]Washington halls are alive with the sound of musings about a coming GOP crackup. That may come, but let’s admit that the Republican Party from its start has had a crack that never disappeared.
A Grand New Party grew in the 1850s from the alliance of a toddler and a geriatric. The toddling Free-Soil Party’s slogan was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men.” Free-Soilers were mid-19th-century compassionate conservatives. “Free soil” out West would let more Americans become farm owners rather than hired hands. The three other “frees” were an attack on slavery.
Whigs made up the geriatric party. They often favored major banking and manufacturing interests. As Whigs split over slavery, Northern Whigs saw the Republican Party as their horse to ride. Southern Whigs often joined the short-lived Know-Nothing Party, which railed against immigrants.
During the 52 years from 1860 to 1912, Americans elected to the presidency one Democrat, Grover Cleveland, and eight Republicans. Republicans initially emphasized help to African-Americans and to the poorer and middle classes. Even after Republicans abandoned ex-slaves, one magazine in 1882 still called it the PMP (“Party of Moral Principle”). But a different principle gained favor during the late 19th century: Those who accepted Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theories often applied them to humans as well as animals.
Social Darwinism infiltrated Republican ranks. William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal priest who abandoned faith in Christ, became a Yale professor famous for his “acidic style” of characterizing opponents and the poor: He said “A man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence.”
The original Republican Party crack between Free-Soilers and Whigs grew wider. Meanwhile, Democrats also had their crack: Some Northern Democrats fought social Darwinism by becoming social universalists in favor of big governmental welfare programs. Some Southern Democrats used a sharecropping system and armed intimidation to re-enslave many African-Americans.
Let’s cut to the present. Late last month Speaker of the House Paul Ryan spoke of how he used to differentiate between “makers” and “takers” in our country -- “but as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong.”
Ryan once had his staffers read Ayn Rand, the 20th century’s most influential social Darwinian novelist, but his street-level encounters with poverty in recent years—under the tutelage of my friend and teacher Bob Woodson—seem to have overcome the makers vs. takers bipolar thinking that Rand propounded and both Ryan and Mitt Romney echoed in 2012.
The real divide is between the entitled heart—“I grabbed it; I built it; I deserve it; it’s mine”—and the grateful heart. The entitlement vs. gratitude divide cuts through the hearts of each of us; but when we believe in God, we remember that we don’t plan our births, choose our parents, or pick our brain sizes, looks, or athletic abilities. We do have personal responsibility not to squander what God gives us, but the ability to use well His gifts also comes from God.
WORLD is in one sense a Free-Soil magazine. We update the four “frees” by reporting on ways to help the four “uns”: the unborn, the uneducated, the unemployed, and the unsung good Samaritans among us. We’re for compassionate conservatism in its 1990s goal of reducing government. We’re for street-level programs that really help the poor, not suite-level ones that create new plantations.
This year’s GOP presidential campaign has been gruesome, but maybe it’s reminding us to put no trust in princes, only in God. Could a new Republican Party bring in millions of Democrats not through fear but by showing that social universalism’s tender mercies are cruel and only approaches consistent with the Bible work?
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