I know that conservatives are reeling from last night’s loss of Mitt Romney to President Barack Obama. There will be a lot of questions now about what went wrong. Some will argue that the party needs to moderate its stances, that it is too conservative. Others will argue that Romney lost because he ran as a moderate, and what really wins is a truly conservative candidate.
I have my own opinions about the place of conservatism is the politics of winning an election, but I’ll leave that aside. I want to focus on what I think is a deeper issue, since it is a fundamentally ethical and theological one.
Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18, ESV). The context is particularly interesting. He had just been telling the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them. Roman Christians . . . the ones who were living with persecution unlike anything we in America have ever faced. Of course, Paul’s line of thought was nothing new. Jesus had already said, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”(Matt. 5:44b).
I want to juxtapose those thoughts with some modern American wisdom literature. The central premise of Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People is that people want to feel important and, whatever else we do, we should treat them like they are. And that, I would suggest, is more than just good advice. It is based on a deep theological and philosophical truth: people are important. They are important because of what they are–human beings made in the image of a divine, benevolent Creator who loves them deeply and unconditionally. Paul says to live at peace with people you disagree with. Jesus says to bless them. Dale says to treat them like they are important. All of them are getting the same idea: since people are precious in God’s eyes, they should be treated like the precious things they are.
That takes me back to the campaign we all just endured and the soul-searching the Republicans are already now doing. President Obama’s entire campaign was predicated on disqualifying Romney. I think it largely worked, just as Romney’s entire campaign during the primaries was predicated on disqualifying his opponents (which, again, I think worked). Romney tried to cast a semi-positive message with promises to take the country in a better direction, but there is no denying that his campaign was also extremely negative. Now, people will quickly complain that they don’t want to see negative campaigns, to which political junkies will immediately point out that campaigns go negative because it works. So my point here is not as trite as to say we need more positive campaigns (although I think we do). It is this: Romney’s central task was to convince a large enough portion of people who had voted for Obama that they had made a mistake and to vote for him instead.
In other words, he needed them to admit they were wrong.
This campaign was never about Obama and Romney. It, like all campaigns, was about the voter. When you tell a voter that they cast their vote for a socialist, anti-American, child-murdering Marxist whose whole goal is the destruction of America, you make become defensive–not defensive of Obama, but defensive of themselves. All the polls demonstrate that people fundamentally like Obama as a person. Just like voters took a second look at Romney when the first debate proved he wasn’t the ogre the Obama campaign had portrayed him to be, Obama voters were just never sold on the rhetoric of Obama’s fundamental danger to this country.
You see, it isn’t just good spiritual practice to treat people with whom you disagree (even Obama) with dignity and respect and trust God with the results. It turns out to be good politics, too. A basic rule in politics is that the guy people like more tends to win, because the guy people like more makes them feel better about themselves.
In light of that, as the debate among conservatives about what went wrong begins, I want to point people back to the fundamental notion of the basic dignity of mankind. All people deserve respect, to say nothing of the office of the presidency itself. Conservatives need to base their philosophy, policies, and political methods on the recognition of that fact. And that means starting with respecting the dignity of the voters with whom they disagree. Telling them (implicitly or explicitly) that they are voting for a communistic Muslim who hates America is simply offensive to them, as it would be if someone said the same to you. Preach the truth, but do so in love. Help people who have to admit they were wrong save face. Be gentle with them. Be kind to one another. You’ll find that to pay dividends if you do so, and if you still lose your political arguments (and someone necessarily will), you can hold your head high, still be gracious, and know that you have kept your integrity. On the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers. I think we can agreeably disagree with fellow Americans of differing political persuasions.