I entered the conservative movement when I was in college during the 1990s. I participated in College Republicans, listened to Rush Limbaugh, and wanted to be actively involved in public life as a conservative.
To make things more interesting, I also became a devoted evangelical Christian during this time. At first, I was very comfortable with my twin identities of “movement conservative” and “evangelical Christian.” I toggled back and forth fairly easily between conservative talk shows, on the one hand, and my Bible, on the other hand. After all, conservatives promoted family values and religious liberty while fighting against abortion, Soviet Communism, and other evils.
Midway through college, however, I became uncomfortable with the uncivil and even caustic demeanor displayed by many conservative radio show hosts, cable TV pundits, and opinion writers. The Bible instructed me to speak the truth—always with love and respect for my conversation partner. But many talk show hosts and pundits urged me—by their own example—to degrade people on the other side of the political aisle by demonizing them, questioning their motives, and caricaturing their arguments.
Internally, I couldn’t reconcile my twin identities. But instead of seeking a better path for political involvement, I resigned the College Republicans, cast aside my journalistic aspirations, and went into full-time Christian ministry as a missionary, pastor, and seminary professor.
Movement Conservatism Has Been Weakened
Twenty years later, as I have reengaged in public life, I can see everywhere the negative fruits of the incivility that took root in 1990s conservatism. Incivility has weakened the conservative movement immensely.
To be sure, a superficial assessment of our current situation might point to the GOP’s victories in the 2016 election cycle and conclude that movement conservatism is healthy. For many people, the two are nearly synonymous. But even so, a more thorough evaluation will reveal a different reality. The GOP won the 2016 Presidential election and has a majority in the House and Senate. It also lost the popular vote, the Hispanic vote, the black vote, the female vote, and the Millennial vote. The majority of the country rejected the GOP’s message.
Even though “conservatism” should by no means be equated with the GOP, I think it safe to say that movement conservatism is weakening at the same rate that the GOP is weakening. This situation will not be easily reversed; every election cycle brings with it millions of new college graduates, the majority of whom are drawn toward progressive ideals.
In other words, if conservatism is going to have a vibrant future in our nation, we will have to do better than we are doing. We will, once again, have to draw upon our better angels by casting aside the temptation to misrepresent, mock, condescend to, or otherwise belittle progressives and progressive views. If we really believe that the conservative vision for our society is best, then we must put in the hard work to persuade those who lean to the left. If we do not, we will lose not only future voters but opportunities to shape America’s moral future.
Movement Conservatism Can Gain Strength by Learning from Christian Missionaries
It is in this way that political conservatives can learn from Christian missionaries. A Christian missionary typically moves overseas to minister among a group of people who differs from him linguistically, religiously, socially, culturally, and politically. The missionary’s goal is to minister to the people group’s needs and to persuade them to consider the claims of Jesus Christ. But unlike the current habits of political conservatives, the missionary does not caricature the people group’s religion, mock their culture, or impugn their motives.
Instead, a good Christian missionary does three things:
1. Exhibit Genuine Concern
First, he exhibits genuine concern. Christian missionaries move their families overseas at great financial cost, often risking their own lives, for one reason: they genuinely care about the people to whom they will minister. Political conservatives must exhibit the same genuine concern. If we do not possess such concern, we should quit and go home. Politics should be done out of a desire for the common good, out of service to our fellow citizens. But I suspect that most conservatives really do care about their neighbors, and for that reason, we have to begin to rearticulate conservative principles in a way that conveys our goodwill.
2. Find Common Ground
Second, he works hard to find “common ground” with his conversation partner. In other words, he finds things upon which they both agree. From that common ground, a missionary finds it much easier to persuade his conversation partner on other matters, precisely because he does so from a point of mutual understanding.
3. Take the Long View
Third, he takes the long view. If his conversation partner is not receptive to his ministry and message, he doesn’t quit and go home. He doesn’t insult his conversation partner’s intelligence or impugn his motives. He doesn’t caricature his conversation partner as a thoroughly reprehensible person in whom no good can be found. Instead, his genuine concern causes him to persevere over the long run. He might persuade his conversation partner. He might not. But he doesn’t quit.
A Positive and Uplifting Vision for our Nation
A quip by comedian Dave Barry summarizes very well the way conservatives are often perceived by the public:
“The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery. They’re the kind of people who’d stop to help you change a flat, but would somehow manage to set your car on fire. I would be reluctant to entrust them with a Cuisinart, let alone the economy. The Republicans, on the other hand, would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn’t bother to stop because they’d want to be on time for Ugly Pants Night at the country club.”
Barry’s quip misrepresents both parties, but the misrepresentation communicates the point so clearly: in terms of public perception, the Democrats are kind and caring people who may not be the best at running Wall Street or Capitol Hill. But the Republicans, who may manage both just fine, couldn’t possibly care less about their neighbors and only care about themselves.
I’ve been a conservative for many years now, and many conservatives I know do possess genuine concern for their neighbors and a positive, uplifting vision for the common good. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to let the nation see that vision and understand its goodness.