Last week I reviewed Carl Trueman's Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative with a mixed response to it. Trueman is right to smack us around and tell us to wake up to the individualism, consumerism, and even secularism in our evangelical religion. At the same time, I think he underappreciates how the American political experiment in liberty realizes biblical principles in a historically unprecedented way. I closed saying, "But with appreciation for that brotherly counsel I remain undisturbed in my conscientious though not uncritical embrace of conservative American politics."
Those criticisms bear stating, especially during this presidential campaign season when the Republican Party is in a mood for introspection.
Republicans defend individual liberty against the smothering benevolence of the personal security state. This is good, but human beings are more than just individuals, and the American political tradition is more than just individualism. So a conservative political party has more to conserve than just individual self-protection and self-assertion.
One of the great insights of modern thought is that when people are free to seek their self-interest, a hidden hand of converging interests approximates a common good that, in human terms, is the best we can hope for in a fallen world. But while that has proven to be a mercifully successful approach to politics and economics, godly people should not confuse it with a life of Christian charity. Seeking simply one's self-interest, even one's enlightened self-interest, does not suffice for human community as God intends it. "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). The politics of individualism does not account for considering others better than yourself, even for laying down your life for a friend or for your country. It does not justify sacrificial giving. But sacrifice for others is the way of the cross to which Christians are called in their sojourn. Paul also contrasts people who seek simply their own interests with people who have in mind "those of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 2:21).
The value of individual freedom requires our vigilant defense but not at the expense of the value of communities as such. From a policy standpoint, the family must share the height of government protection because it is the bedrock of society. Yet the American family is suffering a thousand cuts from every direction-from tax policy to entertainment. The GOP needs to identify these as serious threats to our nation that are in every way comparable to the threat of an al-Qaeda attack with a weapon of mass destruction. They need a 20-year policy agenda that will strengthen and protect marriage and family at least as tenaciously as we now protect waterways and wildlife.
Ronald Reagan appointed a Special Working Group on the Family to examine all policies for their impact on the family. That was good as far as it went, but the work needs to be less reactive. A thoughtfully crafted, fully coordinated family policy should recognize the requirements for and impediments to healthy family life, and inform the president of whatever measures are necessary and constitutional to strengthen it. State governors and local governments should do the same.
Conservatives these days are hawkish over how a given tax or regulation will affect small business and job creation, and that's good. But the family deserves the same protective scrutiny. The GOP needs to go beyond the rhetoric of "family values" and pushing back on a few battlefronts in the culture wars for an effectively conservative defense of the public good.