One reason Frank Capra's film "It's a Wonderful Life" still resonates powerfully is that it hits home to all of us by showing what would have happened had main character George Bailey never lived. It's easy to see failure, but hard to see how things would have been much worse -- how Bedford Falls would have become Potterville.
"One life touches so many others" -- and the same is true about political and social movements. It's easy to see the failure of the pro-life movement in not stopping abortion. It's harder to remember that some liberals were predicting that America would have 4 million abortions yearly by now, and that the number of abortions has declined in recent years from 1.6 million to a still grisly 1.2 million.
"The Christian Right in American Politics" (Georgetown University Press, 2003; multiple authors) is one of the many books that accentuate the negative. In South Carolina, said to be the Christian Right's top state, "Concrete policy changes resulting from ... agenda victories have been modest, and sometimes temporary." In Virginia, "A quarter-century of activism has not yielded a major change in the state public's attitudes toward social issues." In Texas, the Christian Right "has exerted a great amount of influence over the Republican Party" but "has been somewhat less effective in winning elections and controlling policy outcomes in the state."
Other chapters are about Florida, where Christian Right success has been "limited in terms of its role in passing statewide legislation," and the Midwest, where the Christian Right has had "mixed success in Michigan. ... Although the CR remains a major force in Kansas political and social life, its triumphs have been limited. ... Strong bark, weak bite in Minnesota politics." In Colorado, "the presence of fiscally conservative but socially moderate or libertarian Republicans has prevented the CR from controlling the Republican Party, nominating congenial candidates and passing ballot issues," and in the Pacific Northwest, the Christian Right "is very likely to continue to be frustrated in its efforts to achieve its ultimate policy ends."
All of that sounds grim. It's certainly true that overselling of what the Christian Right could accomplish has often led to disappointment. Mistakes are evident, at least in hindsight. But the book's chapter on Iowa includes a sentence that should probably appear in every chapter: the Iowa Christian Right "has not obtained a large number of changes in public policy, although it has prevented the enactment of liberal policies." Stopping the liberal bulldozer is not as dramatic as standing in front of a column of tanks -- remember the photo from Tiananmen Square 15 years ago? -- but it also takes courage.
Heroic leadership is not necessarily the spectacular. George Washington first became famous for surviving a battle. But his effort from 1775 through 1781 deserves double honor, because he persevered despite loss after loss and only the rare, small victory at Princeton or Trenton. His success lay in keeping the British from having success.
These days, every time a liberal academic complains that the United States is behind the times -- oh, would that we lived in Sweden or France, where they have socialist onions and leeks a-plenty -- the Christian Right should smell a bit of victory. That should not lead to complacency -- if your defense is on the field almost all the time, sooner or later a safety or cornerback will slip and the opposition will score. But it also should not generate a mood of defeatism.
Also, we should not necessarily assume that one liberal victory portends the next. The left may become more shrill, because -- as Anthony Daniels wrote in the May 2003 issue of an interesting journal, The New Criterion -- "the disparity between what is expected of social and political change, and what it actually produces in the way of personal satisfaction, is laid all too bare. The increased shrillness is a sign of existential desperation."
Those in despair may push further, or -- if a Francis Schaeffer is there to guide them -- they may find true grounds for hope.