Nearly 50 years ago, on a July night at a convention hall in San Francisco, a steel-haired, square-faced man in horn-rim glasses accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States. His acceptance speech bulged with what we now call “red meat”—choice ideological morsels for true believers. Winding it up, he warned his supporters “not to be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels. I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
That one-minute applause line was manipulated into a landslide victory—for the other side. Barry Goldwater expressed a noble idea very similar to statements made by the late JFK. But he also tried to dignify an unfortunate word, a word that could be stretched, even then, as far as a rival dared to go. And that was pretty far: Within a month, a TV ad for the LBJ campaign pictured a little girl in a daisy field, counting petals in a lisping voice that morphed into a countdown for a nuclear missile. Then a mushroom cloud bloomed on the screen, fixing for the viewer the face of “extremism.”
That word remains a favorite weapon in the Democratic arsenal, locked and loaded whenever a candidate slightly to the right of center makes it on the Republican ticket. Unthinking and stupid as it is, it works. Americans don’t like “extremism”—not in 1859, not in 1964, not in 2013. We’re told that was the lesson of the Christie and Cuccinelli campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively; moderate Republicans can win, but those plastered with the “extremist” label are sure to lose.
Perhaps the best a conservative can do is pull his party a little more to the right by voting for the farthest-right candidate during primaries and then supporting the moderate choice in the general election. (That was my strategy in 2012 when I voted for Todd Akin in the Missouri primary. We know how well that worked out.) But should we, as a victorious Gov. Christie and a host of talking TV heads advise us, focus more on winning through moderation than on maintaining “ideological purity”?
During the last, terrifying days of the Kingdom of Judah, ca. 586 B.C., the Lord instructed his people through the prophet Jeremiah to surrender to the enemy. God’s decision was final; Jerusalem would fall to Babylon. It was no time to take a stand for national pride, but to cooperate with the plan and shorten the agony. King Zedekiah, swayed by whoever happened to be whispering in his ear, listened to the extremists of his day and decided to resist—a decision with terrible consequences for him and for the city (Jeremiah 37-40).
I am by no means suggesting that conservatives “surrender” to moderates—only that it’s a thin line between ideological purity and idolatry. God’s agenda for the United States is not necessarily the same as ours, and if it’s time for the nation to be judged (a friend suggested years ago that President Obama is God’s judgment on us), then judged it will be. Civil government is not the ultimate battleground, and pragmatism in the pursuit of the best likely outcome (e.g., the least governmental interference, the more young men off disability, the fewest dead babies) is no vice. As we’ve heard ad nauseam since November 2012, “politics is the art of the possible,” not the ideal. Liberalism occasionally gets its comeuppance when liberal extremity is revealed—as in the spectacular mess of Obamacare.
With yet another crucial election right around the corner, I expect I’ll be holding my nose in the voting booth. But one place where extremism in defense of liberty is no vice is my daily walk as a Christian. That’s where all-or-nothing, high-stakes, ideological purity actually works, even thrives. Political tides come and go, but the spiritual battle remains until the Lord comes again.
Like it or not, politics is indeed the art of the possible—no more, no less. The art of the impossible is faith in Christ.