Just as the war between the states is playing out anew on movie screens across America, Republicans have commenced their own civil war in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat. Some blame party “extremists” for pulling Romney so far to the right that he was unelectable. They attack evangelical Christians for clinging to pro-life and traditional-marriage positions that “turned off independent voters” and “cost Republicans the election.” Unless evangelicals are willing to soften, they warn, Republicans may never win another presidential contest.
Meanwhile, evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, blame the party establishment for once again selecting a nominee whose conservative credentials – especially on social issues – were questionable at best. They point out that three of the past four Republican presidential nominees were establishment picks who engendered little enthusiasm among evangelicals, had no genuine commitment to conservative social issues – and lost. By 2016, the only Republican presidential candidate to have won in the previous two decades will be an evangelical Christian (George W. Bush) who embraced the evangelical social agenda without equivocation or apology.
The lesson of history should be clear: Republicans cannot win without the enthusiastic support of evangelicals, and social moderates don’t generate the excitement necessary to win their votes.
So, should evangelicals cease fighting a culture war that many believe they have already lost? Or should establishment Republicans concede their inability to win without evangelicals and swear off their addiction to social moderates?
Establishment Republicans and evangelicals should realize they are incapable of electing a president without the enthusiastic support of the other. Both have to change their thinking to capture the White House again.
Here is what establishment Republicans need to understand about us evangelical Christians: Winning is not everything. Most of the time, we will choose principle over pragmatism, especially when it comes to issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Calls for evangelicals to moderate their views on these moral issues will always fall on deaf ears.
While we would prefer to have elected officials who embrace our viewpoint, the success of our cause does not depend on it. Our worldview, shaped by the Bible and history, is that Christians will continue to be a minority who will further our message in spite of, rather than because of, government. In the end, our movement will prevail, which makes compromise on core issues unnecessary.
Yet evangelicals need to remember that we are a diminishing minority in America. If we care about winning elections with candidates who will push back against abortion and immorality, then we have to be willing to compromise on secondary issues.
Unfortunately, evangelicals tend to resist “compromise” because of our propensity to label every issue a “spiritual conviction.” In the four weeks before Election Day, I spoke to thousands of pastors in cities across the country and recorded “robo-calls” encouraging them to courageously “stand for righteousness.” In private conversations, I discovered that for some, “standing for righteousness” meant more than pushing back against abortion and same-sex marriage. They saw opposing higher taxes, Obamacare and bans on assault weapons as equally important moral issues, even though such positions have no biblical support.
My message to fellow evangelical Christians is this: We must differentiate between biblical absolutes and political preferences. We must never compromise on the former, but we must be willing to bend on the latter if we want to see our moral agenda enacted. Breaking a pledge to Grover Norquist and embracing higher taxes for even higher cuts in expenditures is not tantamount to denouncing Christ.
I have a proposal for all Republicans. Instead of nominating a candidate who is mute or malleable on social issues but intransigent on political issues, let’s try the reverse. Let’s find a candidate who has a history of consistently and courageously embracing the social views of the majority of the Republican Party, as well as many Democrats and independent voters: that life in the womb should be protected and that marriage is for a man and a woman. But let’s also nominate a candidate who realizes that compromise with the other party is necessary if we are to restore our country’s fiscal integrity.
As the establishment and evangelical camps of the GOP engage in some soul-searching about their future, they should remember the lesson of the porcupines huddled together to keep warm in sub-freezing temperatures: They needed one another, even though they needled one another.