young Lutheran pastor whose obedience to God and moral courage led him to oppose Adolf Hitler when many in the Church chose the path of least resistance. It ultimately cost Bonheoffer his life when he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was executed by the Nazis in April, 1945. But his call to discipleship and his rejection of what he famously called “cheap grace” remain a powerful example to us all more than 66 years after his death.
In Reagan’s War, author Peter Schweizer documents a similar calling in the life of Ronald Reagan. As president of the Screen Actor’s Guild in Hollywood in the late 1940’s, Reagan resisted communist infiltration of the union. When the Communists responded with violence, death threats, and at least one attempt on his life, Reagan vowed that he would dedicate the remainder of his life to destroying Communism.
This calling, not his subsequent political career, is what gave Reagan’s life such transcendent meaning and power. Few understand that Reagan’s anti-Communism was not merely ideological; it was personal and spiritual. It was what led him to say in 1983, in a famous speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” He urged religious leaders not to yield to the temptation to blithely “call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
These are startling words from a president of the United States. White House aides reportedly tried to remove the words “evil empire” from early drafts of the speech; Reagan insisted they be reinserted. He knew his calling, and his faithfulness to that call changed the course of human history.
Third, we must persuade. This means recognizing that not everyone shares our theology even as many may share our values. We have a responsibility as men and women of faith to speak in a language others can comprehend. Paul did this in Jerusalem when threatened by the mob and nearly flogged by Roman centurions, insisting on speaking to the crowd in their Hebrew dialect.
It has been said that Martin Luther King was so effective in advancing civil rights because he could speak of the suffering of blacks in a way whites could receive. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, replying to white pastors who condemned his involvement in politics, King asserted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In other words, if segregation denied the rights of African-Americans, it denied the rights of everyone because it debased the larger society. This was a brilliant insight, similar to Lincoln’s claim that slavery was evil not only for what it did to the slave but for what it did to the white man.
Advancing justice is about more than preaching to the choir. It is about more than just speaking truth to power. To be successful in a free society, we must persuade others to the rightness of our cause, which means using language they will receive.
Finally, we must pray. No amount of political action and civic engagement will succeed in absent our humility and dependence upon God, which comes through prayer. We should not make the mistake of equating God’s plans with our own, or associating His Kingdom with the victory of one political party or a politician. Sometimes God accomplishes His purposes in our defeats, not in our victories, at least not as the world defines them.
We are living at a moment of great peril and opportunity. The world is hungering for leadership and authenticity. As men and women of faith, we can and must provide it. If we will remain true to our principles, participate as citizens in the arena, be faithful to our call to be witnesses in a sometimes dark world, persuade, and pray, we can make our country and our world a better place and touch many with God’s grace and His love.
There is much to do. Let’s get to work, trusting God for the outcome.