The Republican Party is having a "Come to Jesus" moment, as the old folks used to say when I was growing up in Alabama. The expression refers to when someone has to make a decision that could change his life forever. The decision facing Republicans is whether to choose Donald Trump or a similar ultra-conservative as their standard bearer, or scratch their way back to the middle ground, where the 2016 presidential election is likely to be decided.

The most liberal congressman in Alabama when I was a child was a Republican, John Buchanan, whose Sixth District constituency included Birmingham. It was hard for a Republican to be elected anything in Alabama in the 1960s. A hundred years after the Civil War, the party of Lincoln was still the enemy in Dixie. But Buchanan won his seat on the coattails of a man just as conservative as Alabama Democrats on many issues – Barry Goldwater – who lost the presidential race to Lyndon B. Johnson by a landslide, but energized a right-wing surge that elected Buchanan and four other Republicans from Alabama to Congress in 1964.

Buchanan could hardly be called a liberal when he began his congressional career. In fact, he voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But as the Alabama Republican Party outflanked Democrats by moving further and further to the right, Buchanan leaned more and more in the opposite direction. That finally caught up with him in 1980, when he lost his reelection bid after serving eight terms. In Congress, Buchanan was a supporter of women's rights, promoted diversity in hiring, backed federal funding for abortion, and as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, advocated equality for black South Africans.

The former Baptist minister later blamed his election loss on door-to-door campaigning for his opponent by the Moral Majority political organization. Buchanan joined a black church in Washington, was active in the District of Columbia's home rule movement, became a board member and national spokesman for People for the American Way, the liberal organization founded by TV producer Norman Lear, and served on the President's Council of Common Cause.

Assessing his fall within the party, Buchanan once said, "Republicans like me are a smile, not a frown." That's a good way to look at the party now. "Nattering nabobs of negativism" is another good description of today's Republicans. That might cause Spiro Agnew, who as vice president coined that phrase to describe Nixon administration opponents, to spin in his grave. But negativity has become fuel for the GOP. Listen to its candidates for president and you mostly hear what they're against. Too few details are provided when they talk about what they like. The only thing you can say with certainty that Trump likes is Trump.

Political observers say Trump's lack of clarity on so many issues won't win a general election. But why is he getting away with his act now? The possibility of another 9/11-scale terrorist attack is low, thanks to a viable Homeland Security system, but many Americans act like the country is just as vulnerable. That shows in polls that put Trump at the top of Republican contenders for the presidency. His credentials to be commander in chief are laughable, but people who apparently believe there's substance in his bluster about being "tough" don't care.

Noting Trump's poll numbers, others are trying to emulate him. Chris Christie says his service as U.S. attorney in New Jersey after 9/11 makes him the best candidate to fight terrorism. That dubious assertion seems to be largely based on Christie's office having arrested the so-called "Fort Dix Six" for an alleged 2007 terrorist plot. An investigation tainted by allegations of entrapment doesn't mean the governor is ready to take on Islamic State. Yet Christie has been rising in some polls too.

You have to wonder how this will end. If the Republican Party proceeds down its current path, it may nominate a presidential candidate whose lack of clarity and inexperience would likely doom him or her in a general election campaign. If that happens and Democrats hold the White House for another four or eight years, Republicans will have no choice but to reconsider whether they should continue to be the party of fear and negativity or offer voters something that is harder to convey but much more rewarding – hope.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.