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Political power isn't everything

We are a country that is constituted by a shared moral perspective.
That’s what makes us one nation. And so it follows that if we allow that
moral perspective to be destroyed, or if we allow people to talk us into
the belief that it is irrelevant, then we lose our national identity.
It’s that simple. But what would be the real, concrete effect of losing
that national identity — what would it mean for America?

This question has been much on my mind as I have watched Dr. James
Dobson and others take criticism for refusing to compromise our national
identity for the sake of political victory. The apparently sophisticated
claim has been made that while God may vindicate the pure champions of
truth beyond the grave, the Republican Leadership in America now is
trying to get some “practical” things done. Dr. Dobson’s insistence that
they put principle first is dangerous to their effort to accomplish what
is possible. By unleashing the 800-pound gorilla of moral principle in
the middle of this delicate effort, Dr. Dobson reveals that he doesn’t
understand the practical requirements of compromise. Or so the story
goes.

As usual, a moment’s thought reveals that putting truth first is the
most practical thing we could do, and that the advocates of
“practicality” at the expense of principle are — at best — playing the
fool. If we compromise our national sense of moral common ground, we
will lose all incentive to compromise on anything else. We will become a
bunch of squabbling groups, completely caught up in our own separate
identities and lacking any sense of common ground and common identity.
Under such circumstances, the fashion of compromise will quickly yield
to the hard reality of the “anything goes” approach to power. So those
who are pretending to be in favor of a politics of compromise and
opposed to “extremism” are actually pushing us toward a politics of
greater extremism.

Put simply, a shared commitment to the principled long-term good of
our country is the only real basis of compromise. We are willing to
compromise when we know that there is a common moral ground on which we
stand with our opponent — a shared identity, for the sake of which we
are willing to put aside, for today, our desired outcome. Once we throw
that set of common, shared principles aside, there’s no real reason to
keep compromising, because total victory over the opponent violates no
sense of justice that we share with him. The Clinton White House’s
rhetorical carpet-bombing of Ken Starr is an early foreshadowing of this
inevitable result.

Past generations of Americans really understood all this. It was at
the root of the disciplined American Constitutionalism that astonished
the world. We forget sometimes how remarkable it is that millions of
Americans regularly swallow their strong disagreement and accept
electoral defeats, transfers of power, judicial decisions and changes in
law. Because they respect the Constitution, they accept outcomes that
mean the postponement or rejection of things they believe to be
critically important.

But why do reasonable people accept political outcomes with which
they deeply disagree? Is it just because a procedural document agreed to
by a bunch of dead white males two hundred years ago — the Constitution
– says they should?

Of course not. The compromise that our system of representative
government constantly requires of its citizens depends entirely on the
belief that our procedures of government, including the Constitution,
are our best attempt to implement true principles of justice, best
expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

That is why it is vitally important to our peace and to our decent
spirit of compromise that we be uncompromising in our adherence to the
basic principles that constitute our national identity. The heart of
compromise is not the system, it is the moral principles we believe are
embodied in the system. The real reason for our compromising spirit,
when compromise is called for, is to perpetuate those principles.

Lincoln understood this. He also understood that there are times when
we must be so uncompromising in those principles as even to risk war for
the sake of making sure that the Union is preserved on the right basis
– a basis that allows a lasting sense of moral conviction that our
system of self-government is just.

So when we are appealed to on behalf of “compromise” and “moderation”
to seek agreement with our opponents, from where must our incentive
finally come? It must come from the non-negotiable sense that the great
principles on which the nation stands are principles that respect human
rights and human dignity, and that embody an understanding of mankind
that is true from the perspective stated in the Declaration of
Independence — the perspective of the Creator and His Will. We will
compromise today to preserve our way of life together only if we deeply
believe that the processes and formalities that make up that way of life
are truly founded on such principles, and are thus worth real sacrifices
to preserve.

Without respect for those principles, respect for “compromise” and
rule of law will be but the fruit of one season — quickly withering in
the heat of passion. When foolish sophisticates with their air of
maturity lecture the few champions of principle that we have in our
public life, we should leap with charity, zeal, and intelligence to the
defense — the uncompromising defense — of moral principle.

This is what is really at stake in issues like abortion and racial
preferences. We must get these “Declaration Issues” right, because
getting them wrong threatens to destroy our very capacity to compromise
by destroying our deepest principles and the conscience that leads us to
respect them.

Dr. Dobson understands this; his critics don’t appear to have a clue
about it. That’s why Dr. Dobson is not only a winner, as I said last
week. He is also one of the few truly practical men in national
leadership today.

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