Vision Thing

The rift between religious and economic conservatives in the Republican Party is simple to heal

A growing roster of Republican leaders in the US is worrying that an ideological gulf between religious and economic conservatives — a rift which took on Grand Canyon-like dimensions during the 2008 presidential campaign — threatens to enfeeble the party beyond remedy. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for example, has launched a non-profit group called Renewing American Leadership which hopes to foster a natural kinship between the two factions. “When you turn out evangelical voters who support socially conservative candidates,” explains Rick Tyler, the organisation’s founding director, “you also get conservative economic policies.” With this electoral possibility in mind, Gingrich is reaching out aggressively to evangelical groups with a campaign to “raise public awareness of threats to religious liberty”.

Efforts like this are useful as far as they go. But if they don’t get beyond the checklist of “hot button” social issues — abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and the public posting of the Ten Commandments — they will flounder. They won’t do much to unite the Republican Party, nor will they offer a more attractive expression of conservatism to mainstream voters.

The danger now is that Republican leaders will become obsessed with tactics and strategies, instead of sober thinking about the failures of conservatism and what to do about them. They might begin by remembering a success story: the triumph of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. The most transformative social policy innovation in a generation happened because economic and social conservatives rallied around a common vision of a more just and humane society. 

America’s welfare reform debate began as an economic argument about bloated government and welfare cheats. But thanks to Christian intellectuals such as Marvin Olasky, it was elevated into a moral argument about “the tragedy of American compassion” — a government-run monstrosity that was trapping generations of families in a cycle of dependence, poverty and hopelessness. Olasky explained that a “stingy welfare state” had refused to offer people the human and spiritual resources needed to escape poverty. In his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, he showed historically that the best poverty fighters were community and faith-based groups that delivered “tough love” to those in need.

Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, insisted that every Republican member of Congress read the book. Economic conservatives embraced the moral argument, while churches and faith-based charities mobilised in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin to “adopt” welfare families and help them break the cycle of dependence. Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform act in 1996, and soon the welfare rolls were cut in half.

Conservatives don’t need to retool their tactics. They need to rethink their assumptions and their aims: what breed of fiscal hawk pretends that the meltdown of the American family does not invite the massive expansion of the nanny state? Only the most naïve kind imaginable. What species of religious conservative thunders that God has been banished from America’s classrooms, yet ignores economic policies that trap millions of children in failing public schools? A kind that mistakes the trappings of religion for the heart of religious commitment — love of God and neighbour.

The connection between limited government and civic virtue is as old as the republic itself. If Republicans do not recover this idea — in their policies and in their personal lives — they hardly deserve our sympathy if their political decline becomes a chronic condition.

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