What Reagan Can Teach Romney and Santorum Print
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 02 March 2012

American Conservative politicians are at a rhetorical disadvantage running for national office, not only because the national media are largely liberal. Our cultural vocabulary is infused with liberal assumptions. For this reason, many of us who largely agree with social and economic conservatism cringe when we listen to conservative politicians either struggling to convey a conservative answer without giving offense (as in the case of Mitt Romney) or without bothering with a winsome delivery (as in the case of Rick Santorum).

Americans love a happy warrior, which is why they loved Ronald Reagan. He knew what he believed and why he believed it, and he was willing to offer reasons for his beliefs. But he also knew how to deliver his message with humor, wit, and self-deprecation. He was a serious man who did not take himself all that seriously. And thus, unlike today’s candidates (including the current occupant of the White House), he rarely used the first person singular. This is because Reagan loved America more than he loved himself. And it showed. 

Because he was a happy warrior, Reagan knew how to talk conservative while speaking liberal. He communicated the conservative message in the language of liberty, progress, and hope. Take, for example, these words from his famous 1987 speech delivered at the Berlin Wall:  

In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind – too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

Rather than directly challenging every detail of the Communist narrative – inevitable “progress” toward a classless society – Reagan simply rejected the narrative altogether and offered instead those ancient and eternal truths about the human good on which true conservatism rests – and which Reagan was convinced resided deep in the hearts of those suffering under totalitarian oppression.

Although Reagan was the most successful conservative politician in the modern era, neither of the two Republican front-runners has attempted to emulate him. Romney, to be sure, has a perpetually sunny disposition, but he is not much of a warrior. Santorum, on the other hand, is quite the warrior, though he is not rhetorically equipped to attract the ear of the unconverted.

When Romney tells us where he stands on certain political questions he often comes across as if he were reading bullet points in an internal memo distributed by the human resources department of a major corporation. Careful not to give offense, Romney does not inspire. In 2005, for example, Romney made this statement: “I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.”


            Walking the walk . . .

But when Reagan wrote on abortion he was animated by an understanding of human equality that he found in the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and in Abraham Lincoln's “a new birth of freedom.” “[W]e live in a time,” Reagan wrote, “when some do not value all human life. They want to pick and choose what individuals have value.”

Thus, for Reagan, the question of abortion turned on whether the unborn is a full-fledged member of the human family and not on whether the unborn exhibits the characteristics we find in that family's more mature members: “Some have said that only those individuals with ‘consciousness of self’ are human beings. . . .Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her status as a ‘human being.’”

Santorum’s problem is the opposite of Romney’s. He offers his political views with sturdy conviction, but often comes across as if he is reciting the canons of the Council of Trent. For example, on ABC’s This Week, Santorum said: “I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

Reagan saw no need to be provocative and repudiate church-state separation in order to make a case for religious liberty. This is because for Reagan, as with the Founders, the first implied the second: “The unique thing about America is a wall in our Constitution separating church and state. It guarantees there will never be a state religion in this land, but at the same time it makes sure that every single American is free to choose and practice his or her religious beliefs or to choose no religion at all.”

This is why he could say that “the first amendment was not written to protect people and their laws from religious values; it was written to protect those values from government tyranny.” Instead of seeming to deny a bedrock American principle, as Santorum clumsily did on This Week, Reagan explained why it is called “the first freedom.”

There will, of course, never be another Reagan. But candidates who neglect to study how he articulated the conservative message in liberal prose do so at their peril.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Among his many books is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.
 
 
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