Conservatives are feeling down. We lost a critical presidential election. We lost key constituencies within the electorate. We failed to elect very many conservatives to the Senate. Pro-marriage efforts failed in four states.
We might take a lesson from Ulysses Grant. On the first day of the April 1862 battle of Shiloh, federal forces had been routed by a vigorous Confederate assault. By nightfall, they found themselves with the rebels in their front and the Tennessee River to their back. Hoped-for reinforcements had not arrived.
Grant neither despaired nor quit. As recounted by his friend and fellow general William Tecumseh Sherman, a late-night encounter at the end of that bloody day told something of Grant’s resolve. Historian Bruce Caton described it this way:
“[Sherman] came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, ‘moved,’ as he put it later, ‘by some wise and sudden instinct’ not to talk about retreat, he said: ‘Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’ Grant said ‘Yes,’ and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it, ‘Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.’”
Our resolve must be no less than General Grant’s. The foundational principles of conservatism did not suddenly change because their champions lost an election. Clearly, we need to reevaluate how we communicate them to our fellow citizens, and specifically to certain groups within the larger polity (Latinos, single women, persons under 30, etc.), but the principles themselves are no less vital today than they were the day of the election.
Some erstwhile conservatives are calling on the rest of us to shrug off our defining beliefs like a worn coat, claiming that we have to adjust to new realities. For them, this is a convenient time to scapegoat social conservatives as the cause of 2012’s electoral failures and diminish their credibility.
This is opportunism at its worst, the angry cry of those who regard social and religious conservatives as little more than political (and cultural) distractions and believe they now have found a way to sidetrack us. That way, the Republican Party can be just like the Democratic Party – only not as much. A strategy of arrogance and contempt blended with vacuity instead of substance: Yep, that’ll get people to rally when the chips are down, won’t it?
Now is the time we remind ourselves that social, economic and defense conservatism are intertwined, that strong families are essential to both a strong economy and a strong armed forces. We must not jettison our convictions for the sake of making the editorial writers at the New York Times disdain us slightly less.
We need not lurch to the other extreme of being combative just for the sake of emotional gratification or a sense of revenge. We need to stand immovably but with respect and humble confidence, as well. We need to learn to be better persuaders of the many Americans whose view of conservatism is negative, hostile or even fearful.
To the contrary: Conservatism is a philosophy grounded in a realistic understanding of human nature and human nobility, informed by a belief in a personal and transcendent God, and articulated in policies that advance ordered liberty, social and personal virtue, the sanctity of life, the centrality of family, the foundational role of religious liberty, the benefits of entrepreneurialism and property ownership, and – in our case – a belief in the uniqueness of America as an idea and a nation.
Grant and his army eventually were reinforced during that long evening in 1862, and the next day drove the Confederates off the field of battle. President Lincoln was right when he said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Will we fight? Not with malice or a desire to destroy our adversaries, but with both “grace and truth” (John 1:18) to uphold those convictions and institutions we believe best benefit individuals and society alike?
So, let’s ponder the lessons of 2012, recognizing that one of them is not changing our principles for the sake of popularity. We don’t want to “lick” our adversaries in some military sense – they are our fellow citizens and co-image bearers of God. We do want to “lick” bad ideas, change perspectives, and advance a just and virtuous society. That’s a noble calling for conservatives, this year and every year.
Robert Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council.
Publication date: December 4, 2012