The departure of Ted Cruz from the 2016 race means that there will not be a way to navigate within our political system, as it currently operates, to a renewed and better basis for American governance.
This is a bigger problem than the fate of the Republican Party, or the fate of conservative voters. The key way we know this is that the very definition of “conservatism,” as an American political phenomenon, is now disjunctive with reality. In a political sense, from this point forward, it will not be “conservative” to want the things Ted Cruz stands for: i.e., government that is limited, constitutional, and federal; government that respects liberty and social conservatism in the people and does not harass or coerce them over disputable matters.
Today’s political conservatives will have to start with understanding that what we want to “conserve” isn’t there to conserve anymore. This isn’t about our stance on “social issues.” The passing sentiments of other people cannot dictate to us how we see morality; our obligation before God is to conserve what is right. No, when I speak of what isn’t there to conserve, I’m talking about the apparatus of government and politics.
Government that is limited, constitutional, and federal – the American political idea – is a handmaiden of all that is best for men and women. It is a useful support, one that enables us, through freedom from excessive earthly coercion, to make the most of the gifts of God. In conditions of anarchy, we are preoccupied with defending the little we can keep together. When government becomes encroaching, it burdens and overtaxes us and demands to be a god to us, supplanting the one true God in our minds.
So start by understanding that this latter condition is the one we’re in today. The conservatives of the United States in the 20th century were generally united around an idea of less-encroaching government: government that didn’t demand to forcibly change our social mores; government that didn’t tax us to pay for long lists of things we are morally opposed to. But there is now no political organization representing us in that idea.
With the choice of Donald Trump, Republican voters are signaling that they choose to accept government being a god to them. They are prepared to make government their first resort for addressing the vicissitudes of human life, and to place unrealistic demands on it in terms of how happy, well-off, and well-behaved everyone will be if we can just put the right officials in charge.
(I’m not the only person to be reminded forcibly of the passage in 1 Samuel 8 where the ancient Israelites demanded that God give them a king to rule over them. They insisted that having God’s law to follow wasn’t enough. If you read the Book of Judges, just before 1 Samuel, you will be struck by how very much the people’s condition resembled that of today’s America – as well as most of the world – when they demanded to have a king placed over them.)
I note that this isn’t about Trump being a bad person. I don’t think he’s any worse than any other flamboyant entrepreneur who stays, for the most part, within the law as his attorneys advise him on it. It’s about Trump not being a constitutionalist with a principled philosophy of government: someone who would default to coercing us less, regardless of who’s hollering to coerce us more, because less coercion is itself the moral priority.
Exercising authority isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but when government does it, it’s always likely to be. Trump doesn’t come with a philosophical bias against exercising government authority tyrannically. (Hillary, of course, or any other leading Democrat, positively favors using government authority tyrannically.)
The pivot point
The pivot point, for moving on from this somewhat depressing reckoning, is a realization to which all of today’s limited-government conservatives must come: that limited government is the handmaiden. God is the sovereign. It’s God who is our refuge and our answer, and He will not let us find our “answers” in politics or earthly systems of government.
I’ve actually been saying this exact thing for something like 15 years now. We’re not going to be saved by a political hero, on the Reagan model. That’s not in the cards. We may eventually be able to elect an acclaimed limited-government leader again, but at present, that is not our “answer.”
This is the pivot point, right here, today. We’ve come to the end of the old-consensus road: the road on which it seemed safe to keep gradually putting more of our faith in human government, and letting it take over more and more of our lives.
Regardless of which 2016 candidate got the GOP nomination, or which candidate won in November, we were always going to be at this same pivot point today. Out of all the candidates, Ted Cruz was the most likely to allow us to turn the old ship of state, in a meaningful way, at this pivot point. But the voters have rejected that opportunity.
And from the longheaded perspective, that may not be such a bad thing. Why do I say that? Because it is absolutely essential for us to understand clearly that our answers, the big answers we need in our lives as men and women, don’t come from human government.
Even if we elected Ted Cruz in November 2016 – Cruz, who offered less government to us than any other top-tier candidate – we would still spend the next four years turning over and over in our minds who Cruz is, and what Cruz is going to do. I don’t think that’s what we need right now (although I admit that, until yesterday, I still had a lingering hope that it was).
What we need going forward
There are two things we need right now, and they operate in concert. One is to ask ourselves who God is. What is He like? What does He want for us? How much is He willing to do in our lives? Is He limited? Can He do only what He has done in the past? Are our options, if we turn to Him, narrow and punitive? Do they have frustrating boundaries and tragic expiration dates? Do His equations inevitably yield condemnation, or are mercy and grace perhaps variables whose magnitude we can never predict, and probably can’t even imagine?
I can’t say with enough urgency that this is what every person will need to grapple with – and what’s important is precisely that government has no business enforcing the process. I know many people will resist this proposition, and I’m not going to argue it here. I’ll just say that it is indispensable, if you want limited government and liberty, and move on.
The second thing, operating in concert with this one, is that we must understand that we have an incredible opportunity now. After yesterday, limited-government advocates are unfettered by reflexive fealty to the politics as usual of the 20th century’s old consensus. To be plain, we’re not stuck with what has become of the Republican Party.
That doesn’t mean we can find some way to have electoral success in November 2016. We have to realize that someone we can’t agree with or expect good things from is going to get elected this year. Each of you will have to decide what to do with your vote, but I urge you not to think that you are either making the future better, or warding off something worse, if you cast a vote for president. What matters to the future is not your vote but your heart.
The size of the opportunity we have will depend, I believe, on who we think God is. There is a reality we can’t escape today: that the habitable earth is fully explored and claimed, if not by any means fully populated. The periodic solution of physical migration to get away from encroaching government, broken systems, and/or pointless strife is less and less an option. But does that have to mean that we are out of options?
What if there is a God who does new things in the earth? What if the patterns of the past do not condemn us in the present? Some of you know I like to make this point: that America has always beaten the odds. If there were no escaping the odds dictated by history’s patterns, we would not have made it – as America – past 1777, much less 1789 or 1861.
Even if you don’t believe that this is because of America’s original character, as a project built by godly people on Judeo-Christian beliefs and moral ideas, it is still remarkable. America is unique, and has sailed on after foundering more than once.
Whether you think she can do it again will depend on who you think God is. Even if you don’t see that right this very minute, you will. The coming days are going to require each one of us to confront this question.
For those who understand the connection between limited government, ordered liberty, and the freedom to walk with God as your spirit requires – or even to disbelieve in Him – without armed interference in that most precious of rights, the coming days will bring an awe-inspiring opportunity for a do-over in America.
We can’t predict right now how that will play out, in terms of circumstances, precipitating factors, or personalities. One thing we can be certain of is that if America is doggedly pursuing the old patterns of history, as she is today, that process itself will make opportunities for us, very likely where we didn’t expect them.
Don’t lose heart. Take from this post one final encouragement: that what we are about now, in our living generations, is not the past but the future. We didn’t ask for this task, but it has fallen to us.
We are, in fact, appointed to exercise a charter like that of America’s Founders. After a difficult period of transition, they used the wisdom of the philosophers and people of faith who came before them to chart a new course: one of deliberately making government limited, constitutional, and federal, so that the people might flourish in the liberty conferred by God – the “Author of liberty.” “A new age now begins,” they said. Novus ordo seclorum.
Our challenge will be to use the wisdom of our Founders to chart a course even they could not foresee, at least in terms of its social, demographic, and technological conditions. How do you renew limited government and liberty in a world where you can’t just move to a distant prairie or forest to set things up your way? That is the opportunity set before us. Whether we think there even is an answer depends on who we think God is. He is setting before us this day life and death. Choose life.