President Obama is convinced that liberals have won the culture war, and he aims to leverage that victory to force a transformation of the Republican party. In a New Republic interview published earlier this week, he noted that attitudes are changing “in the country as a whole around LGBT issues and same-sex marriage” and that this poses a challenge to Republicans. Some Republicans will “embrace” the change, but “there’s a big chunk of their constituency that is going to be deeply opposed to that.”
Unity is the president’s preferred weapon to divide and conquer. As he stated in his inaugural address, “Now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.” He co-opted the first words of the U.S. Constitution to give a constitutional seal of approval to his policy agenda. “We the people” have spoken, and it turns out We pretty much agree with the president on everything. We the People are certainly as enlightened as the president about a woman’s right to abortion and the rightness of gay marriage. The constitutional standing of those who think differently from We the People is fuzzy.
Good Republicans who conform to current trends are part of the one nation. Bad Republicans will find themselves out in the cold. Judged by Obama’s alliterative story of American equality (Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall), Bad Republicans might even be un-American.
Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” is premature. The abortion rate is at an almost forty-year low, and dozens of states have passed restrictions on abortion over the last two years. Gay marriage is gaining ground, but a majority of state constitutions prohibit same-sex marriage. But Obama’s assessment isn’t delusional. Norms have shifted, and the range of behavior that Americans are prepared to tolerate seems infinitely elastic. As much as he is able, Obama has been using the power of the presidency to entrench his progressive views. If his promotion of social liberalism splits the Republican party, well, he won’t shed any tears.
Obama appears confident he can enlist Good Republicans to help him purge the GOP. It’s a clever ploy, and I think it will work. Good Republicans already think that Bad Republicans lose elections, and they will be increasingly embarrassed by rambunctious Republicans who won’t stop talking about abortion, homosexuality, the vulgarity of popular culture, or women in combat. It’ll be only too easy to convince Good Republicans to nudge Bad Republicans to catch up with We the People or get out of the way.
The more subtle possibility is that Bad Republicans themselves will be drawn into the president’s purge. Everyone knows who that problematic “chunk” is: Bad Republicans are the remnants of the religious right, and the next four years are going to be uncomfortable ones for those of us who consider sodomy and abortion to be sinful. Nobody likes to be marginalized. No American likes to be branded as intolerant. Marginalization is especially galling to those on the religious right who so long ago rode the high places of the earth.
Christians, besides, have an instinct toward unity. We confess that God is love, and the second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is not tolerance, but in our age Christians confuse the two as readily as anyone. Christian activists want to be peacemakers, to heal the breach, to fill the gap, to ease tensions. But in the current climate, the only way to do that is to move closer to what Obama claims is the mainstream of American culture.
My advice to Bad Republicans is: Let it come. If the price of regaining power is to abandon any semblance of Christian sexual morality, the price is too high. If the Republican party can’t bring itself to endorse a traditional understanding of marriage, let it split. If the Republican party can’t be bothered about the slaughter of the unborn, let it shatter into a million little pieces. Good Republicans will blame Bad Republicans for tearing the GOP to pieces. So be it.
One might hope for better. One might hope that shrewd and principled leadership from a courageous few would re-galvanize the Republican party on social issues. That might not provide a path to power, but it would turn the GOP into a genuine alternative to social liberalism. One hopes; anything can happen. I think it more likely that Obama will get his way and leave the Republican party in greater disarray than ever.
There is a time for peace, but in my judgment we’re not in such times. For the next four years, perhaps longer, social-issue Christians must recognize that smoothing differences is a temptation, and must learn to resist the temptation. Christians have to be willing to follow the example of Jesus, who came not to unify but to divide father from son, mother from daughter, brother from brother. Division was essential to the social renewal he came to accomplish, because those who followed him, torn from comfortable networks of kin and religion, formed the nucleus of a new kind of community. For Jesus, division was the means for achieving a new unity. Christians have to be willing to imitate the Prince of Peace who declared, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“Barack Obama is Not Pleased: The president on his enemies, the media, and the future of football,” New Republic,
“Inaugural Address by President Barack Obama”
“Surprise! The abortion rate just hit an all-time low,” Wonkblog
“Abortion Surveillance: United States, 2005,” CDC
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