Francis J. Beckwith (Ph.D. and M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University; M.J.S. from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis) is Professor of Philosophy & Church-Studies at Baylor University. In 2008-09 he is serving on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame as the Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow in Notre Dame's Center for Ethics & Culture. He is the author of the highly regarded work, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007).The last time the Republicans took a thrashing like this was November 3, 1992, the day of my 32nd birthday. It was the day a young governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, defeated another George Bush, and along with his victory he was able to secure sizeable majorities for his party in both houses of Congress. I recall that day vividly. Not only because of the election and the spanking the Republicans received, but also because my parents bought me a birthday cake that the bakery had inscribed on top in frosting, “Happy Birthday, Frank. Love, Bill and Hillary.” I thought the world had ended and that my conservative views would be banished to political Siberia for the rest of my time in this mortal realm. But, alas, the world did not end, for the Gingrich revolution arrived just two years later. It resulted in an historic takeover of Congress by the Republican Party for the first time since the 1950s. In politics, it’s never the end of the world, even if it seems like it.
This is not to say that Senator Barack Obama’s victory, combined with the increased margins in the House and Senate for the party that supports abortion rights, expansion of government, and increased intervention in the economy, will not make it politically difficult for conservative ideas to receive a fair hearing in the halls of power or the mainstream media. But it does mean that conservatives have an opportunity to hone, clarify, and articulate their ideas without the burden of a political leadership that has not only failed to practice them but has failed to intelligently and attractively defend the few conservative ideas they actually retained.
Like many conservatives of my generation (b. 1960), I came of age when there was a vibrancy and excitement for the works of authors such as Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, Frederick Hayek, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Henry Hazlitt, Hadley Arkes, and George Gilder. Our political heroes included Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, and Thatcher.
Sadly, this present generation is rarely put in contact with these leading lights and their works. Instead, young conservatives as well as young liberals are tutored almost exclusively by blogs and bombast, by “stars” whose command of the intellectual roots of conservatism is an inch deep and a mile wide. We’ve come from “Don’t immanentize the eschaton” to “Sean, you’re a great American.”
Even though I firmly opposed Senator Barack Obama, and had hoped that Senator John McCain would have won, I felt a deep sense of patriotic pride welling up inside of me when I fully realized that America had in fact elected a black man. So, unlike 1992, I felt relieved rather than depressed. For something great had happened and I was blessed to have witnessed it.
My parents exposed me to the importance of politics and citizenship at an early age. In the mid-1960s, they had my brother James and me watch important political events and speeches. In 1968, when I was 7-years old, I distinctly remember watching and listening to Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the evening he was assassinated in Los Angeles, and seeing my parents cry when his death was announced on our television hours later. Only months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis. My parents supported the Civil Rights Movement and were diligent in making sure that my brother and I knew of Dr. King and the tragedy of his death.
As I grew older and began to develop my own political opinions, my parents exhibited a level of tolerance and openness that was exemplary. While my father and I became more conservative in our views over the years, my mother remained a moderate Democrat (as she is today). However, my conservatism, ironically, developed out of my liberalism. I was taught by my parents that one of the roles of government was to protect the “little guy” and to make sure that those not well off should be given a chance to succeed and make a decent living. But in my early twenties I began to notice that self-described liberals had no interest in protecting the littlest guy of all, the unborn, and that they often advanced policies that inhibited economic growth, and thus harmed those who most needed the wealth produced by free markets: the poor and the underprivileged. So, for me, true liberalism is conservative, for it strives to protect and nurture, indeed conserve, those people, institutions, and practices that advance the common good and thus provide a framework for human flourishing.
For conservatives, there is much work to be done. We not only have to be the loyal opposition when bad policies are proposed, we have to present our views respectfully and intelligently. For those of us who are Christians, we have to remember that the City of God is not the City of Man, that the Kingdom of God is established from the inside out and not from the top down. In other words, we cannot immanentize the eschaton.
Having said that, we have a responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves, which may require that we support and defend policies and positions that we believe advance the common good, and with which some of our fellow citizens surely disagree. For this reason, especially on issues such as marriage and the sanctity of life, we must be artful and thoughtful in our public advocacy, assertive while not being abrasive.
Like so much of life on this side of eternity, politics must be put in perspective. It is not everything, but it is not nothing either. It has its place. For this reason, it is the better part of wisdom to end my brief comments with the oft-quoted, but not often reflected upon, words from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)