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.
The Declaration's insistence upon self-evident truths and rights derived from God, not government, has given social conservatism its philosophical grounding and a prolonged staying power in American political life. "What divides social conservatives from social liberals," writes Bell, "is this: Most—not all—social conservatives believe the words in [the Declaration] are literally true. Most—not all—opponents of social conservatism do not believe those words are literally true."
According to Bell, this basic difference underlies the "polarization" to which the title of his book alludes. The advancement of social liberalism, Bell notes, comes without exception from legal maneuvering. Social liberals, largely disagreeing with the proposition that rights come from God, pressure the judiciary to invent new "rights"—for instance, a right to "privacy," encompassing the decision to kill one's unborn child, or a right to "marry" a partner of the same sex. Social conservatives, as the natural heirs to America's conservative founding, look to defend a treasured inheritance from such incursions.
For this, they are often attacked as paternalistic chauvinists or divisive bigots. But if they, and not their opponents, lay the strongest claim to the American founding, then we need to rethink the commonplace observation that social conservatives are aggressors in the culture wars. Social liberals are the real revolutionaries, harnessing government power to radically redefine society's values. But social conservatives—far from being intolerant "theocrats"—seek merely to preserve the religious heritage articulated, however imperfectly, by the Declaration of Independence.
'… To Be Self-Evident'
According to Bell, then, "social conservatism is more accurately seen as the application of natural law to politics—the self-evident truths of the Declaration—rather than as a political manifestation of religious revelation."
"Natural law" claims that certain truths are, in the Declaration's wording, "self-evident"—that is, accessible through human reason, without the aid of external revelation. Bell references Russell Kirk, the father of traditionalist conservatism, who understood there to be a moral order woven into the very fabric of existence, against which all manmade laws must be judged. According to Kirk and natural law theory, societies flourish most when universal principles are acknowledged and obeyed.
Natural law can provide a moral grammar for bringing Christian truth claims to a pluralistic populace. If, however, natural law reasoning is essential to the social conservative project, then what about the many evangelical Christians who identify as social conservatives while remaining skeptical of natural law? Certainly, evangelicals affirm an active Creator God who endows his people with a dignity that human laws are obliged to respect. They affirm, as well, a basic moral order to the universe, grounded in God's character and binding upon both individual consciences and public authorities.
Evangelicals, however, tend to combine these affirmations with an appreciation for the depth of human sinfulness. They distrust the capacity of fallen human reason to apprehend moral truths apart from the testimony of Scripture. Undoubtedly, evangelicals hold to certain religious truths that ought to undergird the American political order. Whether they hold these truths to be "self-evident" is another matter. Perhaps Bell has underestimated the extent to which evangelical social conservatives take their bearings, in politics as elsewhere, from explicitly biblical teachings.
It seems, then, like quite a leap to base the movement almost entirely on the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the Declaration does speak clearly on the Judeo-Christian moorings of our founding. Social conservatism, in defending this founding, represents a profound connection to our past and recalls an identity the American people need to reaffirm more often.
The future of social conservatism is far from settled. Will it remain a source of "palpable discomfort and disdain"? Almost certainly. But as long as a significant number of Americans continue to see God, rather than government, as the guarantor of rights and liberties, social conservative causes will resonate widely.
The elite media may loathe social conservatives. Republicans may find their continued presence an embarrassment and a hindrance. But if Bell is right that social conservatism is a force "increasingly unified and coherent," then surely it cannot be ignored.
Andrew Walker is a policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky. He blogs at Mere-Orthodoxy.com.
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of politics includes:
Santorum Wrong to Reignite 'Freedom of Worship' Controversy | Religious freedom rhetoric should not be a partisan tool. (February 29, 2012)
The Price of Religious Advocacy in D.C. | More religious groups are spending more money on political lobbying than ever before. (February 21, 2012)
Where the Women Were During the House Contraception Mandate Hearing | The effort to tarnish religious freedom concerns as sexism is clever but wrong. (February 17, 2012)
Why Last Saturday's Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Was Dangerous | Brothers and sisters, we are neither kingmakers nor powerbrokers. (January 18, 2012)
CT posts regular political updates on the politics blog.
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