Polarizing Politics by Defending the Declaration
Americans have soured on social conservatism, if we're to believe many media pundits. Some see a hopelessly retrograde movement stubbornly clinging to outmoded attitudes that younger generations will inevitably reject. Others wonder why anyone would fixate on the "culture wars" when so many people are out of work, drowning in debt, and losing their homes to foreclosure.
And secular elites aren't the only ones writing social conservatism's obituary, or lamenting its influence. Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis insist that younger evangelicals have moved beyond abortion and gay marriage to matters of immigration and economic justice. Many main-stream Republicans complain that social conservatives hold the party hostage to a divisive agenda. Happy to court social conservative votes, they sweep social conservative causes under the political rug once victory has been attained.
In The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter) , Jeffrey Bell, a former policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, stands this conventional wisdom on its head. Social conservatism, argues Bell, is too firmly rooted in America's founding ideals to become obsolete.
'We Hold These Truths …'
Social conservatism is a relatively recent development in American history. It emerged, Bell says, as a response to the sexual revolution and cultural tumult of the 1960s, a decade marked by withering assaults on the institutions of church and family.
Bell ably demonstrates that social conservatism has continued to play an influential role in American politics, from the Reagan Revolution up to the present day, despite recurring protestations that the movement is on life support. He cites the political architecture Karl Rove built around social conservatism as an arguable reason that George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" commanded such large evangelical support and won two presidential elections.
But what explains this continued vitality, given all the confident predictions of demise? No other affluent Western country has witnessed the development of a similar political movement. This, argues Bell, is no accident, but rather can be traced to the divergent paths taken by the 18th-century European Enlightenment.
The French Enlightenment, shaped by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, represented a radical break with traditional norms and values rooted in a Christian worldview. Its proponents sought liberation from biblical religion, which they regarded as a tyrannical force to be over-thrown. True freedom, in this vein, is freedom from constraints on appetite and action.
By contrast, the British Enlightenment had a more conservative orientation and generally remained within the confines of Europe's "age-old monotheistic framework." It did not categorically reject the very notion of divine authority, or treat moral norms as irreconcilable with human freedom.
Steeped in the more conservative tradition of the British Enlightenment, America's founders grounded important liberties in a truth proposition unmistakably religious in character. Our Declaration of Independence famously holds that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator" with unalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The founding documents of other countries, Bell notes, lack this theological emphasis.