(Centennial Fellow) Energized by the Tea Party, a conservative comeback ostensibly rolls into Washington this month. But are the results desired truly going to happen?
Conservatives have two well-established, honorable impulses: they want a free country and they want a virtuous country.
Unfortunately, the strategy of numerous conservatives in acting upon these impulses has been failing for decades.
That’s because of this important axiom: when Americans ask their Federal Government to deliver both freedom and virtue, they will ultimately get neither.
The problem is this: a key number of Christian conservatives ask their Federal Government to deliver both freedom and virtue. And Washington’s obliging, persistent installation of coerced, often fake, “virtues” reduces the freedom of all Americans.
Decades ago, Washington started assuming that an essential purpose of the Federal Government is to define and enforce the personal virtues of Americans. So, by now, Washington is deeply committed to ensuring that Americans’ personal behaviors are conformed to “government standards,” like Americans buying the “correct” light bulbs, purchasing compulsory health coverage, and teaching six-year-olds “enlightened” sex education in public schools.
In this way, America is inexorably moving beyond economic socialism to “virtue-socialism.” Not content with just the leveling of economic resources of Americans, Washington relentlessly works to level the virtues of Americans.
Simply stated, the Federal Government is in the “virtue business.” That’s because Article I, Section 11 of the Constitution says, “Congress shall have the power to define and enforce personal virtues to be adhered to by the people.”
Just kidding, of course. That provision of the Constitution doesn’t exist. But you couldn’t prove that by perusing the voluminous laws and regulations conforming citizens’ personal behaviors to Washington’s whims.
Key leaders on the supposedly conservative side, including Christians, have often bought into the assumption that the Federal Government should be in the virtue business. Hence: The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. No Child Left Behind. The latest “family-friendly” Federal policy.
But the results are clear: Federal policies simply entrench the Federal Government’s power and its constituent base. The long-standing strategic mistake is to agree that the Feds should be in the virtue business at all. So, a crucial number of well-meaning conservatives who think they are fighting the good fight are instead fighting the wrong fight.
Rather, there is a truly conservative, Constitution-honoring strategy: “freedom nationally, virtue locally.” Virtue is not generated by Federal Government policy. Virtue percolates effectively bottom-up, by a clarion call to individuals, and by inculcation of values in families, churches, local associations, and communities. Americans own their own virtues—apart from the Federal Government. That’s part and parcel of their religious liberty.
Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Well, contrary to conventional wisdom, in America “Caesar” is not the Federal Government. Caesar is “the people, bound by the Constitution.” And the people, via the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, did not delegate the defining and enforcing of Americans’ personal virtues to the Federal Government.
So, is self-inflicted defeat of their own political goals once again likely for conservatives?
Not if the elected officials substantively endorse the American people’s local discretion and strategically install “freedom nationally, virtue locally.” That’s the only clear path for American greatness.
Perhaps meaningful change will start with the 112th Congress. Godspeed.
Kevin Miller is the author of the just-published Freedom Nationally, Virtue Locally—or Socialism and a Centennial Institute Fellow.© Kevin Miller