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Peter Schiefelbein: GOP’s ‘big tent’ shrinks to pup-tent size

MAPLETON, N.D. — I am writing in response to the column by Richard Viguerie (“GOP must oust TR’s legacy of progressivism,” Page 2F, May 11)).

Viguerie may be right that the Republican Party has been fighting a 102-year-long war within itself on the subject of small versus big government, but this is hardly reflective of the party at its founding.

The irony is that the “limited government” conservatism he represents as the salvation of the Republican Party actually is a mirror image of the Southern position on states’ rights before the Civil War.

Fearing that a strong federal government might pass laws prohibiting slavery, Southern leaders bandied about ideas such as nullification (the right of states to nullify federal laws they did not agree with within state borders) and secession, ideas which the Republican party of that day took a stand against but which are now to be found on the lips of several contemporary Republicans.

For example, Texas politicians have been talking about nullification and secession; Wisconsin Republicans recently passed a resolution maintaining that the state has a right to secede if federal laws become too egregious. Lincoln would have been horrified, as would be the thousands of Wisconsin veterans who fought to preserve the Union.

The South was to learn the hard way that a weak central government made it hard to fight a major war, while most scholars consider Lincoln to be the first practitioner of “big government” in his willingness to use whatever means necessary to hold the country together.

So, Viguerie probably should reject Lincoln along with TR, Eisenhower and other Republicans who understood that “big government” may well be a necessary evil and that the goal should be careful oversight and control of its excesses, not its elimination and the corresponding potential for fatally weakening America’s ability to vigorously defend itself in an increasingly volatile world.

Viguerie’s article represents for me the all-too-narrow ideological focus and self-righteous attitude which is bringing about the sad decline of a once-great political party. He and those who think like him seem bent on turning the Republican Party into a “boutique” party only responsive to the true believers among them.

Garrison Keillor used to talk about “The Church of the More Sanctified Brethren,” a church which broke off from the Sanctified Brethren in an argument over perfection. They knew they were right, even if their numbers were so reduced that they now met in living rooms. I would hate to see this become the fate of the Republican party.

If the Republicans can broaden their vision to embrace the whole of America, there is hope. But if they insist on letting ideology triumph over mere people, I fear we may well see the day when a new party must arise to take its place, one better able to provide the more moderate, representative balancing force this country needs to function at its best.

Rev. Schiefelbein is a Lutheran pastor.