What Pat must prove

Christianity and Americanism share a point Buchanan misses

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

Pat Buchanan's announcement early this month that he will be a candidate-again-to seek the American presidency will, over the next year and a half, do to a great many Christians who are politically thoughtful just what Pat Buchanan has always done. It will divide them.

By itself, of course, that is not so bad. But the severity of the division, and especially a basic reason for it, deserve Christians' close attention. In the end, I think they also leave Mr. Buchanan with some important points to prove.

I'm not complaining here that Pat Buchanan is blunt and less than graceful in so much of what he says. Indeed, I tend often to like that about him. He suffers, of course, from the fact that for three decades his main occupation has been to write down his ideas-first as a newspaper editorialist, then as a political aide, again as a TV and print commentator, and finally as a politician himself. He has written and spoken millions of words, and that makes him a big target.

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But Pat Buchanan is a big and competent man; he's quite able to defend himself on a number of issues even where he might seem at first to have hurt himself with bluntness and lack of grace. And yes, it has happened that even when he's been quoted accurately in a technical sense, he's been taken out of context.

But it's Grace with a capital G that concerns me more in Pat Buchanan's scheme of things than any concern I might have about his merely being graceful in his rhetoric. The focus belongs instead on his attitude toward others in this world who are less privileged than he is-for that attitude is a key demonstrator of whether we really understand what God's grace is all about.

If, on the one hand, we are persuaded deep in our hearts that we have earned what we have in life, then we tend to expect others to do the same. But if we know that everything we have in life is a gift, then we are inclined to extend a giving heart toward others. The tension between these two points of view is hard for American conservatives to resolve-and perhaps especially so for American conservatives who are also serious Christians.

For Christians are by biblical definition people who have come to understand that "for by grace you are saved, and not by works." And most Americans are also people whose freedom and prosperity have been all but handed to them on a silver platter. Surely, some of us have scurried and hustled-but can we really claim we've scurried and hustled more in our lives than have our counterparts in Honduras or Angola or Bangladesh? Or was it more that we were blessed to land in a context where our scurry and hustle paid off faster and more easily than theirs ever will? A realistic (and humble) American will respond just like a realistic and humble Christian. He will say it was all of grace.

But the tension remains-in both cases. For Christians, even when they know all is of grace, still know they're supposed to work hard. And for Americans, even when they know how much they've been given, no lollygagging's allowed! Biblical Christianity and thoughtful Americanism have this in common: We've never quite figured out the relationship between grace and works.

But by the same token, biblical Christianity and thoughtful Americanism should have this in common: Both should welcome the genuine underdog, the authentic down-and-outer. For all of us once were underdogs and down-and-outers.

And that's where Pat Buchanan still sounds suspect-especially when he talks about immigrants to America, people from other nations and other cultures who long to taste the same grace and goodness so many of us have enjoyed so lavishly in this society. Mr. Buchanan's language, even for the last decade, has been more the language of a boastful owner than that of an adopted heir.

Sadly, that basic distrust of people in other nations and places ultimately weakens even some of his basic philosophic commitments. On the one hand, for example, Mr. Buchanan sounds the trumpet-and typically quite eloquently-for free-market ideas. But then with his left hand he takes away what his right hand proffers. For he doesn't ultimately trust the free market, at least between nations. And so he calls on the federal government to set up vast systems of trade regulation to monitor and manipulate what he apparently thinks the market system cannot do on its own. He may not call this "statism"-but it is.


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