My good friend and fellow Christian conservative Matt Lewis warned Republicans yesterday that they risked losing the next generation of Christians by adopting the political hardball tactics used by the left. Matt referenced an April 2012 column from another friend of mine (and Townhall colleague), John Hawkins, exhorting young conservatives to fight fire with fire by employing Saul Alinsky-like tactics. The headline assumes that the Republican Party itself champions these tactics and that this effort actually has resulted in disaffection, but Matt makes a subtler and better argument, one which Christians have faced ever since Nero made bonfires of them in the Circus Maximus: How can Christians engage publicly while still being Christians?
John explicitly framed his tit-for-tat argument to appeal to Christians, with a dozen references to the faith. He expressed frustration over the Republican Party's retreat on social issues when the vast majority of Americans (76 percent, according to John) identify with Christianity. Liberals like Bill Maher trash Christians, John argues, and the Democratic Party has become hostile to Christians. The column appeared four months prior to the Democratic National Convention, where an attempt to reinstitute a reference to God and Jerusalem to the party platform after a committee removed it ended up in boos and catcalls on the convention floor, an embarrassing but not fatal political blunder, as it turned out. Why should Christian conservatives take that lying down?
The short answer to that is… they don't. While many of my fellow Christian conservatives feel the need to respond in kind to attacks from both the media and from liberals, and some of us do on occasion indulge, most Christian conservatives — especially those schooled in formal apologetics — answer patiently and at least more politely than those of their opponents who use the oft-reviled Alinsky tactics. It should also be noted that the Alinksy-ites on either side also tend to be in the minority, at least everywhere but on social media.
The Republican Party, and the conservative movement for that matter, may at some time lose younger Christians, but it won't be because either push the use of Alinsky-style tactics. They're more likely to lose them through marginalizing the goals of Christians and producing candidates who make hash out of their arguments.
John correctly pointed out the frustration that Christian conservatives have with the GOP and the support for their social agenda, but that didn't improve after his column. Republicans lost two Senate races thanks in large part to attempts by candidates to turn a complex argument over the sanctity of life into a talking point on rape, which played right into the hands of Democrats and their "war on women" campaign. Tom Corbett did something similar on same-sex marriage last week, offering a reductio ad absurdum argument on incest. In that case as well as with Richard Mourdock in Indiana's 2012 Senate, the arguments are academically defensible but politically deadly, and they don't make it easier for Christian activists in the public square.
There is an even larger problem that both columns miss, which is that not all Christian activists are necessarily conservative. Christians of all political stripes know that their calling is to assist the poor and the afflicted, not to ignore them or even put them at a disadvantage. Republican policies could be arrayed to those ends by supporting properly regulated free markets shorn of scale-tipping government intervention and rent-seeking regulation by the biggest players in markets, policies which create jobs and raise the standard of living for everyone. Reform of safety-net programs can mean refocusing resources on the truly poor and afflicted while incentivizing the able to find work and contribute, and especially emphasizing the immoral theft of future generations through heavy borrowing to pay for this generation's benefits.
Here again, the Republican Party and conservatives should have an advantage through their overlap on social issues, but the rhetoric on the so-called 47 percent alienated plenty of them last year. Mitt Romney stumbled into that trap with an explicit reference to those who supposedly pay no federal taxes, and both the GOP and conservatives spent months defending the argument. Coming from a man of extraordinary wealth, the impression left is one of dismissal of those in need, which was indeed unfortunate for a man as personally generous as Mitt Romney.
The GOP had a great opportunity to change that narrative last year. Rep. Paul Ryan offered a reform of the Medicare system with careful, rational arguments based on subsidiarity, voluntary associations, and a balance to ensure that the needy would not be left on their own. Fiscal conservatives didn't like the longer trajectory of deficit reduction, preferring Rand Paul's approach of simply cutting off funding for most of these programs across the board, embracing Ryan belatedly when Romney added him to the ticket. Romney then held Ryan back from evangelizing on those policies, which wasted an opportunity to argue for the broader Christian vote.
The issue of poisonous rhetoric may have some people, Christian or not, repelled from participation in politics. Christians might feel outgunned and operating at unfair disadvantage for being called to a higher standard of conduct by their faith, but given the history of courageous men and women who faced a lot worse fates than a virtual Twitter beating, that doesn't seem like an insurmountable disincentive to pursuing their Christian mission in politics. What we need is a party that speaks to the whole mission of not just social conservatism but true social change that elevates the poor without impoverishing the whole, and without discarding either the unborn or the inconvenient. When one political party can do that, they will have an army of Christian soldiers marching on their side, regardless of the epithets that will fly at them.