I sometimes ask my students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists. They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery and worked tirelessly to end it.

Of course, this is nonsense. Many of them would have stayed quiet, whether or not they were benefiting from slavery.

So I respond by saying that I will credit their claim only if they can show evidence that, in leading their lives today, they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied — even when this moral witness made them unpopular with their peers, loathed and ridiculed by powerful individuals and institutions, abandoned by their friends, and at risk of being denied valuable professional opportunities.

In short, my challenge is for them to show me evidence that, at real risk to themselves and their futures, they have stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.

In 1856, at their first convention in Philadelphia, it was members of the newly formed Republican Party who sought to do just that — putting their success and their futures on the line by loudly and courageously proclaiming their opposition to slavery.

Those early Republicans knew that standing by their convictions on slavery would cost them votes, and would probably result in their party’s defeat in the general election. Nevertheless, the first Republican delegates adopted a platform calling for Congress to oppose slavery even when the Southern states — and much of the federal government — were dominated by the mighty “slave power.”

The Republicans did, in fact, go on to lose the 1856 election to James Buchanan, a slavery sympathizer staunchly opposed to the abolitionist movement. But four years later, the Republican presidential nominee — a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln whose political experience consisted of one two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives — was elected. In the ensuing years and decades, Congress would go on to dismantle the slave system, targeting it and the racial discrimination that Republicans knew would follow in the wake of abolition, through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Now, in 2024, the Republican Party is again faced with a moral choice. Powerful forces, with the imprimatur of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are pushing for a weakening of the party platform’s opposition to the killing of unborn babies by abortion and the redefinition of marriage as merely a form of sexual-romantic domestic companionship to accommodate same-sex partners. Many people, including some powerful Republicans, consider the Republican Party’s long-held defense of unborn human life and the traditional understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife to be a political liability, out of touch with opinion polls and prevailing cultural trends, and likely to harm the party at the ballot box.

Related
Americans want moral leaders more than practical outcomes
Perspective: From Clinton to Trump, James Dobson was right about our moral tailspin

Some Republican convention delegates openly promise that this year’s party platform will be “more socially moderate” — a thinly veiled euphemism for the abandonment of the truth about the sanctity of human life and the nature of marriage, and willful capitulation to the progressive social dogmas which currently find favor among our society’s elite.

This must not be permitted to happen. Just as their forefathers did in 1856, Republicans today must have the courage to speak moral truth — even when the political headwinds appear at first glance to be daunting. Republicans knew then, as they surely know now, that arguments about political expediency or electoral palatability fare no better as defenses of whitewashing the killing of unborn children and lying about the nature of marriage than they did of slavery.

291
Comments

Justice requires that all human beings — irrespective of race, ethnicity or color, but also irrespective of age, size, disability or stage of development — be protected by the law from intentional killing. The common good requires that the laws not reduce the meaning of marriage to mere sexual-romantic companionship between whoever and however many partners a person may desire. Instead, the laws must reflect and promote a sound understanding of marriage as uniting one man and one woman in a conjugal bond founded upon a bodily communion made possible by their reproductive complementarity.

Of course, there are entirely legitimate debates to be had concerning the best means of reconciling political prudence with timeless moral truths; on that subject, I commend to you a document published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, of which I am a signatory. However, there is nothing morally prudent or ethically defensible about what is going on here: a craven effort to erase the truth from the Republican Party’s platform and substitute ambiguities, or even falsehoods, in its place. Compromising on moral substance, or seeking to deny or erase it, is never acceptable — regardless of the political circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Political expediency, short-term electoral success or reelecting Donald Trump are not things that justify setting aside, or going silent on, moral truth. “It profiteth a man” — and we might add a political party and, indeed, a nation — ”nothing to give his soul for the entire world.” Republican leaders would do well to remember that.

Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.