South Carolina: The State that Booed the Golden Rule

As the post-mortem analysis of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary is written and we look ahead to the first Republican debate in Florida tonight, the thing that sticks with me most vividly from the South Carolina campaign was the reaction of the crowd in the Fox News debate, particularly when many in the audience booed Rep. Ron Paul for offering the notion of applying the Golden Rule to our nation’s foreign policy.

Just to recap, the candidates had been discussing foreign policy and Iran. Newt Gingrich had just offered some false bravado and empty rhetoric about killing terrorists. Paul then tried to inject a little sanity about not carelessly beating the war drums. Following the crowd’s boos, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry then engaged in a pissing contest to demonstrate who among them was the most macho warmonger.

To the crowd’s credit, they did cheer Paul 30 seconds after the initial boos when he finished his reply by imploring the country to bring the troops home and not delve into yet another needless war, saying, “This country doesn’t need another war [with Iran]. We need to quit the ones we’re in. We need to save the money and bring our troops home.”

This exchange brought two thoughts immediately to mind. First, it reminded me of a similar exchange from a presidential exchange four years earlier, also in South Carolina, in which Paul and Rudy Giuliani got into a heated exchange over U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq. Giuliani acted incredulous that Paul had the temerity to suggest that our foreign policies, specifically, over 50 years of meddling in the Middle East, have had unintended—and, oftentimes, negative—consequences. Giuliani’s response was greeted with wild cheers from the audience. Paul then schooled Giuliani and the others in attendance and those viewing the debate on our history of interventionism in the Middle East (namely, the U.S.-orchestrated coup d-état of the democratically-elected government of Iran in 1953 which installed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and ultimately led to over a quarter-century of the Shah’s brutal rule over the Iranian people) and the concept of “blowback,” which is described on Wikipedia as “the espionage term for unintended consequences of a covert operation that are suffered by the civil population of the aggressor government.”

I have since read many accounts of people, even former hardened neoconservatives, who, as a result of that exchange and further study, have since adopted noninterventionist foreign policy views based on Paul’s simple wisdom that we, as a nation, should not treat others in a manner in which we would not like to be treated. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge that the Golden Rule offers a simple and sound moral code of conduct. It applies as well to international relations as it does to personal relations.

Some of the Republican presidential candidates have noticed that the phrase “American exceptionalism” plays well with Republican audiences, and they tend to use it every opportunity they get. They generally misinterpret the term to mean that not only is American society (by which they really mean American government) the best in the world, but that this somehow gives us the moral right to act in ways that other societies and nations cannot. America is an exceptional nation, but it has come to be that way because of the ideals of freedom and opportunity that it has embodied, and its willingness to lead by example, not by throwing its weight around and imposing its notions of the way people should live their lives on other societies and nations. Regrettably, it has strayed from that path and must rededicate itself to embodying the principles of individual liberty, prosperity, and, yes, peace, if it is to once again be considered that “shining city upon a hill.”

Returning to the recent South Carolina debate, and the crowd’s reactions, my second thought was of the sheer bloodlust displayed by members of the audience. It was like a feeding frenzy of war propaganda. It recalled to me Mark Twain’s poignant short story, “The War Prayer.” (Apparently, the same thought occurred to Laurence Vance, who wrote an excellent article for on the same topic.) It is the story of a church congregation implored by its minister to pray for their nation’s troops during a time of war. After the preacher’s passionate sermon, an elderly stranger makes his way up the main aisle to the front of the church and announces to the congregation that what has just been uttered is only half of the prayer that has truly been made. He then proceeds to lay bare the horrors of war and the unspoken payer that they have also necessarily intended.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer—the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it—that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Let us hope that tonight’s debate—and the remainder of the presidential campaign—will be characterized by greater reflection and civility, and that the candidate’s views will be better informed by a respect for life (may they be as staunchly “pro-life” in international matters as they claim to be in domestic matters) and liberty.