The Republican Party Doesn’t Own Christian Conservatives
Republican nominee Roy Moore lost the vote in Alabama on Tuesday. To many, that defeat was comforting: Moore’s troubling background included lawlessness, extremism, and allegations of child molestation. He may not have lost by much—but with a tenfold increase in write-ins and a drop-off of 800,000 voters, it appears that Moore was too much for principled conservatives in Alabama.
Indeed, after crunching the numbers, economist Lyman Stone suggested that Moore had the lowest white evangelical support of any Alabama Republican in the 21st century:
Had Moore enjoyed the level of support of just the average off-cycle Alabama Republican, he would have gotten about 105,000 more votes, and won the election. If he had enjoyed passionate support from evangelicals, as the media tried to say he had, and matched the best off-cycle performance, he’d have gotten about 150,000 more votes. Heck, if he’d simply tied the worst-ever performance, he’d still have won, getting about 70,000 more votes. But instead, Moore’s election set a new low for the GOP’s share of the white evangelical electorate.
Jake Meador suggests over at Mere Orthodoxy that “This is the message to the GOP: Stop ignoring us. Stop pretending you can count on our votes. Stop thinking of us as useful idiots.”
But the question remains: where do principled conservative voters go from here? Because even though Moore lost, it’s important not to forget that he was supported by the president and the Republican Party. As Mikel Jollett (wincingly) put it on Twitter:
After Roy Moore said gay people should be put in jail,
After he said the country was better off under slavery,
After he said Muslims have no place in public life,
Even after he was outed as a serial pedophile,
The @GOP ENDORSED him and FUNDED his campaign.
— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) December 13, 2017
Considering Republicans’ recent losses in Virginia and New Jersey, a tide seems to be turning. Voter turnout amongst Republicans was low in Virginia and the rhetoric of GOP candidate for governor Ed Gillespie was offensive to some. The GOP now seems perilously close to losing some of its less populist Christian voters—especially those who are younger and perhaps less committed to the party and its messaging.
Roy Moore is not, after all, the first disagreeable character that the GOP has chosen to embrace and support in recent months: plenty of Christian conservative voters considered Donald Trump to be uncouth, brazen, offensive, and decidedly un-conservative in the traditional and philosophical understanding of the term. When push came to shove, many voted for him—but a substantial number chose to write in a different candidate, to vote for Hillary Clinton, or to stay at home.
At the time, frustration amongst young conservatives was high. I’ve talked to bright young people at Washington, D.C. think tanks and news organizations, nonprofits and businesses. I’ve read and heard the frustration of old church acquaintances and college friends across the country. Their voices have been loud and clear regarding Trump and Moore: these were not candidates they could support. How then could they still support the party that embraced and funded them?
It’s not that all these protesters are establishment conservatives. Not all belong to the National Review class of #NeverTrumpers, so often rejected and ridiculed by Trump’s acolytes. Many are just as wary of Washington’s stasis and elitism as the next person. They’re frustrated with congressional Republicans who have failed to get anything substantial done. Despite having majorities in the House and Senate—and a Republican president—Congress could not defund Planned Parenthood this year. Voices like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio—those who have pushed for a more pro-family agenda, one that might appeal to a broader circle of voters and complement the pro-life cause—have been cast aside by party leadership, which instead continues to placate its donor class.
The GOP seems to think they own Christian conservative voters because they have “nowhere else to go.” Most who ally themselves with the pro-life movement are not comfortable voting for vehemently pro-choice Democrats—even if they choose not to back Roy Moore, they’d rather write in a name or stay at home than vote for a politician like Doug Jones who dogmatically supports abortion. Many would be open to switching if the Democratic Party were to soften its stance on abortion, as Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi have both suggested. But most Democrats have only doubled down on their decisions to be unabashedly and unequivocally pro-choice.
Faced, then, with this sickening choice—between character and principle, vulgarity and murder—many pro-life voters will choose to stay home. It’s all too difficult to determine which is the “lesser of two evils.”
That said, not having a party with which to vote is deeply frustrating and concerning: principled conservatives shouldn’t be rendered voiceless and representative-less by our political process. And yet, if the Moores and Trumps continue to receive the support of the GOP, we will be.
The Republican Party may change course in response to Gillespie’s and Moore’s high-profile defeats. Both candidates employed rhetoric that mirrored Donald Trump’s. Both were not enough to galvanize Republican turnout, while Democratic and African-American voters in Alabama did a commendable job of showing up to vote.
But in fact, Republican strategists believe that Moore and Trump are only the beginning of the GOP’s populist revolt. As McKay Coppins recently reported for The Atlantic, “Steve Bannon has already pledged to field challengers for every incumbent Republican senator up for reelection next year.…And even if Bannon fails to deliver on his threat, many in the GOP worry that experienced, fully-vetted candidates are going to struggle to beat back a wave of rough-edged Trump imitators who lean into the white identity politics that the president ran on in 2016.”
Depending on the state, conservatives can continue to vote for the Ben Sasses, Mike Lees, and Rand Pauls of the Republican Party, upholding the few vestiges of principled conservatism left amongst its ranks. But even here, the GOP seems to have deserted its worthy few: how are these politicians going to effect change when they meet obstruction and opposition at every turn?
Perhaps there are some young and principled conservatives who might seek to run for office and could complement and add to the ranks of those who are striving to do what’s right. And of course, it’s important to encourage those who might feel equipped and eager for such a task. We need better politicians in Washington.
But where does that leave the rest of us who do not want to run for office, who do not have an upstanding conservative politician to support, and who feel deeply disillusioned by recent decisions of the GOP?
The only reasonable course of action at present, I would suggest, is for those voters to immerse themselves in local politics and private, grassroots conservative efforts—until one or both parties get(s) the picture or another party rises up (which is very unlikely).
Principled conservatism isn’t tied to the Republican party, after all: it exists beyond and above partisanship. The writings of 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke have undergirded and demarcated conservatism since its beginnings. Russell Kirk’s considerations of conservatism never prescribed specific political actions or partisanship affinities; rather Kirk suggested that conservatism is an underlying philosophy and moral framework, one that should never be chained to a specific political manifesto or tribe. Conservatism is various, prudent, and specific. In other words: conservatives don’t need a political party to complete them.
Don’t get me wrong: it would be nice to have some party or affiliation to ally with, to feel proud of. Many associate a sort of identity and patriotic affinity with their political party. To be party-less is to feel stranded and voiceless in America’s political system. But to choose a party despite alarming moral flaws in its candidates and platform will achieve little—in fact, it could do more harm than good.
Deserting the Republican Party would entirely change Christian conservatives’ relationship with their country. It would remove their voice almost entirely from the national political process, erasing the “moral majority” or “religious right” clout that many have grown to associate with modern evangelicalism in the United States. But it could save them from implosion—after all, in supporting candidates like Moore, Christians risk the indelible tarnishing of their witness.
It could be that quiet protest will serve a greater purpose than we can presently imagine, by re-focusing our efforts on the towns, communities, and neighborhoods that we have so long ignored or considered “less-than.” Perhaps this is exactly what Christian conservatives should have been doing all along: looking less to national movements and party affiliations, and more to neighbors and local needs. After all, we can still be the hands and feet of Christ without a Senate candidate to support.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.