Why aspiration must be fused with practical virtue
*Editor’s Note: this is the first piece in a new section at American Reformer where we will post (typically) shorter articles that are oriented more toward current events, briefer reflections on larger topics, short interactions with others, etc., primarily written by the editors and staff of American Reformer.
I’ve recently been considering the practical political aims of politically engaged Protestants. Protestants are famously cantankerous, and conservatives even more so. It’s joked that the various “isms’ ‘ within the conservative tent are the right’s equivalent of pronoun identities. The public watches in confusion as Magisterial Baptist post liberals debate the virtues of the American founding with paleoliberal Anglicans. Who can blame them? Ideological inflation, like gender inflation, smacks of distraction in an age in which practical considerations are ignored. Debating hypothetical regimes can be worthwhile, but the price of eggs, the efficiency of airliners, and the impact of price inflation matter too.
Someone made the astute point to me in a recent conversation that the Founding Fathers themselves disagreed vociferously over the nature of the regime they created. Southern agrarians fought bitterly with Northern business interests, and each left their mark on the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and finally, the Constitution. They did, however, agree unanimously that a virtuous public was a prerequisite to the proper functioning of our Republic. John Adams famously conveyed this sentiment to the Massachusetts Militia when he wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As we’ve seen over the past few decades, American institutions have capitulated to an absolutist vision of secularism and the temptations of graft. Our Republican structure, as a result, has slipped into dysfunction and suffered a catastrophic loss of prestige at home and abroad. A Congress willed to the people is now in the hands of a ruling elite paralyzed by their own corruption, incompetence, and entrenchment. Under the constraints of the present American regime, politically engaged Protestants aren’t in the position to comprehend a new Geneva, much less build it.
What, then, should our aims be? In lieu of utopian striving, our movement should focus primarily on recovering the foundational-era virtue that enabled the success of our early Republic. We, like the Founders, will disagree on many things. This journal, and the broader discourse, will eventually mark out the proper boundaries of a coalitional tent. But anyone who knows “what time it is” will know that our movement’s play clock is winding down to zero. We have to snap the ball. We have to begin the process of recovering virtue. It’s a simple question of field position. Will we throw a hail mary, or will we advance our arguments to the redzone, where we can score efficiently? Belaboring the use of football as a metaphor and model, I suggest embracing Nick Saban’s coaching philosophy as a practical guide for political restoration. Saban, the architect of Alabama’s athletic reign of terror and the winningest coach of all time, leads his program with a simple ethic:
People want to focus on outcomes, and I think outcomes are a bit of a distraction. Instead, leaders should focus on the process — that is, doing the things big and small that will produce the outcome they want to achieve.
In the case of our movement, as noted, our desired outcomes are hazily defined. Opportunities to recover America’s foundational virtue, however, are plentiful. In the same way that national rankings, media coverage, and individual awards distract Alabama from the ultimate goal of contending for a national title, overfocusing on the nature of hypothetical regimes can serve as a distraction from the immediate task of recovering enough of our founding national virtue to enable meaningful reform. Yardage, first downs, and points add to national championships for the Tide. Lawsuits, local elections, procedural reform, charity, and thousands of other actions, large and small, will move us closer to our opportunity to enact change. Some of Saban’s championship teams have been defensively dominant, and some offensively dominant. All of Saban’s championship teams have prioritized the minutiae of process over final scorelines. Primetime blowouts are only a residual of their process-oriented methodology. If our movement embraces the same philosophy, the margins and composition of our victories will vary, but our movement will be back in the business of winning.
What does a process-oriented movement to recover virtue look like? The recent battle for Speaker of the House provides an example. Twenty House Republicans spent a week holding up Kevin McCarthy’s coronation as Speaker to extract structural restoration of House rules. Frustrated by the century-long consolidation of Congressional power into the Speaker’s office, the aforementioned Republican holdouts withheld their votes to force Leader McCarthy to weaken his own office and restore the historical role of the Speaker as arbiter rather than quasi-executive. Congressman Chip Roy of Texas led the charge and explained his reforms to the Congressional rules package to a frustrated GOP conference during a powerful floor speech:
We should be in here having this kind of a conversation with this many people in the room about Ukraine, and we should debate the merits, and we should debate the ups and downs of being involved. We should debate the $45 billion dollars. We should debate whether it should be more or less… The only way you’re going to get that is if you change the rules and have the leadership to advance the rules.
Despite lesser members of the House failing to understand Rep. Roy’s machinations, Roy ultimately received significant rules concessions from McCarthy. The result? A humbled Speakership that constrains the power of parties, lobbyists, and fundraisers and the undoing of a century of power consolidation–from Sam Rayburn to Nancy Pelosi. Individual members of Congress now hold the keys to our Republic’s future, not the Conference’s most talented fundraiser and interest broker.
By restoring the “People” to the “People’s House,” the twenty Republican holdouts have shown how striving to do good within the constraints of our current system sets the stage for more significant policy wins. Rather than spending the first days of Congress casting meaningless votes for Speaker McCarthy’s dull “Contract with America,” the Congress is preparing for budget battles and investigations into bureaucratic abuse–priorities of the people over the priorities of Washington. A new political battlefield oriented towards the demands of a free people rather than the whims of special interests. By focusing on a House rules package in the same way Nick Saban would concentrate on a third-down conversion, the right inched closer to victory.
In the future, my contributions to American Reformer will focus on how we, as Protestant conservatives (if you accept the moniker), can recover requisite virtue in the public sphere to enable a new era of debate about the more foundational moral issues. I will leave distant outcomes to the theorists. There are more capable writers and thinkers who will conceive the next Geneva, but I hope that my contributions will serve as a playbook that advances us toward our shared goals.
*Image Credit: Unsplash