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Not dead yet: Social conservatism

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 9, 2001

When Whittaker Chambers abandoned communism and affirmed his belief in Western capitalism and Christianity, he was convinced he was actually switching from the winning side to the losing side. He thought the rising tide of collectivism was irreversible and that the communists were likely to prevail over the West. The best that could be hoped for was that there would be a small remnant of people dedicated to preserving the old ways in case the world ever regained its senses. Chambers viewed William F. Buckley's efforts to "stand athwart history and yell 'Stop'" as a means to that end. Up to the end of the 1970s, there were conservatives including Paul Weyrich who looked at the state of the Cold War and thought perhaps Chambers was right.

Whittaker Chambers

Chambers was wrong. He was not merely wrong because a few leaders in the West were able to muster the cultural self-confidence and military strength to counter the Soviet Union. He was wrong because the implausible experiment in Marxist-Leninism required the uprooting of long-standing traditions, denial of human nature and human rights abuses on a massive scale to sustain it. Conservatism is about conserving essential institutions and values, not simply conserving things just because they are. Each community has values and institutions that cannot be overturned without social catastrophe. History isn't an inexorable march in the progressive direction; sometimes things go terribly wrong and corrective action is required.

This brings me to Barton Wong's clever epitaph for social conservatism, "Yes, we did lose the culture war." Conservative figures enjoy aspects of popular culture that would have made Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk retch. Conservative elected officials (or at least officials elected with conservative support) march in gay parades and affirm many of the same liberal platitudes as their opposition. Times are changing in ways that don't seem hospitable to either Ozzie and Harriet or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Wong contends that the best course of action might be to give up on all this socially right-wing stuff and spin the defeat as a victory for libertarian principles, to the benefit of winnable wars against high taxes, burdensome regulations and swollen government budgets.

If by proclaiming an end to the so-called culture war, which was actually declared by the left decades before the term gained currency on the mainstream right, Wong means that self-righteous chest-thumping is not likely to win many political battles, he is right. Promising to make life as miserable as possible for homosexuals is about as likely to win votes as railing against "demon rum" or passing laws to get that "devil's music" off MTV, and it is no more deserving of support. There is no question that social conservatives generally and the religious right particularly have erred by framing their positions in exclusively negative terms that often appear to be pointing the finger at somebody else (you naughty homosexual, you fiendish woman considering an abortion, you filthy porno magazine reader, etc.). The relevant question before dismissing conservative social policy prescriptions across the board is what exactly is to be conserved and how important is it to conserve.

People may find pleasure and even varying degrees of fulfillment in any number of interpersonal relationships, but one needn't be a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute to notice the special importance of heterosexual couplings. While modern medical science has opened all sorts of interesting doors to us, these relationships still remain central to the continuance of the human species. A growing body of evidence suggests that the stability in such relationships offered by marriage is generally the best way to maximize the resultant benefits to the man and woman involved, their children and society generally. Both marriage and the family play an important role in a way that other relationships, whatever value they may have to those involved in them, do not. They are thus worth preserving for their own sake. That social conservatives have failed until recently to make the positive case for the family rather than simply denouncing competing models is unfortunate, but it is changing.

The very same surveys Wong cites in demonstrating the irrelevance of social conservatism to younger generations shows that they understand this too. Much of their antipathy toward marriage seems rooted in the fear of broken marriages rather than in a rejection of the benefits of being married itself. Respondents favored fewer divorces, out-of-wedlock births and fatherless families. About as many favored proposals that would make divorce more difficult as wanted government out of the business of issuing marriage licenses. Other broader polling data supports this. People want to see a revival of the traditional family, but are unsure of their ability to revive it themselves and reticent about using public policy to achieve this goal. With divorce touching the personal experiences of so many people, majorities see family values as truly valuable but fear being seen as hypocritical themselves or judgmental towards their friends and loved ones. This is both understandable and fertile ground for social conservative persuasion rather than surrender.

Additionally, just because social conservatism isn't dominant doesn't prove it is moribund. In the last presidential election, the most culturally conservative states comprised an Electoral College majority. Sen. John McCain's ability to ever secure the Republican presidential nomination was lost due to deviationism on social issues. The more socially conservative Canadian Alliance has replaced the Progressive Conservatives as Canada's dominant party on the right.

The whole argument that social conservatism should be jettisoned because it is somehow not fashionable or likely to appeal to the youngest eligible voters is itself fundamentally anti-conservative. An authentic conservatism seeks to preserve permanent things, not pretend to hip status. Conservatives who dissent from their movement's consensus on social questions have an obligation to refute those positions rather than merely bow to transient public opinion as they read it. Students of the American and Canadian political scenes would have to seriously question whether constitutional government, gun ownership rights, drastically reduced taxes and government services, and significant deregulation of business is really fashionable.

Even during the administration of George W. Bush, the main agenda items are speech-limiting campaign finance reforms, a so-called "patients' bill of rights" that will increase the federal role in health care and enrich trial lawyers and closing whatever "loopholes" still allow people to exercise their Second Amendment rights. The conservative president will end up going along with some version of all these things. President Bush's tax cut did not meet with the same level of support that Ronald Reagan's larger one did 20 years earlier, despite the deficits of that time period compared to today's large surpluses. Let us not even discuss Canada's last "Conservative" federal government. And how many 18-to-22-year olds would favor a retrenchment of government that might reduce state subsidies of their college tuitions? Perhaps the right's hopelessly square support for limited government might need to be dropped too.

It would be cool if Friedman were on E! though
It would be cool if Friedman were on E! though

Does this paint too dire a picture of economic conservatism? Perhaps, but these examples no more understate the appeal of economic conservatism than Wong overlooks social conservatives' continuing electoral clout. My point is that as we recognize both the importance and potential appeal of economic conservatism even though the average voter is to the left of the Chicago or Austrian schools, the same case can be made for social conservatism when voters are to the left of the Christian Coalition. The free market may be exciting, but as far as its intellectual defenders' hipness, suffice it to say neither Milton Friedman nor Murray Rothbard are going to be profiled on "E!" anytime soon.

This same type of thinking is evident in Wong's critique of evangelical Protestantism as represented by magazines like Christianity Today. It is nothing new for college professors to be hostile to religion, Christianity in particular, and not especially conservative to accept every proclamation issued by left-leaning academia on faith. What do some of these people say in class about capitalism, or proposals such as the Bush tax cut or privatizing Social Security? None of the professors' religious arguments reported in the piece were anything new. Some have been around almost as long as Christianity, others widely circulated since the higher criticism of the 19th century. Many eloquent counter-arguments to these points on the reliability of the Bible have been standard fare in Christian apologetics for over a hundred years.

But Wong's argument may be wrong even on its own terms. Mainline Protestantism is declining as evangelical and other conservative churches are growing. There is evidence that perhaps secular people are becoming more secular, rather than snoozing away their Sunday mornings in Episcopalian pews, while religious people are, for lack of a better term, becoming more fundamentalist. Call it the advent of the Moral Plurality. Additionally, religion is the not the sole motivating factor for social and cultural conservatives. Many leading conservatives pose their arguments on social issues in purely secular terms and even some of those who advocate a more religious America do so for secular reasons. Those influenced by Leo Strauss promote religion as a means of instilling civic virtue to improve the character and social conduct of the people, not for theological purity in and of itself.

Most importantly, a productive social conservatism ought not be statist while the liberalism it opposes is not necessarily libertarian. Strengthening mediating institutions like the family, supporting home schooling, transferring the responsibility for children from the state to parents all are conducive to smaller government. The welfare state has done more to undermine the family than the total output of the entire motion picture industry combined by imposing burdens on it, attempting to replace its functions and adversely effecting its economic logic.

On the other hand, social liberalism is often coercive. Its agenda includes abridged freedom of association, identity politics and income redistribution. You may disagree with the Boy Scouts, but is having the government force them to change their membership criteria really libertarian? What about the Canadian Broadcast Standards Commission's efforts to silence the admittedly obnoxious Dr. Laura for her views on homosexuality? In some countries, even milder criticisms are classified as hate crimes. Some clinic-access laws, an understandable reaction to clinic violence, have greatly curbed the rights of people to peacefully protest against abortion. These are victories for social libertarianism?

In his important book Dead Right, Canadian-born writer David Frum notes that people who claim to support freedom from both big government and majoritarian morality end up having to choose one or the other. This is because this position is less consistent than it at first seems. Abominations like anti-sodomy laws, regulations against legal businesses like strip clubs and adult bookstores, and government censorship of arts and entertainment should be abolished. But most moral judgments are exercised in the private sector and prudes would flourish under libertarianism as much as those who peddle smut. A landlord might refuse to rent to an unmarried couple, the Boy Scouts could continue their ban on gays or a business might refuse to hire a man who likes to wear dresses. All of these efforts to judge, shun and exclude took place in the private sector and all are components of rights to property, free association and contract. In purely libertarian terms, these actions should be legal. Social liberals would not allow any of them to be. The distinction is clear.

Wong also attaches too much importance to certain conservatives (a) liking popular culture and (b) associating with gays. It is probably not especially illustrative that a person of National Review On-Line editor Jonah Goldberg's age appreciates "The Simpsons" while someone of former President George H.W. Bush's age does not. There are generational differences in humor. What could be instructive is the younger President Bush's appointment of openly gay Scott Evertz to head his AIDS office, which Wong points out angered some religious conservatives (he specifically cited Reed Heustis' "The Increasingly Gay Bush Administration"). Yet even this is more complicated. Evertz holds some socially conservative views himself; for example, he is pro-life. Most people can disagree with aspects of a person's private life and still find them otherwise decent, pleasant and a competent co-worker. Consider the words of another conservative Christian writer, WorldNet Daily columnist Tom Ambrose: "To be sure, homosexual behavior is not anymore 'irresponsible' than premarital sex or adulterous sexual behavior - the Bible makes it clear that all sexual behavior outside of the bounds of heterosexual marriage is sin against God. Nor does the Bible say that homosexuality is a sin worse than other sins. Nor does the Bible teach Christians to be abusive and malicious towards those who sin - including homosexuals..." (Italics his.)

One needn't accept this biblical interpretation to understand that this view does not require a rejection of gay and lesbian individuals, especially in light of the Christian teaching that all are sinners. Thus Bush doesn't feel his faith prevents Evertz's appointment and the overwhelming majority of straight conservatives have no quarrel with like-minded gays, such as Andrew Sullivan, David Brudnoy and Justin Raimondo. Indeed, opposition to aspects of the gay rights agenda does not even require one to believe homosexuality to be wrong. Each of the above men opposes gay rights activists on some issue. For example, Sullivan opposes covering gays in anti-discrimination laws even as he favors greater mainstream acceptance of homosexuality and disagrees with those who find it immoral. This involves no inconsistency and requires no stifling conformity.

A successful conservative agenda ultimately must seek to persuade Wong's generation rather than simply lecturing them. There are areas where social conservatives should change. They should state the positive case for the type of family life they are trying to preserve rather than define themselves in opposition to alternative lifestyles. A healing tone should replace the image of scolds obsessed with dirty movies. Statism should be forsaken for a smaller, automatically less family-unfriendly, government. If this can be done, reports of social conservatism's death will prove greatly exaggerated.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Yes, we did lose the culture war by Barton Wong (June 25, 2001)
    Conservatives are only trying to shut the barn door after the fact, says Barton Wong, if they think they can still fight for socially conservative principles. That day is over, the movement is dead and we all march for Gay Pride

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