New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared before the Faith and Freedom Coalition on Friday. In contrast with many other speakers, he refused to play into the victimology mind-set. (President Obama is destroying the United States. Religion is under attack. The country’s morals are corrupted.) Instead he chose to speak about what the crowd could and should do for others. He told the audience: “I believe if you are pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life. You can’t just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb.” He explained, “When we say we’re pro-life, we need to be pro-life for the entire life. We need to stand up for the hurt and the wounded. From the womb until natural death, we need to be there even for those who stumble and fall, to be there to lift them up. To me that’s the true meaning of being pro-life.”
Christie often talks in this way, particularly with regard to his initiative to fight addiction. Every life is precious, every person deserves a second chance. It’s not simply a nice sentiment, but it should be at the core of an agenda that promotes opportunity and allows people to go beyond the circumstances of their birth. It is in fact the way many governors speak. They don’t dwell on the abstract and don’t treat every audience as members of the Federalist Society. They speak about helping people. Creating opportunity. Fixing problems. They don’t have the luxury of spending their days simply speechifying. Christie’s message is noteworthy in a few respects.
First, the focus is on action — what they can do for others. Too often the right these days appears angry, put upon or overwrought. The tendency to paint the United States as already a fallen nation, the victim of enforced secular liberalism, is all too familiar. They are besieged by the president, by the federal government, by Hollywood, by gay rights advocates, by the MSM, by nearly everyone. The government is spying on you. You should fear the government more than anything else. Not only is this exaggerated, but also at some point the gloom-and-doom talk fosters a sense of helplessness and despair. There is plenty to be done to help others rather than bemoaning one’s fate.
Second, there are plenty of Americans who are truly hurting. It seems time to get the conservative movement’s priorities straight. Addiction, crime, children without fathers, mental illness and poverty (which often results from the others) could use the attention and intervention of people of faith. Certainly, all citizens should protest government overreach and injustice, but at some point this becomes self-centered. Shouldn’t the priorities be to help in ways Christian conservatives have correctly concluded government is ineffectual? It is not merely the call to better the financial condition of the poor, but to attend to what Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) calls the “other marriage debate,” promoting family unity and encouraging young people to finish school, marry and then have children.
The other speaker to sound a similar theme was not a politician, but Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. As he often does when he talks to conservative crowds, Brooks implored them to focus each day on those less powerful and less well-off than they. He’s been at the center of the reform conservative movement, which seeks to replace the failed liberal welfare state with an effective conservative agenda that allows Americans, especially those in the low and middle sections of the economic ladder to achieve a better life for themselves. This year Brooks wrote: “Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right. It must be tangible, practical, and effective. And it must start with the following question: What do the most vulnerable members of society need? This means asking the poor themselves.” He went on to argue:
Fighting for people doesn’t mean a catalog of massive government programs. It means thinking carefully about who is in need and how their need can best be met. In some cases, such as caring for the truly poor and defending our allies around the world, the right solution may well involve the government. In others—such as a crumbling culture, needy children caught in ineffective schools, entrepreneurs struggling to start businesses, or people permanently dependent on the state—the proper conservative answer is for the government to stop creating harm and get out of the way. In both cases, conservatives can and should be equally bold warriors for vulnerable people. The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do. Such an experiment cannot guarantee success. But its spark will relight the fires of hope in a wearied country that 64 percent of Americans feel is “off on the wrong track.” In ethical, emotional, and potentially even electoral terms, no opportunity could be more promising than this opening to champion those who need our help.
The right, and the GOP specifically, risks becoming too inward-directed. Tea party vs. establishment. Courts vs. the faithful. Obama vs. them. The government vs. them. The message Brooks and Christie carry is the far more productive one, and ultimately the one that will resonate with fellow Americans who don’t think in abstract philosophical terms about government and don’t necessarily aspire to build a business. They don’t consider the government to be their mortal enemy. They want a better life and they’d like to hear what pols are going to do to make it easier, not harder, to achieve the American dream.
Candidates sometimes forget that elections are about voters — what they need. The candidates who understand this have won half the battle. The other half is presenting a plausible agenda that puts into practice their voter-centric focus. The 2016 contenders would be well-advised to follow the Christie-Brooks example rather than simply rant about how Obama has done them wrong. Of course he has, but now what?