December 20, 2007


Alive and Kicking: Reports of the demise of social conservatism are greatly exaggerated. (Jeffrey Bell, December 20, 2007, Weekly Standard)

There are several things about social conservatism that have made it easy to underestimate. For one thing, it is still comparatively new. Fifty years ago, the term was seldom used. Then as now there were many millions of Americans with conservative moral and social values, but there was no such thing as a mass political movement or political philosophy built around such values.

This was in part because social institutions like marriage and moral ideas like the sanctity of unborn human life had not yet come under broad-based assault, and therefore had not become a factor in the national political debate. As recently as the 1950s, the divide between liberals and conservatives had nothing to do with whether marriage should be redefined or abortion should be treated as a constitutional right. Beginning in the 1960s, when politics did begin to call moral and social values into question, it generated dismay and protests among holders of traditional values.

Similar challenges and social changes--the legalization of abortion and the enactment of "no fault" (unilateral) divorce, among others--were taking place at the same time in Western Europe, and dismay was expressed there as well. But nowhere else did this dismay lead to anything remotely resembling the social conservative political movement of the United States. Conservative parties in Europe largely capitulated to social liberalism and continued to base their critique of the left on economic and foreign-policy issues.

Japan's social revolution happened a generation earlier--abortion was legalized there in 1948--while the social/moral revolution in newly affluent Ireland is still playing itself out. But the bottom line is the same: The United States is (so far) the only First World democracy to have a social-conservative political movement of any consequence. The loneliness of American social conservatism on the global democratic scene is a second factor that renders it easy to regard lightly, as a kind of parochial oddity, destined soon to succumb to the secularizing, relativistic trend that has pretty much triumphed in every other affluent democracy.

The third major element that often makes social conservatism look anemic is the reluctance of Republican elites, including conservative ones, to talk about social issues. Even George W. Bush, the most influential and effective ally of social conservatives in national politics since Ronald Reagan, looks uncomfortable discussing such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. In his 2000 campaign, Bush checked all the right boxes of the social conservative agenda, but preferred in campaign appearances to talk about mobilizing faith-based groups to help solve social problems. This appealed to social conservatives and served as a kind of substitute for putting rhetorical meat on the bare bones of Bush's social-conservative issue commitments. Moreover, most other Republican leaders have shown even less willingness to talk about social issues than has President Bush.

But there are several offsetting factors at work that have made and will continue to make social conservatism hard to marginalize. For one thing, social conservatism is the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in the core ideas of the American founding. It has taken over that role from parties, professions, and ideologies that used to perform it, and as a result it is touching a deep chord with millions of American voters.

Most social conservatives believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is true: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." While almost all Americans respect these words at least as a sentiment or metaphor, it is a fact that most--not all--social conservatives believe them to be literally true, while most--not all--opponents of social conservatism do not believe them to be literally true.

As long as these key assertions of our nation's founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot--and in a way that, given the very different founding narratives of most countries in Europe and elsewhere, cannot easily be replicated beyond these shores.

A second factor making social conservatism relevant is a simple fact: The global left today defines itself mainly in terms of social issues rather than economics.

It is well that all of the demographic growth in America occurs among social conservatives, with a corresponding decline among the secular, because it is indeed the Christian Right that bears the full weight of the Founding, providing for the freeloading atheists--in Richard Rorty's wonderfully felicitous phrase--the theoretical underpinnings for the Republic that they can not reason out for themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2007 11:50 AM

Isn't it a little hard to "marginalize" Social Conservatives if the MSM is always trying to throw bait in the water? I mean, don't you think we would've already had Gay Marriage if the MSM siimply said "It is what it is," and didn't call opponents various names?

Posted by: Brad S at December 20, 2007 3:16 PM

Excellent post.

I'm jumping the gun here, but Orrin, for the past five or so years BroJudd has been like a really great grad school seminar, including many of the commenters.

This Christmas and into 2008, may God bless you and yours richly.

And thank you for this wonderful blog.

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at December 20, 2007 5:14 PM