In the middle of the 19th century, a new political party emerged dedicated to two great moral struggles. The Republican party pledged to fight the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.
By then, slavery was deeply entrenched in the culture of the American south. What some had regarded as a “necessary evil” that would gradually die out had been given a new lease on life by technological developments, and by the emergence of profitable overseas markets for cotton. An entire social and economic system was built on slavery. No longer was it reasonable to hope that the “peculiar institution,” and with it the moral controversy convulsing the nation, would quietly fade away. Powerful interests had a stake not only in maintaining the slave system, but in extending it into the western territories of the United States.
So the Republicans faced a daunting challenge. Pro-slavery Democrats condemned them as “fanatics” and “zealots” who sought to impose their religious scruples and moral values on others. Slaveholders demanded that they “mind their own business” and stay out of the “domestic” and “private” affairs of others. Defenders of a “right” to own slaves pointedly invited northern abolitionists to redirect their moral outrage towards the “wage slave” system in the north. “If you are against slavery,” they in effect said, “then don’t own a slave.”
By the mid-1850s, polygamy, which had originally been the largely secret practice of the Mormon elite, had come out of the closet. Polygamists claimed that attacks on “plural marriage” were violations of their right to religious freedom. Later, some would bring lawsuits asking judges to invalidate laws against polygamy as unconstitutional. One of these cases would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Apologists for polygamy denied that plural marriage was harmful to children, and challenged supporters of the ban on polygamy to prove that the existence of polygamous families in American society harmed their own monogamous marriages. They insisted that they merely wanted the right to be married in their own way and left alone.
But the Republicans stood their ground, refusing to be intimidated by the invective being hurled against them. They knew that polygamy and slavery were morally wrong and socially corrosive. And they were prepared to act on their moral convictions.
For the Republicans, the idea that human beings could be reduced to the status of mere “objects” to be bought and sold and exploited for the benefit of others was a profound violation of the intrinsic dignity of creatures made in the image and likeness of God. Similarly, the idea that marriage could be redefined to accommodate a man’s desire for multiple sexual partners was, as they saw it, deeply contrary to the meaning of marriage as joining a man and a woman in a permanent and exclusive bond.
In the great moral struggles of the 19th century, the Republicans sought advantage in every morally legitimate and available way. Where appropriate, they would accept strategic compromises on the road to victory; but they would not compromise away their principles.
When in the Dred Scott decision the Supreme Court of the United States announced its discovery of what amounted to a constitutional right of slaveholding, Lincoln and other leading Republicans refused to treat the case as a binding precedent. They would not bow to judicial usurpation. When Utah sought admission as a state, the Republican-controlled Congress made statehood conditional upon incorporation of a prohibition of polygamy into the state constitution.
As Republicans gather in New York this week, they would do well to remember their moral heritage. The twin relics of barbarism have returned in distinctively modern garb. Abortion and embryo-destructive research are premised on the proposition that some human beings–those in the embryonic and fetal stages of development–may legitimately be reduced to objects that can be created and destroyed for the benefit of others. At the same time, the ideology of sexual liberationism threatens to undercut the traditional understanding of marriage as the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman.
A familiar mantra of “pro-choice” politicians is that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Now, however, they seek to validate and fund a massive industry that would create human beings for the precise purpose of destroying them during the embryonic stage of development in biomedical research. What happened with slavery is now happening with embryo-killing: The people who used to defend it as a “necessary evil” to be resisted or lessened by means other than legal prohibition now promote it as a social good-something that law and government should not only tolerate but embrace and even promote.
At the same time, the sexual-liberationist movement seeks to undermine traditional understandings of the meaning and significance of human sexuality. The attempt to abolish the legal concept of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman is part of a larger effort to “liberate” people from what the cultural-political Left regards as outmoded and repressive ideas about the centrality of procreation and the moral requirement of fidelity in human sexual relationships. Even some leading “conservative” advocates of “same-sex marriage” have announced their moral acceptance of promiscuity; one has gone so far as to proclaim the “spiritual value” of “anonymous sex.” Increasingly, critics of traditional morality are willing explicitly to invoke the authority of ancient pagan civilizations in which practices (including abortion, infanticide, and homosexual conduct) condemned by the Judeo-Christian ethic sometimes flourished.
Critics of the Republican stand in defense of marriage and the sanctity of human life–including some within the party–echo the arguments of 19th-century apologists for the relics of barbarism. They accuse pro-life and pro-family Republicans of being “religious fanatics” who disrespect people’s liberty and seek to “impose their values” on others. “If you are against abortion,” they say, “then don’t have an abortion.” They maintain–often disingenuously–that legal recognition of the “marriages” of same-sex partners will not harm or weaken traditional marriages.
These arguments fare no better as defenses of human-embryo killing and the redefinition of marriage than they did of slavery and polygamy. Justice requires that all human beings irrespective of race or color, but also irrespective of age, or size, or stage of development, be afforded the protection of the laws. The common good requires that the laws reflect and promote a sound understanding of marriage as uniting one man and one woman in a bond founded upon the bodily communion made possible by their reproductive complementarity.
An influential minority in the Republican Party proposes abandoning, or at least soft-pedaling, the Party’s commitments to the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage and the family. They say that social issues are “too divisive.” They suppose that the easy road to Republican electoral success is as the party of low taxes and low morals. They counsel capitulation to judges who usurp the constitutional authority of the American people and their elected representatives.
Let Republicans be mindful of their heritage. It was moral conviction–and the courage to act on moral conviction–that gave birth to the Republican party and made it grand. Now it is old, but need not be any less grand. By summoning the moral courage that enabled their Party to stand proudly against the twin relics of barbarism in the 19th century, Republicans can bring honor upon themselves in the great moral struggles of our own day.
–Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, is a senior editor of Touchstone