A great statesman offers an attractive vision that can transform friendless strangers into strange friends, appealing to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” This is not to say that even the most skilled political leader may not say things with which others may disagree, even vehemently. Rather, it means that a great statesman does not intentionally sow seeds of discord for the sake of political power.
He procures political power for the sake of advancing the common good, though he is aware that some of his detractors may quarrel with how he understands that good. Because he respects his critics, and wants to make them his allies, he offers – with charity and grace – the sorts of reasons that he believes any fair-minded citizen would find compelling, though conceding that even the most fair-minded adversary may still walk away unconvinced.
For this reason, in argument and in victory he will never denigrate his opponents’ character or suggest that they are less than full members of the political community. Conversely, the leader who speaks to provoke rather than to inspire, who employs language to make virtue more difficult and vice second nature, would rather win with Machiavelli than lose with Socrates.
For political conservatives, especially those who are observant religious believers, this prescription for political leadership is a very difficult pill to swallow. These citizens have, for nearly a decade, not experienced the sort of civic friendship with their adversaries that I am suggesting is one result of the work of a true statesman.
When they raise serious questions about illegal immigration, they are called xenophobes.
When they pursue religious liberty legislation to ensure they are not coerced to participate in liturgical events prohibited by their moral theology, they are labeled bigots trying to “weaponize religious liberty.”
When they try to form non-profit corporate entities to advance their own civic beliefs in the public square, they are targeted by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for “special evaluation.”
When they appeal to principles of justice, once widely-thought to be the antidote to racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination and prejudice, in their opposition to policies that require that race, gender, and ethnicity be taken into consideration in hiring and school admissions, they are accused of advancing a culture of discrimination and prejudice.
When they want to protect and nurture their own institutions – their colleges, charitable organizations, civic groups, etc. – in ways that can resist cultural trends that they believe are deleterious to the integrity of those entities, they are not only sneered at, but become the subject of calls to remove their tax-exempt status.
They are confused by a political leadership that praises the virtues of diversity, but at the same time seems to want to use cultural and governmental power to make sure that everyone thinks alike, every institution looks the same, and that encourages the view that dissenters are to be marginalized and denied social respect.
They can no longer trust an educated political elite that rejects the transparent rules of governance outlined in the Constitution while outsourcing unaccountable administrative agencies to do their legislative and executive dirty work, e.g., IRS, EPA, HHS, DOA, DOJ, etc.
Like Bill Foster, Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down (1993), these voters are asking, “I’m the bad guy?…. How did that happen?” This explains why Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in ascendancy among religious conservatives, especially Evangelicals.
It also explains why Trump (who recently spoke at Liberty University) and Cruz (who never misses an opportunity to display his Evangelical street cred) campaign with the sort of edge and biting rhetoric that is meant to attract a constituency that believes it has nothing left to lose and who are not going to take it anymore.
Although this is totally understandable, it is unwise for religious conservatives to acquiesce to the temptation to cooperate with this sort of electoral strategy. This is the time to lead by example, to rise above the urge to poke back, and not to follow some of our progressive friends in engaging in a politics of ridicule, insult, and marginalization.
On the one hand, the frustrations and complaints of religious conservatives – as I have already noted – are real, substantial, and should not be disparaged. On the other hand, political leadership, true statesmanship, is not just about electoral victory and subsequent payback to yesterday’s sore winners on the other side. It is about offering a vision that is attractive and intelligent, and can unite a wide coalition of citizens around a candidate who can do the most good given the reality of the nation’s demography.
For serious religious conservatives this at least means not emulating the worst political habits of your partisan opponents. For, at the end of the day, it is more important to be good than it is to be elected. “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Mt 16:26)