Trumpeting all the right views will not solve the crisis facing America
by Mark Fischer
Those of us who invest time and energy in “socially” conservative political causes are in the habit of measuring our success by that of candidates who accept our favorite policy positions. The list should be familiar: pro-life, anti-gay rights, pro-prayer in school, anti-medically assisted suicide, pro-school choice, anti-affirmative action, pro-traditional family, and so on. To liberal pundits, this list represents the so-called “politics of division,” pushed by religious fanatics bent on legislating morality. We, on the other hand, have called it an agenda of “family, faith and freedom.”
The liberal pundits have insinuated that with the re-election of President Clinton, the populace has rejected this politics of division in favor of the President’s brand of non-confrontational inclusiveness. They point to the San Diego Republican convention as evidence that even the Republicans have rejected the “intolerance” of the religious right in favor of the big tent philosophy of Haley Barbour, William Weld and Christie Todd Whitman.
But while a faction of the Republican party did seem to dissociate itself from the above list of social policy positions, it is certainly a dubious claim that this election signified a broad public rejection of such positions. Bob Dole did not bother to campaign on social issues; President Clinton co-opted the “family first” theme with great success; the most conservative freshman Republicans generally won; and California of all places voted to end its state affirmative action programs. It seems that conservative positions on social issues are becoming more, not less popular among voters. Nevertheless, it is an appropriate time for us “social conservatives” to consider whether this list has served us well.
We should ask ourselves: Have we become so enamored of our list of policy positions that we have fallen into the habit of presenting slogans rather than a compelling and unified philosophy of freedom? “Abortion is murder.” “$500 tax credit for each child.” “Stop reverse discrimination.” “Vote for school choice.” When we present ourselves in this manner, we appear to be just like every other special interest coalition, attempting to garner support for our policies of choice. This “politics of the list” fits well in our current mode of political discourse, which is dominated by short sound bytes and easy solutions. But will it ever effect real and permanent change?
I should begin by acknowledging that Bob Dole was no litmus test for the political viability of the list. Mr. Dole not only did not run on the “social issues”; he ran away from them. To him the list seemed an anathema. He was visibly uncomfortable talking about abortion, not to mention proposing any significant legislation on the issue. And when once questioned about “sexual orientation” issues, he used the word “tolerance” three times in fifteen seconds and made absolutely no sense. His early campaign tirade against Hollywood earned kudos from some conservative commentators. The speech, however, was rightfully characterized as “out of character.” Mr. Dole was never at ease discussing the moral failures of our country.
Still, we over-simplify the causes of Mr. Dole’s defeat when we focus our criticism too exclusively on his failure to take a strong conservative stand on our top five social issues. We forget that a large, large portion of this country is simply not concerned with our list.
Even those members of our movement most known for deep and serious thought, for their commitment to principle and their refusal to engage in empty slogan-swapping political rhetoric, seem unable to avoid entirely the temptation of relying on the list. The journal First Things devoted its November issue to the provocative question: “The End of Democracy?” Five writers—Robert Bork, Russell Hittinger, Hadley Arkes, Charles Colson and Robert George—asked the readership to consider whether our federal judiciary had so usurped the political function as to deprive the citizenry of its rightful voice in the government of the nation. The writers argued that the courts were deciding all of the “important” issues and leaving only the relatively meaningless decisions to majority vote. What were the “important” issues? Abortion, doctor assisted suicide, gay rights and affirmative action. The list reappears.
The writers noted that it is probable that within two years, the courts will enshrine constitutional rights to assisted suicide and various homosexual activities (possibly including marriage.) The courts have already created an unlimited abortion license and have adopted feminist positions in important cases concerning alleged gender discrimination. According to the writers, these acts of political usurpation by the courts call into question the very legitimacy of our government.
These are very serious charges indeed. This seriousness is punctuated by the writers’ collective belief that now is the time to begin considering action. “Civil disobedience” and “revolution” were cautiously discussed.
But who will take their arguments seriously? Because they presume an acceptance of the list, they will resonate only with those who already believe that abortion, euthanasia, gay rights and feminist issues are the “important” issues facing our nation. But to others—to the majority—who see economic issues, welfare, equal opportunity, racism and crime (for instance) as the key issues facing our nation today, they will seem ludicrously out of touch.
To illustrate this point: when I shared the ideas I had read about in First Things with individuals who do not share my philosophical, religious or political leanings, the general response to me was that the articles seemed to be “much ado about nothing.” They questioned me about my liberty; my freedom to practice my faith; my freedom to raise my family. No one is coercing my wife to have abortions. Priests are not being thrown in jail for celebrating Mass. The elderly are not being killed off to conserve medical resources. The sky is not falling. Lighten up.
Responses like these may be somewhat shocking to those of us who are used to investing great personal energy in these culture wars, but they do represent the way a great deal of “middle America” thinks. To many, the list is unimpressive. It does not move them. They have no stake on either side of the issues—or so they believe. And their lives go on with a great deal of personal freedom and social unconcern.
Many of these same people show themselves indifferent to the trends of judicial procedure. While we argue with great fervor: “Democracy has been usurped by an imperial judiciary that has ceased to base its decisions on the original meaning of the Constitution!” and the other side counters with ominous talk about a “living” and “relevant” Constitution, the majority shrug their shoulders. They are not interested in procedural niceties; only in the concrete results of decisions which directly affect their own lives. Because the list does not presently affect them, the legal decisions in these areas do not either.
So where does this leave us? Talk of civil disobedience and revolution will either seem extremist or fall on deaf ears. It appears that we have a job of convincing to do.
We should begin by building on the moral sense of the populace. And contrary to popular belief, the American public still has a moral sense. It manifests itself in the growing suspicion that something is quite wrong with our culture. Violent sexual crimes committed by 8 and 9 year olds; a popular culture that has ceased to maintain even a semblance of decency; primary and secondary education becoming less and less effective, despite more and more money being thrown into the public school systems; generations of families caught in a seemingly endless cycle of dependency. America is beginning to ask questions about this state of affairs. In order to effect political and social change, we must begin to provide more complete answers. Lists will not do. We must fight the temptation to package our ideas in neat slogans—witness the Christian Coalition’s Contract with the American Family and the Family Research Council’s Six Point Plan for a Pro-Family America. Lists may be easy to sell; but ideas presented for easy consumer consumption do not have lasting effect. The country needs to re-learn the moral principles which made it great. And Alan Keyes is an excellent example of this effort.
Keyes is fighting to re-connect America to its roots. He speaks not only in his own voice, but with the voices of Lincoln and Jefferson and Adams. He reminds us that our rights are not conferred on us by a paternalistic government but are grounded in our dignity as children of our Creator. And because of this, we can never claim the “right” to do wrong. Keyes presents a compelling philosophy of freedom and reminds us that certain moral truths do not change and cannot be the subject of opinion polls.
Throughout his speeches, it is remarkable that he was never dismissed as divisive and never accused, like Pat Buchanan, of being a purveyor of hate. So much depends on the delivery. Buchanan depends more on the list. Keyes reminds us that our founders did not rely on lists but engaged in a vigorous debate about the foundation of our rights. Keyes reinvigorates this debate and, like John Adams, argues that our constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people.” Like Jefferson, he wonders whether our liberties could remain secure if their only firm basis—a belief that they are a gift from God—were removed.
I remember hearing an interview during the primary season where a Buchanan supporter asked Keyes to withdraw from the race, since he was taking votes away from Buchanan, who had a better chance of gaining the nomination (a questionable claim) and who stood for the same issues as Keyes. Keyes’ reaction surprised me. He was indignant and sternly replied that he would stay in the primary if only to prevent the party from being turned over to such as Buchanan. Buchanan’s message, said Keyes, is divisive by nature and cannot bring healing to the country. It is more “against” than “for.” It is quick to demonize opponents in the wars of the list.
Keyes understands that we cannot afford to alienate our opponents and in the process alienate those suspended by indifference in the middle. For the problems embodied in the list are symptoms of a moral crisis. To address this crisis, we must rebuild the foundation of political discourse. We cannot skip this process and jump straight to the list. Some say such a rebuilding is impossible. Maybe it is. But if it is impossible, then so are lasting victories in social concerns.
I do not want to leave the impression that issues such as abortion and euthanasia are only of secondary importance. They are of the utmost importance. Do not forget: no one argued more passionately and convincingly against abortion than Alan Keyes. But in arguing the issue, he connected the crisis of abortion to our overall societal condition. Our current radical individualism, marked by a lack of discipline, a forsaking of responsibility to family and community, and a desire to please self at all costs, is responsible for a plethora of social ills, among the most serious of which is abortion. And this conception of individualism is at direct odds with the notion that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” These inalienable rights are jeopardized when we refuse to protect the most vulnerable among us. When we forget the source of our rights, we are all at risk. Alan Keyes had the answer for those who are content in their own personal freedom and who are unmoved by the list. Their rights are at stake.
Keyes presents a wise course of action. My hope is that we will recognize the power of his message and make it our own. For if we elevate a “politics of the list” over a more thorough-going philosophy of freedom, we will surely fail, and our failure will live with us for quite some time. n
Mark Fischer is a contributing editor of the Concourse. He graduated from FUS in 1989.