Election 2008 Reconsidered: A Political Road Not Taken — The City Online

Election 2008 Reconsidered: A Political Road Not Taken

by Benjamin Domenech on February 6, 2009

An article from a conservative perspective in our Winter 2008 issue this morning, from Ryan T. Anderson. We shall pair it on Monday with one of our articles from an evangelical Democrat in the same issue.

There are, of course, many things that conservatives generally and the Republican Party specifically must do to recover after the losses of 2008. Given space and time limitations, I’ll focus on just one. Or really, just one that they shouldn’t do—and then propose the alternative.

Immediately following the general election of 2008, moderate Republicans and liberal pundits who seemed oh so eager to help the GOP recover argued that the solution was for the party to kick social conservatives—described by one as “social fundamentalists”—to the curb. John McCain’s defeat—even though it came in the wake of a campaign that was the least engaged in the culture-wars of any modern race for the presidency or any leadership position within the party, led by a candidate who rarely, if ever, drew attention to the gaping chasm separating himself from Barack Obama—was somehow to blame on the hicks in flyover country, the pro-lifers and marriage advocates.

The argument is pure sophistry, and has little grounding in reality. Exit polls and research data show that social conservatives are a boon to the Republican Party—which is why Obama courted them so vigorously. McCain’s positions on abortion and marriage were not significant factors for people voting for Obama on Election Day—indeed, the abortion question was so much of a non-factor in this election that it was not even included in the standard exit polls. But don’t just take research data—look at actual elections: so far, thirty states have voted on the definition of marriage (as either constitutional amendments or state statutes). All thirty of them have defined marriage as the union between a man and woman. No state in the nation has embraced same-sex marriage through popular election or their elected officials; it has always come via judicial activists—and then, in the case of California, was overturned by voters. And support for traditional marriage finds supporters in communities the GOP has traditionally struggled to win over: ironically, had supporters of Barack Obama not turned out minority voters in California as they did, Proposition 8 might have failed—indeed, out of the 95% of African-American voters who voted for Obama in California, 70% also supported traditional marriage.

What really drives the socially liberal members of the Republican Party (“moderate Republicans”) and the liberal pundits to offer this bad advice is a simple fact: They find support for authentic social values so contemptible that they’ll use any event as an excuse to argue for its elimination.
That they don’t have electoral realities on their side is one reason to resist their argument. The better reason, though, is that the conservative movement is correct in its support of unborn human life and the institution of marriage. And more important than immediate electoral victories—where one sacrifices the truth to gain temporal power—is to find creative ways to make true positions—positions that actually respect and promote authentic human flourishing—appealing to the electorate. Where do we go from here? Finding ways to make the social issues appealing—that’s one task.

Social conservatism can be appealing when there are thoughtful promoters and defenders of the cause who do the necessary explaining. And on this score, this past election provides lessons on how not to proceed.

In August, a meeting of some ninety prominent evangelical leaders came together to support John McCain for president. While noting disagreements between themselves and McCain, the group concluded that McCain shared their most important views, on life and marriage. Matthew Staver, the dean of Liberty University Law School and the organizer of the meeting, said that McCain “would advance those values in a much more significant way than Sen. Barack Obama who, in our view, would decimate those values.”

The group also reached a consensus that they would send a letter to McCain asking him to pick former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee as his running mate. Staver explained that “It’s not a demand; it’s a request.” But when one examines the political scene as it stands for the foreseeable future, evangelicals would do well to rethink their political strategies.

Consider the losing campaigns of Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee as two sides of the same coin, offering important political lessons for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Just like they argue today, pundits one year ago were also writing the obituary for social conservatism. Frank Rich claimed that the “political clout ritualistically ascribed” to social conservatives “is a sham.” “These self-promoting values hacks,” he continued, “don’t speak for the American mainstream. They don’t speak for the Republican Party. They no longer speak for many evangelical ministers and their flocks. The emperors of morality have in fact had no clothes for some time. Should Rudy Giuliani end up doing a victory dance at the Republican convention, it will be on their graves.”

Of course, Rudy Giuliani did not dance at the national convention. He didn’t win a single primary. To judge from his vote totals and delegate count alone, he was not even a top-tier candidate. From the moment his speech at Houston Baptist University crystallized Giuliani’s refusal to moderate his liberal views on abortion in any way, it became clear the ex-Mayor was gambling that he could win the Republican primary without the votes of social conservatives. Instead, he lost—big time. Score one for the “values hacks.”

The unexpected relative success of the Huckabee campaign—sustained by a shoestring budget, a makeshift staff, and a policy platform that seemed to be thrown together overnight—showed just how big an impact the so-called values voters can have. Actually, it understated that impact, since many values voters went with other candidates (like Gov. Mitt Romney or former Senator Fred Thompson).

So one lesson learned from the Giuliani and Huckabee campaigns was the continued political relevance of social conservatives. Yet that shouldn’t be the only lesson we take away, for Rich was right about one thing: The leaders of the social conservative movement do not speak for mainstream America. And they never will, so long as they follow the Huckabee model.

But they could. The American mainstream is, especially when compared to other industrialized nations, remarkably conservative on social issues. Lifestyle liberalism has always been a liability for the left in America, as witnessed by the fact that the more socially conservative candidate has won five of the past eight presidential elections. The minority voters who supported the aforementioned Proposition 8 prove that when an issue is before them absent partisan labels, many minority groups still vote like evangelical conservatives on moral questions.

The truth of the matter is that social conservatives and faithful politicians can speak for the mainstream—but only if they move beyond the Huckabee approach, and reconsider the road not taken.

To start with, the former Arkansas governor ran his campaign solely on religious identity politics. If Giuliani never effectively reached out to socially conservative Christians, Huckabee never effectively reached beyond them. He continually told evangelical Christian audiences to support him because he was one of them. Everyone else got the message, too. Huckabee ran his campaign in a way that would appeal only to conservative evangelicals and would offend—even scare—people outside his religious community.

One incident, in particular, illustrates how Huckabee narrowed the appeal of social conservatism. While stumping to a largely Evangelical audience in Michigan, Huckabee said: “I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do—to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.”

Reaction to this was quick and fierce, even from generally sympathetic sources like National Review Online’s “The Corner.” Lisa Schiffren quickly pointed out: “Mike Huckabee is going to force those of us who have wanted more religion in the town square to reexamine the merits of strict separation of church and state. He is the best advertisement ever for the ACLU, even if you share his ultimate views on the definition of marriage, or the desirability of abortion on demand.” Andy McCarthy added that he usually contrasts America to Islamist nations: “Part of my usual response . . . focuses on the Taliban, their imposition of sharia (i.e., God’s law), and the marked contrast to our system’s bedrock guarantee of freedom of conscience. . . . Where has Huck been for the last seven years? Does he not get that our enemies—the people who want to end our way of life—believe they are simply imposing God’s standards?”

On Hannity and Colmes, Huckabee tried to explain what he meant. He wasn’t talking about mandating that anyone worship on Sunday or tithe. He was talking about two things only: the human-life amendment and the marriage amendment. But these causes cannot effectively be defended in this way.

Arguing that “God said so” won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Even though Americans remain a remarkably religious people, the Bible doesn’t carry the authority it once did. And many of those who generally hold the Bible in high regard consider it “dated” and “out of touch” on certain controversial moral questions.

Luckily, social conservatism has resources for public argument besides the Bible. After all, on many of the day’s most important issues—human cloning, embryo destruction, creating designer babies—the Bible offers little specific guidance. And our obligations to treat fellow citizens as equals—as well as the practical requirements for broad political consensus—demand that we rise above sectarian appeals to religious authority. If social conservatism is to win the day, social conservatives—especially those seeking and holding public office—must make public arguments using public reasons to defend human life and marriage.

Defending these moral truths with reason and campaigning on those same reasons shouldn’t prove difficult. Huckabee argued that we should amend the Constitution to fit “God’s standards,” so we might consider what the Christian tradition has had to say about God’s standards. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good.” If Thomas is right, then rather than claim that a debased practice offends God, politicians can—and, I would add, should—explain to the public what aspect of some immoral behavior is contrary to our own good, especially the common good—and why a just and decent society shouldn’t accept it.

Rather than argue that abortion is contrary to God’s law and that we need to bring the Constitution into conformity with God’s law, social conservatives should argue that as a matter of scientific fact the child in a mother’s womb is a whole, living human being, and that as a matter of moral truth the direct killing of any peaceable human being is gravely unjust.

Pope John Paul II argued as much, with a message that reached Christians of every denomination. If the universal pastor of the Catholic Church could speak publicly about abortion in a way that was intelligible to non-Catholic Americans, why shouldn’t American Christian politicians do the same?

This approach was natural for John Paul because of his understanding of divine commands: “The Ten Commandments,” he said, “are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical Lord. They were written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place. . . . To keep the Commandments is to be faithful to God, but it is also to be faithful to ourselves, to our true nature and our deepest aspirations.”

Similarly, social conservatives should ask whether America is being faithful to her deepest aspirations and commitments to human equality and dignity: People are valuable not in virtue of the talents they possess or the contributions they can make to society, but simply in virtue of their humanity. This is why we rightly emphasize that race, ethnicity, gender, intellectual ability, wealth, and social status are all irrelevant to our fundamental moral worth. But if that is the case, does age, location, or stage of development change one’s moral status? After all, what can the newborn baby do to merit worth and protection that an unborn baby can’t? Social conservatives should press the argument that if human beings really are equal in dignity, then abortion is inconsistent with our fundamental commitments.

Nor should social conservatives be afraid to argue for maintaining marriage’s structure. If marriage isn’t the union of one man and one woman coming together as husband and wife to become father and mother to any children their marital love may bring, then social conservatives should demand that their opponents explain what marriage is. Is it simply the union of any consenting pair of sexually active adults? If so, then why only two? And why does it have to be exclusive and permanent—why not open or temporary “marriage”? Indeed, if marriage isn’t about a bodily union, then why limit it to sexual relationships at all? How about codependent relatives? How are marriage and children connected? Do children need mothers and fathers, or not? These debates can and, in fact, must be had at the level of reason.

These sorts of arguments—that the moral truths revealed in the Bible are also consonant with reason—are often associated with Catholicism. But it is not Rome’s exclusive property by any means. Many scholars are arguing that natural law should be at home in the Protestant churches, where it has strong roots. Stephen Grabill says as much in his Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, and J. Daryl Charles makes a similar plea in his new book Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things.

The natural-law tradition is neither limited to Roman clerics and Protestant academics nor alien to American political life. The American Founding is largely based on natural law principles understood as “self-evident truths.” And the American civil rights movement can serve as a template for how religious reasoning should be brought to the public square and how it can result in meaningful political change. Consider how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” quotes St. Augustine’s declaration that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He delves deeper into the Christian tradition to explain his point:

A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God … To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

Underlying King’s argument, and that of the Christian tradition, is the proposition that human reason can know the moral law, the natural law, because human reason participates in eternal reason, the eternal law. Rather than argue from God’s commands down to human endeavors, social conservatives should place their emphasis on human flourishing and the moral principles that protect it.

King put it best when he said: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Citing the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, he went on to argue that segregation “substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” This is the precise argument that social conservatives should be making when it comes to abortion, human cloning, and embryo-destructive research.

Of course, we need not make moral arguments alone. If Aquinas, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Paul II are correct to say that true morality is about protecting human flourishing, then when true moral norms have been eviscerated we can expect to find the social fallout. With abortion the results need no social-science research: the fetal corpse is evidence enough. Yet social science indicates that the widespread practice of abortion—initially to be used in only the most tragic and desperate of situations—has led to practices that truly devalue human life: abortion on demand as birth control, selective abortion to reduce the number of children when twins or triplets result from IVF, eugenic abortion to do away with genetically “defective” children, and now the practice of embryo destruction for biomedical research, human cloning, and animal-human hybrids. These are the fruits of the abortion seed.

Likewise, the breakdown of family life—children being raised without mothers or fathers and outside of marriage—has spelled disaster for our nation’s youth. The left-leaning research organization Child Trends has issued a research brief summing up the scholarly consensus:

Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two-biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes … There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.

The studies on children of same-sex parents have so far been inconclusive. Still, there is good reason to think that when Child Trends suggests that children raised by two married biological parents do best, part of the explanation may have to do with mothers and fathers bringing different gifts to the parenting enterprise. These social science findings can easily be multiplied, and their results need to be publicized—and not just to academics, but to the American people.

Clarifying the relationship between reason and morality can help us even in our clash with jihadists, as Andy McCarthy has written (among others). This was among the points that Pope Benedict XVI made in his now-infamous Regensburg Lecture. Benedict argued that competing claims about revelation can, to a certain extent, be settled at the level of reason—that there are reasons why one should believe in the Christian God, and reasons for resisting aspects of the Muslim conception of God. Not just theology, though; Benedict argued that morality—public morality—can be objectively known, and reason’s capacity for moral truth is the only reliable guide for modern pluralistic society. As Benedict noted, summarizing the argument of the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul … The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

Amend the Constitution to be in accord with reason, then, is what Huckabee should have said. While Huckabee mobilized many social conservatives to show up at the polls, he did not persuade anyone outside their world to join them. This failure replicated that of social conservatism writ large. Having future candidates emulate Huckabee’s strategy might get evangelicals to the polls in November, but will it get anyone else there, too? Will it add anyone to the roster of those who support reason over deviance?

To be successful, hearts and minds need to be changed. Minds are changed by rational appeals, by a winning argument, and by presenting the perspective of a faithful believer to the broadest possible audience, not just more preaching to the choir.

Ryan T. Anderson is a former assistant editor of First Things, a contributing editor to THE CITY, and the editor of a new publication of the Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.

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