The Warrior and the Preacher

Peter Augustine Lawler

February 1, 2008

Everyone knows there are three basic factions in the Republican Party: the nationalists (or patriots inspired by the idea of national greatness), the religious moralists (not traditionalists—if our evangelicals were really traditional their churches wouldn’t be so ugly and their music so bad), and the limited government supply-siders. It goes without saying that it’s possible to belong to more than one faction at once, and that not all members of each of these factions vote Republican.

Reviewing the Republican primaries and caucuses so far (and the process is, for all practical purposes, over), we can say that the most nationalist candidate (John “the Warrior” McCain) and the most religious candidate (Mike “the Preacher” Huckabee) over-performed or exceeded expert expectations. The primarily limited government candidates (Thompson, Giuliani, and Romney) underperformed.

We southerners have no trouble understanding these facts: Our admirable exemplars of leadership have often been soldiers and preachers—from George Washington through Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to, say, Billy Graham and the local youth minister. There’s nothing more important than God and country. Who can deny that? And there’s something in us all that leads us to believe that character should count when it comes to picking leaders, and even that it should trump self-interest and technical competence.

McCain is going to get nominated because he waged the best campaign. He was able to keep the focus on his authentic personal virtue—his courage in the face of our enemies and public opinion. He stood almost alone for the surge in Iraq, he’s said time and again, as the risky but only alternative to dishonorable withdrawal. He honestly displays his indignation when anyone has the temerity to question his motives. And he has no problem being confident in asserting that those who disagree with him—such as the spokespersons for the pharmaceutical industry—are evildoers. His nobility sometimes morphs into moralistic arrogance, and his critics often call him “McVain.”

The weakness of warriors—and this is the theme of many a Clint Eastwood movie—is that they prefer war to peace. So they’re all for sacrifice, even when it would be counterproductive to require it. McCain was against the Bush tax cuts because they’d be unpatriotic in time of war. Now he’s finally for the cuts—in a way—because they stimulate the economy. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Bush’s pro-family tax cuts actually improved the seemingly ordinary lives of struggling parents. McCain is also a budget-cut hawk; cuts usually impose sacrifice on someone, and that can’t be bad. Bill Clinton is famous for convincing us he feels our pain; sometimes “McPain” seems too ready to give us yet another chance to display our nobility.

The warrior’s excessively manly choice for martial over marital virtue is altogether too clear in McCain’s unreasonable dislike—even contempt—for Romney. Mitt and his five strapping, species-perpetuating sons didn’t “serve.” But each of them, in fact, is a very faithful and responsible father. They practice the virtue toward which Americans should ordinarily aspire. It’s true enough that regular family guys have trouble identifying with Mitt; he seems too rich and too perfect to be real. But someone might say that in his day-to-day life Romney displays his nobility more splendidly than even McCain.

Our search for the candidate of the regular family guy leads us to Huckabee. His slogan of “faith, family and freedom” is that of our most unpretentious but still real religion—that of the evangelicals. Surely Huck alone among the candidates seemed attuned to the anxieties that plague ordinary men and women. (I’m talking here mainly about the early, loose, funny, rock ’n’ roll Huck—the Huck who said “what the Huck” I’ll speak my heart.)

Even or especially prosperous Americans are seemingly more anxious than ever. They know that they are, in some ways, more on their own than ever. All their safety nets are collapsing: private pensions, public pensions, unions, corporate loyalty, marital fidelity, the care-giving provided by families, and so forth. Even Social Security and Medicare are threatened over the long term by tough demographic realities—we’re not having enough kids and living way too long. (I tell students that if you want to save Social Security you’d better starting making babies and smoking now.)

The “progressivist” narrative of Americans moving toward equality and security through bigger and better government is out-of-touch. We conservatives have to admit that Tocqueville and Hayek were wrong, or at least not completely right. We’re not slouching toward socialism or soft despotism anymore. Individuals haven’t surrendered concern for their personal futures to some schoolmarmish nanny state; they’re in many ways stuck with being more future-oriented than ever. They’re stuck with having to be good—to practice virtue—in order to feel good. Certainly the virtues connected with personal and family responsibility are especially needed now.

Our society, more than ever, is a meritocracy, where merit is defined by personal productivity. These are the best times ever for those who are smart, young, pretty, pleasing, and industrious. But the pressure is really on to be smart, young, pretty, and pleasing, and that struggle, for the average guy, is lonelier than ever. That’s why we live in the time of Botox and pharmaceutical mood brighteners, and why it’s psychologically tougher than ever to be poor or even sick. If you aren’t doing well, we increasingly think, it’s your own fault.

Americans are also morally anxious, as Huck also saw. They’re especially concerned about how their children are going to turn out in a world where virtue is identified with nothing more than health and safety and productivity, where the only sexual morality, for example, is safe sex—or what it takes to detach the bare act from any connection with birth and death. They can see, when looking at Western Europeans or even sophisticated people in their own country, that when marriage is detached altogether from any sense of an enduring, sacred reality people just stop having babies. That’s one reason many Americans are seeking a refuge in the moral absolutes—the purpose-driven life—that comes from belief in the real truth of the Bible. Faith and family, from this view, are the real purposes of our freedom, and freedom without purpose meaning nothing more than we have nothing left to lose.

One reason, among many, that Huck’s campaign both overachieved and failed was that he made his political concerns seem nothing more than an expression of his evangelical faith. He, for no good reason, had no confidence that his description and even much of his prescription for the anxieties that accompany excessive individualism could be appreciated by Americans who didn’t share his biblical belief. He never should have taken Darwin on in the name of creation, for example. Not that he was wrong to criticize many of our popularizing Darwinians for thinking they know more than they really do. The truth is that it’s as ridiculous to believe that evolutionary theory explains everything about us as it is to believe that it explains nothing at all.

Huck should have reached out by saying Darwin is actually on his side. Members of our species are usually happiest when they live as nature intends, when they do their duty to their species by having kids, raising them well, and not trying too hard to stay around forever, contrary to nature’s clear intention for them. Then he might have added that anyone with eyes to see knows that Darwin-denying evangelicals—who believe that this, natural world is not their true home—live much more as nature intends than sophisticated Darwin affirmers who do everything they can, as individuals, not to take one for the species. A real Darwinian who’s a genuine advocate for the future of our species might insist that Darwin’s theory not be taught as the whole, natural truth in our schools.

The Bible and Darwin agree in opposing the self-destructive excesses of our creeping and sometimes creepy individualism or libertarianism. What’s really wrong with the Darwinians, Huck certainly knows well enough, is that they don’t do justice to the natural, social freedom of persons born to know and love and die.

What does the unexpected success of the Preacher and the Warrior teach us? Liberty without virtue—either in the lives of a particular human being or in the political life of our country—isn’t enough. Campaigning only for limited government and tax cuts and securing us from terror—the disastrous Giuliani strategy reminded us—can’t win the people’s hearts and minds.

We’ve also learned, I think, that being either a warrior or a preacher isn’t enough. No Republican can win who doesn’t both inspire us—at least some—with the warrior’s greatness and defends and encourages the virtue required for most people to live well in our economically and especially psychologically tough times. So my advice to nominee McCain is to really learn from the preacher, or to really understand why you need to stop disrespecting the strange and wonderful lives of peace- and people-loving Americans stuck with virtue and both homeless and at home in their country. The warrior, as they say, needs to become credible on domestic issues.

Peter Augustine Lawler is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.