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THE CULTURE WARS : Political Evangelists Callous to Lost Souls

November 26, 1995|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek is a professor of history and policy studies at UCLA. He is the author of several books on recent U.S. history, including "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," which will be published in 1996 by Hyperion

By any sensible standard, political evangelism should be seen as an oxymoron. How can politics--the art of the possible--be linked to fixed truths like the sanctity of life, a woman's right to choose and family values? For the pure in heart, compromise is a dirty word, and accommodation an abandonment of principle. As Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne's comic character, said, the true believer "does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts in th' case."

Political evangelists have been with us since the start of the republic. The Moral Majority, pro-life and pro-choice advocates, the National Rifle Assn. and Common Cause activists are just the latest in a long line of American moralists. Were the Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Free Silverites, Prohibitionists, Klansmen of the 1920s, One Worlders of the 1940s and segregationists of the 1960s so different from the "single-issue" proponents of our day? The goals may have changed but the intensity of purpose and purity of motive are as familiar as the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. The politically correct and politically incorrect may have a different twist on what will advance and destroy the American way of life, but they share a claim on doing the Lord's work--or at least what the Lord would back if he knew the truth.

American politics, of course, has not been strictly the stuff of moral crusades. Far from it. Pragmatism, experimentation, opportunism--an affinity for substantial give-and-take--have always, except for the Civil War, been central to the nation's conduct of public affairs. In 1968, for example, after four years of civic disorders over race and Vietnam, the country faced a choice between Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon, two of the most familiar and conventional politicians on the national scene.

But America's propensity for practical politics has always gone hand in hand with an attraction to visionaries--the Theodore Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilsons, Franklin D. Roosevelts and Ronald Reagans--who, preaching from the bully pulpit, stirred us to actions that seemed to promise a better future for people everywhere. In and of itself, moralism or idealism is not to be dismissed or despised. It will no more disappear from U.S. political life than the institutional arrangements set in place 208 years ago.

But the principal question for our day, as we watch the congressional Republicans dismantle pieces of the 60-year-old welfare state, is: What kind of idealism, or moralism, best serves the national well-being? There were, after all, huge distinctions in the past between those who single-mindedly fought to preserve segregation and those who worked to end it. The idealists who see social engineering as a nostrum for the economic suffering of the less affluent are worlds apart from the free marketeers who see economic pain as an inescapable part of industrial and post-industrial society.

There is an important difference between idealists who strive to build and those who aim to cut, if not eliminate, many government programs put in place in this century. Lyndon B. Johnson and longtime Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, two of our strongest advocates of government activism, saw a yawning divide between the two philosophies.

In 1965, when Alabama's segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace defied federal efforts to assure black voting rights, Johnson asked him: "What do you want left after you die? Do you want a great . . . big marble monument that reads, 'George Wallace--He Built'? . . . Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, 'George Wallace--He Hated'?" Rayburn believed that "any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a skilled carpenter to build one."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.), Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.), and other Republicans battling to fulfill the "contract with America" would strongly dispute the allegation that they are intent on dismantling anything. To the contrary, they describe themselves as preserving Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, environmental protection and a host of other government programs from the tax-and-spend Democrats, whose affinity for unbalanced budgets and wasteful bureaucracies will bankrupt their programs and the country.

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