Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt Gingrich, Part I

My friend Frank Beckwith has explained, in a post at The Catholic Thing, why he is not going to vote for Newt Gingrich. Since I was mentioned in the piece as the one who originally familiarized him with Gringich--in a book recommendation over coffee some 27 years ago, I have claimed some standing in his decision-making process. I have said that I will attempt to convince him (as I had the power to do on other issues in a little coffee shop in Anaheim, California almost three decades ago) to vote for Gingrich--even in the face of his threat, made in an e-mail to me last Friday, to turn me "into a newt."

I have no doubt, given the prowess he has shown in his every other endeavor, that he could accomplish this. But while he's figuring out the proper spell for bringing this transformation about, I hope, in a preemptive rhetorical strike, to turn him into a Newt supporter.

Frank has expressed his admiration for the arguments against supporting Gingrich of Russ Douthat and Rod Dreher, arguments I propose to show are not only weak, but profoundly and fundamentally flawed. I propose also to show that the arguments in favor of supporting Newt for conservative Christians are compelling.

But we are dealing with three things here, which will have to be dealt with in three separate posts. The first is Douthat, the second Dreher, and the third, Beckwith.

So, first, let's analyze the arguments of Douthat that Dreher and Frank have incorporated into their posts by reference.

The case of Douthat against Gingrich is marred by a fundamentally mistaken assumption about Christians and politics, and his article completely mistates the nature of the issue of whether Christians should support Gingrich in his quest for the Republican nomination. His case is further plagued by the fact that taking his suggestions would effectively neuter any Christian influence in secular politics.

What is the relation between Christianity and politics?
Douthat begins his piece by stating that "religious conservatives have good reasons to be wary of Newt Gingrich." Well, yes. But the problem is that the statement is so general as to be meaningless. What candidate for president should we not be wary of? And the further problem is that it is all downhill from there.

Douthat states the issue thus: "The real issue for religious conservatives isn’t whether they can trust Gingrich. It’s whether they can afford to be associated with him." What he means by "being associated" with Gingrich is made clear later in the piece, where he discusses Gingrich being "anointed as the standard bearer for the very cause that he betrayed."

What cause is this? What is it that Douthat thinks Gingrich is contending for and that we should be deciding to confer on him? A standard bearer for what? Here is the key statement in Douthat's piece--the one on which his whole case hinges:
In a climate of culture war, any spokesman for conservative Christianity is destined to be a polarizing figure. (Just ask Tim Tebow.) But a religious right that rallied around Gingrich would be putting the worst possible face on its cause and at the worst possible time.
The cause Douthat thinks Gingrich is contending for is the very representation of conservative Christianity itself.

Say what? Since when did Christians conservatives consider the Republican nominee the representative of conservative Christianity (or any other kind of Christianity, for that matter)?

For Douthat to say that, in voting for a Republican nominee for president, we are in fact choosing the official representative of conservative Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and politics. It is to assume that one political party is--or could be--the "standard bearer" for the Faith.

But this is a belief to which no conservative could consent. In fact, I think it would be hard to find one who actually did. In fact, I don't think Douthat would consent to it if it were presented in its literal form. This is ironic, given Douthat's argument, which is that Gingrich would embarrass Christians--those whose standard, under Douthat's thinking, he would be bearing. In articulating the argument and doing it as some sort of representative of conservative Christianity, he has not exactly done his constituents proud. But then, Douthat did not get his post as de facto spokesperson for Christians at the New York Times on the basis of anyone voting for him, now did he?

No politician should ever be seen as the "standard bearer" for Christianity, conservative or otherwise.

Once this, the lynchpin of Douthat's argument, is taken away, the wheels simply fall of the rest of his case. Once we come to a sober realization that we are not electing the standard bearer for conservative Christianity on the basis of his adherence to its principles and practices, but rather selecting a man or woman to be president of the United States on the basis of his ability to do that particular job well, the issue changes its character altogether.

In fact, the great irony of the assumption Douthat employs in his piece is that it is an assumption only a liberal could make. Liberals are defined in part on the basis of their belief that one can find his salvation in politics. It is liberals who, to use the words of Eric Voegelin, "immanentize the eschaton." That Douthat would have imported this assumption into his argument is a measure of the extent to which some evangelicals see themselves as captives to the Republican Party.

They need to divest themselves of this assumption.

Now Douthat could argue that, in fact, people will see Gingrich this way if he is nominated. Yes, they might. But that would happen not because of anything Gingrich might do, but because people like Douthat were using their own perceived positions as representatives for conservative Christianity to promote the false idea that anyone, by virtue of being supported by evangelicals for the Republican nomination, represented their cause.

Newt Gingrich is running for the Republican presidential nomination, not the "standard-bearer" for conservative Christianity.

While Douthat's assumption involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between politics and religion that has the effect of tying the two too closely together, the other and more practical effect of his argument is to render Christian influence on secular politics almost impossible.

If someone who claims to be a conservative Christian becomes, by virtue of being the Republican presidential nominee, the "standard bearer" of conservative Christianity, then, practically speaking, no one, under Douthat's assumption, could ever qualify. Anyone occupying such a position would embarrass the conservative Christian cause to some extent.

In fact, if one looks at the current choices available in the Republican stable of candidates, is there even a one who would not embarrass the Faith? Michelle Bachmann, who has a disturbing tendency to overstate the case for some of her beliefs? Rick Santorum, who has all the gravitas of an enthusiastic puppy? Ron Paul, who already--whether it's deserved or not--has a reputation as something of a kook? Or maybe Rick Perry--who has played the religion card to a more pronounced degree than all the others--who rhetorically implodes on a somewhat regular daily schedule?

Many of these other candidates have a much less checkered background when it comes to sexual immorality, but sexual immorality is hardly the only behavior that would induce embarrassment among the faithful. Douthat has at once placed Christianity too close to politics and yet pushed Christians themselves too far from it. It would be hard for a liberal columnist at the New York Times to achieve as much.

Well, let's see, who else is there? Ah: Mitt Romney. By all accounts Mitt Romney is, morally and intellectually speaking, as upright and competent as they come. But he's a Mormon. But he would, in Douthat's religio-political framework, be the "standard bearer" for Mormonism. In that case, we would have, not a conservative Christian bringing shame upon conservative Christianity, but a Mormon bringing honor on Mormonism. For as by one man's disobedience many conservative Christians might be embarrassed, so by the obedience of one might many Mormons be made proud.

And then there is the more straightforward problem that if Romney wins the Republican nomination with evangelical support, we would have a Mormon being the "standard bearer" for conservative Christianity.

It is a strange irony that by the very assumption employed in Douthat's argument against voting for Gingrich for the Republican nomination, a conservative Christian would be prohibited from voting for Romney as well. Well, that certainly narrows the field of legitimate Republican contenders, doesn't it?

We'll take up Dreher tomorrow, but in the meantime, to Frank Beckwith, I say this: Let me tie you to the mast, my friend! Don't harken to the political song of this Siren!


TC said...

"Liberals are defined in part on the basis of their belief that one can find his salvation in politics."

I think this is backwards. Liberalism arose from the rejection of the idea of common public goods. The classical political question concerned the ordering of human goods that make an ideal person (education, health, honor, or whatever). The role of the state was then to enforce this moral order by a regime of punishment and reward.

Liberalism was born from moral skepticism, the rejection of the public ordering of goods. Rather than a public ordering of goods that determine public communal life, the individual chooses to order goods through his own "private" choice.

Under a classical regime, the private realm was fit for those regarded as less than fully human. Freedom is found in the public sphere by achieving the actualization of public goods (e.g., courage) and by participation in public life. (The free person was characterized as loving the laws, not bitching about them, which seems to be popular thing to do nowadays.)

But the private realm is precisely the realm of freedom for liberals. If they are left-liberals freedom, private choice in social areas is paramount (e.g., abortion). If they are right-liberals, private choice in the markets is paramount. Insofar as the left and right are liberal, they find the meaning of life (human freedom) in the sphere of private choice, not the public goods designated by a political body.

Unknown said...

You blankety-blank.....Oh, never mind, I see you have comment rules which forbid name calling and profanity. I actually wanted to comment on the fact that I think you are making a hugely important point that could pull this nation out of its downward spiral if truly understood and adhered to by Christians, but then I saw the rules and being a rebellious person I thought I would question your motives and use obscenities instead.

Still great point. I don't know what to do with Gingrich but I wish we were past looking for a Messiah. The job has already been filled (and not by the current administration) and we only make fools of ourselves when we don't understand what we are doing at the polls.