In the previous article, I discussed many of the problems that plagued Christian Conservatives over the years leading to the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage, particularly a tendency towards worldly tactics and confidence in our wisdom and resources to meet today’s cultural and political challenges.
Related to that is the lack of unity among Christian conservatives, particularly among those who consider life, marriage, and family to be the most crucial issues of the day. Many seemed all fired up and ready to go with glib solutions to what to do next, now that the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to the First Amendment and the ideals of constitutional self-government.
It does call to mind the debates we’ve had over tactics for the past decade. There were at least four different grand “solutions” laid out for what ought to be done regarding same sex marriage:
- There ought to be a Constitutional Amendment banning Same Sex Marriage.
- The issue of same sex marriage should be left up to the states entirely, perhaps with a bill being passed in Congress to restrict federal court jurisdiction for cases involving same sex marriage.
- Civil unions ought to be passed to give same sex couples freedom to marry without infringing on the word “marriage.”
- The state should cease licensing or sanctioning marriage.
No proposal gained traction when there was substantial and obvious opposition to same sex marriage. The multiplicity of approaches and arguments led to paralysis in regards to anything other than state level bans on same sex marriage.
Indeed, for every conservative offering solutions, there’s another conservative ready to explain how horrible the proposal is. For conservatives, the last two decades have been the age of ideas that remained comfortably on computer screens, never tainted by the difficulties of implementation.
This doesn’t apply to social policies alone, but also fiscal policies. It can also be a challenge in presidential politics. In the 2012 presidential campaign, following the Iowa Caucuses, a group of pastors and Christian activists got together in hopes of stopping Mitt Romney winning the nomination and voted to endorse Rick Santorum. Many supporters of other candidates fumed about the effort to choose a candidate for Christian Conservatives. The advice was ignored by many voters who instead of coalescing behind a single candidate, opted to continue a tradition of rugged individualism and independence that’s kept conservative candidates safely away from the Presidential nomination for 32 years.
Conservatives rarely have to figure out how to defeat their liberal foes on the nation playing field, because they usually don’t make it out of the conservative locker room and instead end up cheering on the establishment team that takes the field in the fall.
How can this tendency towards self-defeat be overcome? An answer can be found at the Constitutional Convention. Social Conservatives love Benjamin Franklin’s speech as the Constitutional Convention calling for the hiring of chaplains and highlighting the importance of prayer. That’s important, but this is more than a “proof text” that shows how the Founders valued prayer. Franklin’s reason for calling for prayer is important, particularly for our time. Franklin was the least religious of the Founders but had found the situation was getting perilous and intractable as the Founders tried to come up with a form of government:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it.
Franklin saw a convention that was in danger of falling apart. Franklin was afraid that a failure here would be disastrous not only for America but for future nations who wouldn’t let a committee of statesman formulate a government but leave it up to “chance, war, and conquest.” Franklin called for prayer because without God’s help he saw great danger of what would destroy the Convention, the delegates themselves:
We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age.
The picture of Babel is a powerful one and to many, it paints a great portrait of the Conservative movement today. With Christian conservatives who oppose the same social evils unable to work together, we might as well be speaking different languages for all the good our shared opposition does. Christian action is thwarted by ambition, pet issues, and a confusion over what politics is for and can achieve.
There is a way out of this continual trap and it can be seen in Franklin’s speech on the last day of the Convention as they prepared to ratify the Constitution. Franklin’s speech doesn’t begin hopefully:
Mr. President, I confess, that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present.
If Franklin were a modern conservative, speaking about a proposed policy, you would expect by the end of the day he’d have a blog post up entitled, “A Really Bad Deal: Six Reasons Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Constitution…”
Franklin didn’t do the eighteenth century equivalent. Instead, it was a preface to supporting the Constitution:
Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults—if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt, too, whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
Franklin and the Constitutional Convention offer three key lessons to social conservatives.
First, the key to a united response to our current situation isn’t uniformity but a common overriding purpose. For Franklin, a general federal government was necessary. It was so necessary that it overrode any other concerns or issues. Ultimately, big state delegates who wanted a legislature based solely on population and small state delegates who wanted an even number of representatives per state both gave up their ideal situation to come up with a working Constitution that could be agreed upon. And there were a variety of policy areas which were laid aside to achieve the end of a national government.
It wasn’t that these differences went away. It was that they were put aside for the good of the ultimate goal. One of the big problems with Christian Conservatives is we diffuse our energy on a laundry list of issues. Instead of focusing on a great crisis and how to address it, too many activists and groups formulate long-form political catechisms that we must all agree on: indoor smoking bans, crime, Common core, gun control, Right to Work, school choice, and welfare, and then fight over the details of what stances it takes to make you a good conservative.
The result has been a bunch of infighting that leaves establishmentarian figures to end up paying lip service to religious liberty in the primaries but ultimately bowing the moment the opposition rattles its sabers.
While there are many important issues, some issues are critically urgent and must be the overriding priorities around which you build a movement. If every issue is vitally critically important, no issue is.
Second, there must be humility and a willingness to yield. The reason so much Christian political activism has failed is it is self-willed. Many people declare they will vote for their candidate, they will push for their particular proposal on a given issue, no matter what. The great truth of political activism is, if we are to get anything done, we must come together. For conservative Christians to succeed, we must have an open debate, and must be open in that debate to form a consensus so we can come together to preserve our liberty.
Finally, we must open ourselves to imperfect solutions. Franklin saw potential faults in the Constitution. Conservatives value the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, as a gold standard of perfection and political principle that’s above reproach.
Yet basic analysis will reveal the constitution as ratified in 1789 had several faults. First among them was the absence of the Bill of Rights. In addition, the original electoral college gave each elector two votes and the top vote getter became President while the second place winner because Vice-President. This led to the leader of one party being President and the leader of the other party being Vice-President in 1796 which was a recipe for dysfunctional government. This was nothing compared to the 1800 election where electors for the Democratic-Republican Party cast both of their votes for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, creating a tie in the Electoral College that took thirty-six ballots in the House of Representatives to untangle and led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment to prevent such a debacle from occurring again.
The Founders opted to punt on the issue of slavery, hoping future generations would deal with abolishing that evil, an issue that took a Civil War to settle.
What if a perfect Constitution had been demanded? There would have been no constitution at all and no chance to try again at a future convention. The weak and powerless Confederation would have broken apart before the end of the Eighteenth Century. The former American Colonies would have been subject to menacing foreign powers. Even if a foreign power didn’t bring them down, history suggests they would have been taken over by an ambitious man who would see the disunited States as a prime foundation for him to build his empire on. The American Revolution would have become just another failed event in history. That would have been a high price to pay for perfection.
We are at such a moment. If Christians are going to preserve religious and political liberty, it’s going to require a lot more humility than has been shown in recent years. It’ll require us to act as a united movement rather than as much of angry and discordant voices. We need to pray to have that sort of humility, as well as the grace to deal with the fact that any solution enacted on this Earth will be imperfect. However, we can survive imperfect solutions. What we can’t survive is disunity.