WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On March 6, 1860, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech in New Haven, Connecticut, on the great moral issue of his time: slavery.
Reported by the Daily Palladium newspaper, the speech contained a lesson for modern Republicans who like to invoke Lincoln's memory as the first of their party to win the presidency. It is a reminder to today's Republicans of the strength of an idea that is good and right and the power of that idea to persuade if it is not diluted or compromised.
Said Lincoln, ''What we want, and all we want, is to have with us the men who think slavery is wrong. But those who say they hate slavery, and are opposed to it, but yet act with the Democratic Party -- where are they? Let us apply a few tests.
''You say that you think slavery is wrong, but you denounce all attempts to restrain it. Is there anything else that you think is wrong, that you are not willing to deal with as wrong? Why are you so careful, so tender of this one and no other? You will not let us do a single thing as if it was wrong! We must not call it wrong in the Slave States because it is there; we must not call it wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics, and we must not call it wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion; we must not bring it into the Tract Society or the other societies, because those are unsuitable places, and there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong.''
Substitute the word ''abortion'' for the word ''slavery,'' read Lincoln's remarks again, and we have the debate within the modern Republican Party that exploded last weekend in St. Louis with the election of a new party chairman, Haley Barbour, who says he opposes abortion. Said Mr. Barbour, ''If we make abortion a test of being a Republican, we need our heads examined.'' In this case, substitute the word ''slavery'' for the word ''abortion,'' and we have returned to the debate of 1860.
The rap against modern Republicans is that they lack a message. No, they don't. The message of a social order based on transcendent moral principles that serve as a foundation for an economic and political order is as critical to the party in 1993 as it was in 1860.
The problem for modern Republicans is an uncertain trumpet playing from different sets of sheet music. The disarray in the GOP is caused by Was it zealotry or principle that led President Clinton to address abortion and homosexual rights as the first two items on his social agenda? Why shouldn't Republicans be just as zealous?
the reluctance of too many modern Republicans to speak the truth and to call wrong the things that are wrong. Nothing that a heavy dose of conviction wouldn't cure.
Former GOP Chairman Rich Bond warned against clinging to ''zealotry masquerading as principle.''
He should have warned against the greater danger of cowardice disguised as principle, of running away from issues simply because they are difficult. Avoiding tough choices will not and should not earn the respect, the trust or the votes of a majority of the electorate.
Was it zealotry or principle that led President Clinton to address abortion and homosexual rights as the first two items on his social agenda? Why shouldn't Republicans be just as zealous about their principles as the Democrats are about theirs?
Republicans lost the White House not because they were too zealous, but because it appeared their leader had no principles, at least none for which he was willing to fight. Accommodation sounds good and gentlemanly, but it too often resembles appeasement and vacillation.
The suggestion that Republicans with moral concerns can be ignored, or their concerns subordinated to economic issues, is a prescription for disaster and a return to the type of Republican politics that caused the GOP to lose so many elections. How soon some Republicans forget that it was the advent of conservative evangelicals within the Republican Party and morally concerned Democrats outside of it that provided the margin and vision for victory for a dozen years.
Irving Kristol wrote in the Wall Street Journal the other day: ''The Democrats are never going to be able to welcome the religious, but if the Republicans keep them at arm's length instead of embracing them, and shaping their political thinking, a third party and a restructuring of American politics are certain. One way or another, in the decades ahead, they will not be denied.''
If Republicans ''me too'' Democrats on the social issues, then why have a Republican Party at all? A majority voted Republican in recent elections because they believed Republicans could slow or reverse the social decay they saw Democrats as having created.
That confidence in Republicans as keepers of a moral flame was born with the party of Abraham Lincoln. Will it die with the party of Rich Bond and Haley Barbour?
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.