The (Uneasy?) Conscience of a Conservative

Tweet Share

Throughout all of American history, every generation will probably associate Barry Goldwater with the image of a little girl in a field of flowers. The image, of course, is from a Lyndon Johnson television advertisement, in which a flower-picking little girl’s counting chant turns into a countdown to the detonation of a nuclear bomb.

I just finished watching CC Goldwater’s HBO documentary about her grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. The film, titled “Mister Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater” looks at the Arizonan’s life and legacy, featuring testimonies from figures as diverse as John McCain, Goldwater’s successor in his Senate seat, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was a “Goldwater Girl” in the 1964 election, conservative columnist George Will, newsman Walter Cronkite, and Democratic strategist James Carville. The documentary traces Goldwater’s libertarian political theory from his days on the far Right of the American political spectrum to his final days defending abortion rights and the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the United States Armed Services.

More interesting to me than the political significance of Goldwater highlighted in this film was the personal angle of the man known as “Mister Conservative.” In some respects, he was hard not to admire. A plain-spoken man who stuck to his convictions, he had a soft enough heart to use his ham radio avocation to connect American servicemen in Vietnam with their families back home, all without ever revealing his identity to them or to the American public.

And yet, the personal look at Goldwater on this film is also painful to watch at times. His daughter tells tearfully about desperately looking for any kind of approval from her father. She speaks of wanting more than anything to hear him say “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.” Instead, she says, he would pick up a newspaper and push her to the side. This daughter tells of becoming pregnant in the 1950s as a young engaged woman and aborting her child with the encouragement and assistance of her conservative father. It is difficult to watch the late senator’s son, former Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr., as craggy-faced as his father, welling up in tears as he speaks of how his father succeeded in politics but never as a Dad. The junior Goldwater seems to shake as he recalls how he spent his whole life looking, in vain, for the expressed love and approval of his father. It is heartbreaking to hear a family member say at the end of the film that the thing Goldwater loved more than anything in the world was the United States Senate.

I wonder how many men in our churches are leading similar lives, lives filled with acclaim and visible success, but with a hollowness in their homes. How many of our pastors are faithful to preach the truth and to stand for the Word of God, even as their children crave their love and attention? What does it profit if a man gains the whole world, or even the White House, and loses his own kids?

It’s a shame that Barry Goldwater will be remembered by an unfair political ad, that nameless little girl in a flower field. But what really counted was the little girl in his own backyard. Perhaps this film obscured the true affection and fatherly devotion of the late senator. I hope so. But let’s receive it as a warning that we only have one opportunity to carry out our most important calling.

In so doing, let’s image the Father for whom every fatherhood is named, the One who announced of His only begotten: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). In your heart, you know He’s right.

The culture is changing but it can be good news for the church.


Onward cover

About Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

More Russell Moore