While conservatives and Republicans of all stripes in political Washington last week were shamefully concocting a witch’s brew of internecine war, ideological cannibalism, and tactical incompetence, conservatives in supposedly sleepy Mobile, Ala., were being treated to a feast of reasoned discourse.
Thank goodness for places where the civic realm consists of more than politics.
First up, last Monday, was a visit by conservatism’s new superstar, Dr. Ben Carson, famous medically for separating conjoined twins and famous politically for actually talking sense in the presence of an obviously discomfited Barack Obama. While his remarks were more than a little politically tinged — he said political correctness is oppressive, Obamacare is an absolute menace, and freedom requires that government be limited — his main message in Mobile, as befitted his venue, was about the importance not just of education but of traditional-values-based education.
The venue was a fundraiser for a private, Christian elementary school called Prichard Prep, which serves a 99 percent black clientele from the impoverished town of Prichard, on Mobile’s northern border. Co-founded six years ago (and chaired) by Sandy Stimpson, who is now Mobile’s conservative mayor-elect, Prichard Prep is a success story almost as remarkable as Carson’s own saga of rising from poverty to prominence. (Full disclosure: I now serve on Prichard Prep’s board.) At Prichard Prep, non-denominational prayer is part of the routine, even the kindergarten students wear coats and ties, and most students read a full year and a half above grade level. Carson’s speech provided example after example of great achievements by a long line of black Americans who earned their successes by study, faith, and discipline.
Faith took center stage again the very next night in Mobile at another fundraiser attended by several thousand people, this time to benefit the Visitation Monastery, a retreat house run by cloistered nuns. The speaker was the remarkable Immaculée Ilibagiza, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide by hiding for 91 days with seven other women in a tiny, hidden bathroom. Winsome, emotionally open, and palpably devout, Ilibagiza held her audience rapt for nearly 90 minutes. She told of trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer for days during her ordeal but of finding her anger so strong that she tried editing out the part that tells us to “forgive those who trespass against us.” But the edited version provided no comfort, she said, and it was only when she embraced the full prayer and began praying the rosary (27 times daily! — but what else was there to keep her occupied?) that she found succor enough to survive.
Forgiveness is “cleansing” she said. “Be an agent of love.”
Two days later, faith more than politics remained the central topic. Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum zipped through the area en route to an event for a crisis-pregnancy center on the other side of Mobile Bay. At a private lunch for about a dozen people in Mobile, Santorum barely mentioned politics at all. Instead, attendees were struck by his relish and optimism as he waxed eloquent about his new role as president of Echo Light Studios. This company is dedicated to producing and widely distributing family- and faith-based films that have moral value while also being highly entertaining — in other words, movies that work as well-told stories rather than treacly or preachy screeds. Its first release under his leadership, The Christmas Candle, will hit theaters nationwide on November 22, and Santorum told people in Mobile that more good movies are on the way.
There was nothing religion-based about the fourth interesting visitor to Mobile last week (not in chronological order), the rightfully acclaimed libertarian journalist Radley Balko. Earlier in the evening that Immaculée Ilibagiza spoke, Balko appeared at the monthly meeting of Mobile’s chapter of the Federalist Society, where he told horror stories about how some police units have been breaking faith with our civil tradition of constraining government force. For those who follow this sort of thing, the sad litany is a familiar one. There was Kathryn Johnston, 92, mistakenly killed in a police raid in Atlanta in 2006. There was the viral video of a wildly brutal “drug raid” in Columbia, Mo., in 2010. And there are hundreds more stories like those, all showing a disturbing disconnect between justifiable ends and reasonable means.
“We’ve done a good job of keeping soldiers from being cops,” Balko said, referring in part to the nation’s Posse Comitatus Act, “but we’ve done a bad job . . . of keeping cops from acting like soldiers.”
What these four events shared was their demonstration that a vibrant civic culture can thrive largely apart from direct, competitive politics. Alas, politics intruded Wednesday at a forum for special-election congressional candidates in Fairhope, Ala., in advance of a Republican run-off primary. An ever-caustic GOP candidate named Dean Young continued a pattern of scurrilous attacks on the faith of conservative front-runner Bradley Byrne, despite Byrne’s demonstrably pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage voting record and a long history of devout lay leadership in the Episcopal Church.
Even acknowledging, as the fictional Mr. Dooley said, that “politics ain’t beanbag,” it remains a tragedy that politics so often becomes poisonous. Conservatives nationally would do well to emulate Carson, Stimpson, Santorum, Balko, and especially Ilibagiza — not Dean Young. Maybe there’s a place for smiting one’s enemies, but even in the political realm, there’s a bigger place, as Ilibagiza said, for being “an agent of love.”
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.