“Politics for the Greatest Good” by Clarke D. Forsythe


Clarke D. Forsythe, Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009). $23.00, 319 pages.

The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, taken together with the Democratic control of the Senate and House since 2006, was a frustrating event for the pro-life movement in America. Obama is the most pro-choice president ever elected, and the Democratic Party is the most powerful institution in the pro-choice movement. Pro-lifers expect to see pro-choice executive orders, pro-choice legislation, and pro-choice appointments to the federal bench.

Clarke D. Forsythe wrote Politics for the Greatest Good in part to address that frustration. He is senior counsel to Americans United for Life and a leading policy strategist in the pro-life movement. But in larger part, he wrote the book to answer a nagging question: “whether it’s moral or effective to achieve a partial good in politics and public policy when the ideal is not possible.” He answers affirmatively, and along the way helps readers understand the nature and value of prudence in the public square, especially when it comes to enacting a pro-life legislative agenda.

Prudence does not rank high on a modern person’s list of politically sexy terms. Why trade in the quotidian retail of prudence, after all, when you could traffic wholesale in hope, change, and fierce moral urgency? Why settle for anything but the very best? The answer is simple. The best—moral perfection—is unattainable. All anyone can hope to achieve is the greatest good under the circumstances. The ability to identify and realize that greatest good is the virtue of prudent statesmen and citizens.

Prudence was not always held in contempt. It is highly esteemed in the Bible, especially in the Wisdom Literature. It was one of the four cardinal virtues, recognized by Greeks, Romans, and medieval Christians. It was also considered a virtue by the American Founders, who regarded it as a key component of republican self-government.

According to Harry V. Jaffa, whom Forsythe cites repeatedly and appreciatively, the classical understanding of prudent statesmanship revolved around four questions:

  • Is the goal worthy?
  • Does the political leader exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible?
  • Does he or she successfully apply means to ends?
  • Does he or she preserve the possibility of future improvement when all the good cannot be immediately achieved?
  • Forsythe argues that both William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln were model statesmen in their fights against the slave trade and for the union, respectively. Wilberforce modeled perseverance, as his opposition to the slave trade took forty-five years to come to ultimate fruition. Lincoln modeled judgment, as he repeatedly made hard choices to maintain the union without allowing the spread of slavery. Of the two, Lincoln is more controversial among modern historians, who point to his suspension of habeas corpus and other civil rights violations as examples of bad statesmanship. But Forsythe argues, convincingly to my mind, that Lincoln did the best he could under the circumstances.

    Of course, each man faced challenges not only from slavers and secessionists, but from fellow partisans advocating and working toward immediate and full abolition, despite the absence of widespread support for such a policy. In the American context, this radical abolitionism occasionally resulted in John Brown-style violence. This “challenge of moral perfectionism,” as Forsythe calls it, condemns prudence as complicity in injustice. The recent assassination of late-term abortionist George Tiller by Scott Roeder reminds us that such moral perfectionism is present even in today’s controversies. (Although it should be pointed out that every pro-life organization, including the radical Operation Rescue, condemned the assassination.)

    If the proof is in the pudding, then the proof of prudence is the success of both Wilberforce and Lincoln in their respective endeavors, which not only ended great evils, but also preserved great goods (the union, in Lincoln’s case). That Lincoln’s successors frittered away Lincoln’s successes by allowing the rise of Jim Crow segregation is a black mark on them, not on him.

    Forsythe takes these lessons, both philosophical and historical, and applies them to the abortion controversy and related bioethical issues in the final chapters of the book. He argues on principled grounds that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, but he recognizes that the Supreme Court is unlikely to do so on its own and that a constitutional Human Rights Amendment is unlikely to pass. Therefore he advocates an incremental strategy to draw fences around America’s abortion regime, primarily at the state level. The Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence now allows for some restrictions on abortion. States may require waiting periods, parental consent, and informed consent, among other things, and they may also prohibit outright certain types of late-term abortion. Forsythe urges pro-lifers to advocate such measures.

    He also urges them to begin thinking through model legislation for other controversial issues, such as cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization. In many states, the law lags behind scientific development, operating in a sort of legislative vacuum. Forsythe urges pro-lifers to extend their thinking so that nascent human life is protected in these cases as well.

    At the outset of this review, I noted that Forsythe wrote Politics for the Greatest Good to address pro-lifers’ frustration with the election of President Obama and the setback for achieving pro-life goals that it entails. But such frustration should call forth more, not less, pro-life activism:

    It may seem counterintuitive, but one solution to the frustration that results from high expectations in politics is to get more involved and better informed…. By spending more time understanding politics and public policy, we can have more confidence that we know how to contend with the obstacles to political reform and have a better understanding of which candidates or party have a better grasp on just and effective solutions.

    I cannot imagine a better insight with which to close my review of this informative book.

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