Sioux Center, Iowa. I was one of the delegates representing the state of Iowa at the Republican National Convention three months ago. Most of us were grassroots conservative activists and many were first-time convention goers. At the state convention, last summer, I was a member of a Ron Paul/Tea Party/Religious Right slate that competed against a pro-establishment slate. When elected, I felt very grateful.
There were two ways to view the national convention. The first focused on the style of the convention. The second focused on its substance. Most TV viewers and most delegates took the first approach. For them, the convention was a success if the convention hall looked appealing, if the speakers spoke with zest and without gaffes, if the party looked unified, if events ran smoothly, if the weather cooperated, and if pundits told them that Governor Romney would get a bounce in the polls coming out of Tampa. In that sense, I agree with most observers who said that the convention was a success.
However, as both a political activist and political scientist, I naturally gravitate more toward the second approach. Moving beyond surface analysis, I was disappointed by the convention in several ways. As is true of all modern nominating conventions, there was little for the delegates to do beyond serving as props in a week-long infomercial for the presidential nominee. In the old days, delegates actually chose the nominee during the convention week—and often the vice presidential nominee as well. The roll call lasted for multiple ballots . . . sometimes over multiple days. There were roll-call votes on credential disputes, rule changes, and platform planks. Nowadays, the conventions are sanitized and tightly controlled from above. They are less a convention and more a coronation.
Unfortunately, almost all possible drama and excitement were removed from the national convention before it got underway on Tuesday. The end result was a slick but boring production. Often times, the highlight of the hours was the great house band led by ex-SNL song leader G.E. Smith. Delegates from some states danced on the convention floor. As the convention week went on, the aisles grew increasingly clogged with Romney whips sporting baseball caps and super-serious faces, as well as chipper young people handing out Romney signs for delegates to wave for the benefit of the cameras.
In an interview with CBS News at the beginning of the convention week, Governor Romney disagreed with our party’s proposed platform and revealed that he favored legalized abortion in the cases of “rape and incest and the health and life of the mother.” The health exception is well known as a large loophole. It can mean physical, mental, or emotional health. This was the loophole used for “therapeutic” state abortion law changes in the late 1960s, including California and New York. This was the loophole favored by liberal Republican/Planned Parenthood types like Romney’s parents and Romney himself during the pre-Roe period.
In the 1990s, Mitt Romney was still an abortion supporter. By August 2012, he was posing as an opponent, but he couldn’t keep his words straight. Smiling, Romney told CBS that the Democrats try to make abortion a political issue but he didn’t see it as such. Instead, it’s “a matter in the courts” and “it’s been settled for some time in the courts.” Not exactly a rallying cry for the anti-abortion movement.
On the first day of convention proceedings, delegates voted on controversial rule changes that shifted power away from future state and national convention delegates, putting it into the hands of presidential candidates and the Republican National Committee. They were opposed by the anti-establishment forces in the party (not just Paul supporters). Speaker John Boehner was chairing the convention. He asked for adoption of the Rules Committee report, including the new power grab. About equal numbers of delegates shouted Aye and No but Boehner immediately said the Aye’s had it. Those of us on the losing side protested, calling for a division of the house (standing vote) to get a more accurate count. But national conventions do not use Robert’s Rules of Order. No debate is allowed. The floor microphones are turned off. There is no way to appeal the ruling of the chair. This leads to frustration.
The undemocratic, rigged nature of the convention became even more obvious the next day when cell phone video of the teleprompter surfaced. After Boehner asked for the No’s, the teleprompter text declared, “The Aye’s have it.” In other words, the outcome was scripted and predetermined. The process was fake but at least it was exciting. (By the way, Democrats are no better. Their national convention included a false, scripted vote on changing the party platform.) In making, or even proposing, these and other changes designed to curb the power of grassroots conservatives, the GOP establishment revealed for the umpteenth time its contempt for tradition and its hypocrisy in regard to professed opposition to power grabbing by centralized authorities in Washington.
Ron Paul delegates were upset early in the week when the Romney campaign excluded a bunch of duly-elected delegates from states like Louisiana and Maine, and replaced them with Romney supporters picked by national party officials rather than state convention delegates. Again, power seemed to trump principle. The presidential roll call of the states was moved from its traditional place later in the week to the very beginning, and scheduled out of primetime, so the Romney campaign would be spared the embarrassment of having TV watchers see Congressman Paul receive a couple hundred votes in tribute to his campaign and his principles. The outcome was never in doubt. Governor Romney had the vast majority of delegates locked up and was the obvious presumptive nominee. When states announced votes for Paul—usually just a few per state—not a single one was verbally acknowledged by the convention officials at the podium. Such actions made the Romney campaign look insecure and were not conducive to party unity.
Another example of possible overreaching by the Romney campaign was the fact that every podium speech had to be submitted in advance for approval. Senator Rand Paul was forbidden to say the name of his own father in his own speech! With the exception of Senator Paul, recognized leaders of the grassroots Tea Party movement were absent from the list of speakers (e.g., Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, Mike Lee). Combined with the virtual absence of any talk about protecting the unborn and defending traditional marriage, non-establishment Republicans had little to be enthused about despite their preexisting doubts about Mitt Romney. Most voted for Romney on November 6 because they detest Obama, but the enthusiasm deficit that plagued his campaign during the past year continued and hindered crucial on-the-ground support. The lack of enthusiasm probably cost him the election. Fear and hatred of Barack Obama—the only two weapons in the Romney/Republican arsenal—could only go so far. The nominee and the party had little positive appeal for average Americans.
It was nice to feel a sense of kinship, at least on some levels, with a bunch of strangers. Obviously, I felt closer to fellow Paul delegates but I had some things in common with most grassroots Republicans. It was nice to hear different regional accents, from Massachusetts to Texas. It all contributed to a sense of community. Many of the Ron Paul delegates were Christians and it was nice to fellowship on that level as well. The convention hall was full of professing Christians and I agreed with many of them on social issues so that was also a nice atmosphere in which to practice politics. Nonetheless, from a Christian perspective, some of the most prominent elements of the convention were the most disturbing.
There was an abundance of condemnation of the Democratic Party’s sins (real and imagined). This wasn’t all bad because there is a time and place to publicly call people to account for wrongdoing. But even here, the Romney-dominated convention pulled its punches when it came to subjects like legalized abortion, politicized homosexuality, and aggressive secularism. Wanting to appeal to centrist voters and not wanting to appear too religious, almost nothing was said from the podium by the speakers on any of those important subjects. Another reason for the silence is that Governor Romney apparently has little interest in such matters beyond their utility as political tactics. As a result, there was no clear, strong voice on behalf of protecting unborn babies even though this is the single biggest issue that keeps many Christians voting Republican. As someone who is deeply pro-life, I found that very disappointing.
Although the “sins” of the opposing party were loudly and repeatedly condemned, there was almost no confession of, or contrition for, our own “sins.” The failures of the Bush administration were never acknowledged. By 2008, millions of Republicans associated with the Religious Right, Tea Party, and Ron Paul movements were disillusioned with the national GOP leadership. Listening to the convention speakers, one would think that all was forgotten by the time Republicans convened in Tampa. Every ill of society was blamed on Barack Obama, with the implication that conservative Republicans experienced a golden age during the eight years of George W. Bush. Yet Bush-Cheney set the stage for Obama-Biden when it came to deficit spending, corporate bailouts, big government regulation, executive overreach, disregard of the Constitution, same sex “marriage,” and belligerent foreign policy.
Not only was there no contrition for GOP errors in evidence on the podium of the convention, but the promotion of what could be viewed as anti-Christian values bothered me. The poor appeared only as a plot device in rags-to-riches stories. Crony capitalism was glorified under the euphemism “job creators.” Faux rugged individualism was touted under the boast “We built it.” While these emphases contained a kernel of truth in their rejection of overweening statism, they were also laden with an unhealthy dose of pride and greed.
Finally, there was the civil religion and patriotism-as-faith summed up by Governor Romney’s slogan “Believe in America.” During his acceptance speech, he listed one of the missions of America as “uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.” We know that save and darkness are messianic terms. I am a patriot and a nationalist of sorts myself but there are limits that ought to be recognized. If such limits are not recognized, one falls into idolatry even with the best of intentions. It was Jesus Christ—not America—who gave “light to those who sit in darkness,” who is “the light that shines in the darkness,” and who has called us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (Acts 1:79; John 1:5; I Peter 2:9). God sent the Son—not America—into the world “that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
At another point during his speech, Romney said, “Now is the moment where we can stand up and say, ‘I am an American. I make my destiny. We deserve better.’” He referred to America as “the greatest country in the history of the world.” In some ways, this is true, but what indices are being used to measure greatness? Ancient Israel might have a more valid claim to the title by some measures. Other possibilities are ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, or the Swiss Confederation. And since comparisons between countries are invariably a matter of apples and oranges, why this obsession with being The Greatest? I realize it’s an old phenomenon—Tocqueville sardonically made note of it—but it’s not a good trait. From the standpoint of manners, it’s boorish. It’s not integral to patriotism. The old song “You’re a Grand Old Flag” claims that “there’s never a boast or brag” among American patriots. Finally, and most importantly, humility— not pride—is a Christian virtue.
The title of Governor Romney’s campaign book was No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. In a form letter written by Romney, on the eve of the convention, he asserted, “When you believe in America, you don’t apologize for America.” Does he believe the nation— which really means the federal government— is beyond error? Free of wrongdoing? Or just that errors and wrongdoing should never be mitigated by apology because America should never apologize for any mistake or any evil? It is an interesting idea but it is far from Christian. If “American exceptionalism” means that our nation has many wonderful attributes, then I agree. If “American exceptionalism” means that our government is exempt from the moral code bestowed on the world by God himself, then it is a false and dangerous doctrine.
Forty years ago, Francis Schaeffer warned, “In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American Establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. . . . Equating of any other loyalty with our loyalty to God is sin.” These words remain true even though they contradict the pandering clichés of ambitious politicians and the cherished beliefs of well-meaning citizens.
More recently, J. Budziszewski made the same point, listing civil religion as the first moral error of American conservatism. He defined it as the notion that “America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration.” He went on to criticize the mistake of “confusing America with Zion”: “She is not the inheritor of the covenant, not the receiver of the promises, not the witness to the nations. . . . No nation can presume to take God under its wing. However we may love our country, dote upon her, and regret her, God can do without the United States.”
It is also worth mentioning that such displays of patriotism ring false to some of us because they come from a clique of globalists who evaded U.S. military service when they had the opportunity, and who show little regard for our Constitution, our local communities, or the best traditions of our country. The evil is multiplied by the fact that cheap patriotic platitudes serve as cover for a foreign policy of power and profit through bloody, open-ended wars of aggression.
One peek-behind-this-curtain is afforded to us by Robert Kaplan’s book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. Drawing inspiration from Machiavelli and Hobbes (among others), the book was published in 2001 with blurbs by Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich. It rejects Christian morality in favor of a pagan, amoral, end-justifies-the-means method of gaining and sustaining power. Kaplan writes, “For American power to endure, it will need to be impelled by a more primitive level of altruism than that of the universal society it seeks to encourage. American patriotism—honoring the flag, July Fourth celebrations and so on—must survive long enough to provide the military armature for an emerging global civilization that may eventually make such patriotism obsolete.” In other words, short-term disingenuous patriotism in the service of long-term global governance. Yuck.
Admittedly, Governor Romney and the national GOP bigwigs did not lose the election because they were too committed to the anti-Christian values of greed, pride, idolatry, violence, injustice, and deceit. There were other, more pedestrian, reasons.
Romney was a poor candidate. He lacked the common touch and could not successfully fake it. He was a rich elitist who made his money through vulture capitalism at a time when such wheelers and dealers are held in low esteem. He was a flip-flopping opportunist. He didn’t even try to distance himself from the Bush-era neocons/pragmatists who launched two unnecessary wars abroad and an intrusive federal government at home until very late in the campaign. He was a man who apparently had no interest in the social issues of concern to many Republicans—namely, protecting unborn life and upholding genuine marriage (or if he did have interest, it was in the form of private adherence to the social liberalism of his family and class). He was a Mormon in a party full of evangelical Christians, who tend to see his religion as a cult. He gratuitously antagonized grassroots conservatives at the national convention. He was surrounded by amateurish control freaks. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the other professional entertainers who pontificate on politics for money and power tried to paper over Romney’s weaknesses, but the weaknesses remained.
The anti-Christian elements of modern Republicanism did not hinder the Romney campaign very much because they are widely viewed as good things. They are examples of the red meat routinely tossed to the conservative masses. But for those of us who recognize them to be weaknesses rather than strengths, they make it more difficult to buy into the lesser-of-two-evils argument. Even if we concede that it’s okay to vote for an evil candidate because he’s the lesser evil, what do we do when that candidate is the greater evil in some ways? When he’s more phony and more unjust, more materialistic and more imperialistic? If Republican leaders refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings, refuse to turn in a different direction, then what do we gain if “our guy” gains power? Power to do what?
A younger, sexier, or more ethnic Mitt Romney is not the answer. It’s not enough to win. What happens after the victory? Most of the post-election critiques of the Republican Party are about style. Substance is more important.