ONE REASON FRANK CAPRA'S IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE still resonates powerfully is that it shows what would have happened had main character George Bailey never lived. When our dreams are unsatisfied it's often hard to see how things could have been much worse -- unless God shows us how Bedford Falls would have become Potterville.
"One life touches so many others" -- and the same is true about political and social movements. It's easy to see the failure of the pro-life movement in not stopping abortion. It's harder to remember that some liberals were predicting that America would have 4 million abortions yearly by now, and that the number of abortions has declined in recent years from 1.6 million to a still-grisly 1.2 million.
The Christian Right in American Politics, edited by John Green, Mark Rozell, and William Clyde Wilcox (Georgetown University Press, 2003) is one of the many books that accentuate the negative. In South Carolina, said to be the CR's top state, "concrete policy changes . . . have been modest, and sometimes temporary." In Virginia, "A quarter-century of activism has not yielded a major change in the state public's attitudes toward social issues." In Texas, the CR "has been somewhat less effective in winning elections and controlling policy outcomes in the state."
Other chapters are about Florida, where CR success has been "limited," and the Midwest, where the CR has had "mixed success in Michigan. . . . Although the CR remains a major force in Kansas political and social life, its triumphs have been limited. . . . Strong bark, weak bite in Minnesota politics." In Colorado, "the presence of fiscally conservative but socially moderate or libertarian Republicans has prevented the CR from controlling the Republican party, nominating congenial candidates, and passing ballot issues," and in the Pacific Northwest the CR "is very likely to continue to be frustrated."
All of that sounds grim. It's certainly true that overselling of what the CR could accomplish has often led to disappointment. But the book's chapter on Iowa includes a sentence that should probably appear in every chapter: The Iowa CR "has not obtained a large number of changes in public policy, although it has prevented the enactment of liberal policies." Stopping the liberal bulldozer is not as dramatic as standing in front of a column of tanks, but it also takes courage.
These days, every time a liberal academic complains that the United States is behind the times -- oh, would that we lived in Germany or France -- CRs should smell a bit of victory: If it weren't for their efforts, we'd be right up there with old Europe. Success at stopping the power plays of the left should not lead to conservative complacency. If our defense is on the field almost all the time, sooner or later a safety or cornerback will slip and the opposition will score. But we also should not fall into a mood of defeatism.
Nor should we assume that decibel levels reflect either breadth or depth of support. The left may become more shrill, because -- as Anthony Daniels wrote in the May 2003 issue of an interesting journal, The New Criterion -- "the disparity between what is expected of social and political change, and what it actually produces in the way of personal satisfaction, is laid all too bare. The increased shrillness is a sign of existential desperation." Those in despair may push further, or -- if a Francis Schaeffer is there to guide them -- they may find true grounds for hope.
The United States won Cold War I against the Soviet Union by containing it until dictators died and new leaders gave in. Is our culture war today a long, twilight struggle similar to the one John F. Kennedy spoke of in 1961? Are we playing for time -- and if so, for what are we hoping?
Norm Geisler and Frank Turek, in their new book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Crossway), offer a good explanation of why those of us praying for the conversion of relatives and friends sometimes are frustrated: "God has provided enough evidence in this life to convince anyone willing to believe, yet He has also left some ambiguity so as not to compel the unwilling." We pray for elderly non-Christians that God will give them more time, even though they already have had plenty, because we do not wish them to perish. We can say the same about societies in travail, like our own.