The audacity of conservatism

The intra-party brouhaha over the imminent nomination of Sen. John McCain as the GOP candidate for president is, as modern elections are regularly becoming, a spiteful referendum on political conservatism. That our nation has lost its cultural, its political, and, most deeply, its spiritual way has long since been beyond doubt. The only question is increasingly – and this election cycle demonstrates it in spades – how a principled conservative ought to respond when the standard for political leadership has dropped so embarrassingly low that he senses an undeniable tug of the conscience toward abstaining from an election altogether. Outside the broad mushy middle of the political world – that portion of the “mainstream” spectrum where one resides when one knows not what one believes or why – everyone agrees there is a point where such recusal is the only conscientious choice. In an election, say, between Ronald Reagan and Antonin Scalia, does anyone seriously believe Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or many of the self-righteous pundits in the media now scoffing at lifelong conservative leaders such as Dr. James Dobson for his decision not to vote if Mr. McCain is the GOP nominee, would be found darkening a presidential oval?

By the same token, many Republicans, including many conservatives, calling for other conservatives to get on board the inevitable McCain bandwagon – “What, are we just going to let a liberal Democrat win?” – know there is a point where they, too, would choose intelligent, convicted abstention over casting a vote for someone they know is unworthy of the presidential office. Picture an election between, say, Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon – Nixon being well to the political right of John McCain – or between, say, Bill Clinton and Sen. Larry Craig, who is also well to the political right of Sen. McCain. Just get on board the GOP bandwagon? What, are we just going to let a Democrat win?

This is how third parties get started.

Recusal is not only the intelligent choice but the only wise choice in many life circumstances. Judges regularly and admirably recuse themselves when their personal connections, interests, or history make, or even give the appearance of making, a disinterested judgment improbable. An attorney will decline a case in which he has no expertise, as will a business manager who knows a particular decision is outside the realm of his knowledge or experience. Members of school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress regularly abstain from votes for a multitude of reasons, not infrequently because they simply wish to broadcast their protest against an array of options so pathetically weak that only the lowest form of pragmatism, political expediency, and peer pressure could persuade one to participate by casting a vote one simply does not believe in.

A vote is more than just a protest against the party or issue opposed. It is, at the same time, an affirmation of the party or issue supported. This is the nature of a vote. A vote says something about us as people. Twelve years from now, when we are gathered at the house with friends during the momentous election year of 2020, the question of who we voted for “back in that year, you know, when Hillary and Barack were running, when was it?” is one we can expect to come up, and our answer one on which we can expect, however light-heartedly and good-naturedly, to be evaluated. Many conservatives are deciding that “I held my nose and voted for McCain” is an answer they will be able to live with. I may yet take that route myself. For the moment, “For the first time since I came of voting age, I voted down-ballot but sat the presidential race out” is sounding like an answer I’d be comfortable with.

Even if I ultimately take a different route from Dr. Dobson, his stand is refreshing. He and the conservative talk radio universe that has opposed McCain consistently since the beginning of the race are right, and other conservative leaders, particularly among the intelligentsia, who are now falling over themselves to curry favor and secure access with McCain, are foolish. Even if one votes for McCain, one need not commit one’s public influence, or that of the organization with which one is associated, to supporting a candidate so far from what we admire, revere, hold dear, and still hope for in a great political and world leader. Now is the time for conservative leaders to be trumpeting what conservatism is and calling the GOP back to it, not myopically looking for ways to defend Mr. McCain and secure access to his potential administration.

Opposing Democrats is easy. We show how dearly we hold our conservative principles by how willing we are to hold Republicans to the same standard.

Three obvious truths, two of them timeless, need to be stated clearly once again. First, the temporary one: Mr. McCain is not a conservative. He is a liberal Republican. He is not the most liberal Republican. There are currently 48 Republican members of the U.S. Senate. Perhaps the most liberal is Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Perhaps the most conservative is Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Those who know his record know that Mr. McCain is 7 or 8 senators to the right of Snowe, and 40 or so senators to the left of Coburn. The list of issues and occasions on which he has sold out the conservative movement runs into the dozens.

The laughable claim by President Bush that McCain is “a solid conservative,” or by Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention that McCain “has moved to a more conservative position on taxes, he has expressed appreciation for the pro-life position, and has proclaimed regularly, ‘I am pro-life,’” reflect the pragmatic low standards and neglect of real history that are rampant among the political and chattering classes today and which have brought the Party of Reagan to its knees over the last two decades. Dr. Land’s dismissal of Rush Limbaugh as someone who “needs to get out and talk to average folk more” is a manifestation of the precisely backward way in which short-sighted leaders – including those in the church – justify their expedient choices, alliances, and maneuverings rather than take an unpopular stand for the truth. Dr. Land, I can say it respectfully as someone who admires your body of work and who is a student at your convention’s flagship seminary: you have a D.Phil from Oxford and have been in high church and Republican circles for decades. Limbaugh doesn’t even have a college degree, talks to “average folk” by the dozens every day on his radio show, and has for 20 years shown more backbone in standing up to compromising politicians, including Republicans, than most anyone on the national scene. Again with respect, it is you, sir, who might benefit from talking to average folk a bit more.

Second truth, first timeless one: political conservatism is not a knee-jerk reaction or simple dislike of Hillary or a set of talking points for after the golf round. It is the stuff of the American grassroots. It is the stuff of the American founding. It is the stuff of strength, of truth, of right, of principle, of courage, of honor. It is the stuff of legends. It represents now, and will always represent, a hope far more audacious than Barack Obama ever conceived or wrote about, or that John McCain may ever realize he has systematically negotiated over the course of his political career: it is the hope that authentic truth, justice, and wisdom may yet arise to lead the planet’s greatest commonwealth in our lifetime, and that a dying American culture may yet be redeemed by authentic political virtue on high.

Third, final, and, to many, most annoyingly timeless truth: political conservatism is rooted in Christianity, and Christianity is by its nature conservative. Being conservative means believing in the steadfast conservation of God-given political and social institutions against the corrupting influence of human vice, ambition, mendacity, machination, and manipulation. Christianity preserves and conserves because it tells the truth about God, man, society, state, and history. Christian leaders like Dr. James Dobson do not abstain because they are grumpy; they abstain because they feel the weight that C.S. Lewis felt when he wrote that Christianity, considered only from an ethical standpoint, is hot enough to boil all the other systems of the world to rags. Christianity is fierce because evil and folly are fierce. Christianity’s standards are high because the standards of evil and folly are so despicably low. And all the greatest Christian saints in history have been equally fierce in their defense of truth not because they were grumpy, but because they knew that, in the course of human events, today’s pragmatic sellout is tomorrow’s political, cultural, and historical calamity.

One of the greatest truths Christianity teaches is that human politics, even at their best, are a pathetic imitation of the Real Thing. As the American Founders knew and wrote as eloquently as any group of political men in history, and as American conservatives still sense deeply today, the Real Thing is yet to happen. When the clouds are rent and the trumpet sounds, and the Son of Man descends for the second time to gather His elect from the four winds, there will be no more compromised political candidates or pathetic attempts to hide a history of negotiated principles. Rather, the entire world – some joyfully and some in terror – will join in recognizing for the first and final occasion that, in the fullness of time, government as we always dreamed and feared it could be – a deeply and abidingly and permanently conservative government – has finally come of age.