The Evangelical War on Contraception

If you haven’t heard, evangelicals are currently campaigning against contraception.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, I can’t blame you. After all, it was only two years ago when a evangelical theologian seriously proposed that churches should give out contraception to single Christians because that supposedly reduces abortions and evangelical attendees responded with a collective, “Um, sure, why not?!”

But since then, we’ve all followed along as Hobby Lobby and others have sued the government for imposing requirements that they include certain drugs in their insurance plans that Hobby Lobby contests have an abortifacient effect. The case is fundamentally about the religious liberties of corporations and their owners, but I suppose we can all be forgiven for overlooking that since the trouble is the “HHS contraception mandate.” Look, the name! They’re objecting! War on contraception! See how easy this whole business is?

Now, I have to confess to feeling the tiniest bit of cheer at the news that evangelicals are thinking hard about contraception, even if the evidence for it is a tad thin. If all of these confusions prompt a more serious and sober evaluation of its use, then so much the better.

But such evaluation needs to happen on different, more properly moral terms than the pragmatic and consequentialist modes of reasoning that are endemic within the evangelical world. We ought to think about what contraception is and what it does within a marriage, what sort of mindset and form of life it engenders, what type of commitments are embedded within the practice and within the communities where it prevails.

Even if particular forms of contraception are licit, they ought not be adopted unreflectively. These matters are far too important for assumptions, yet how many evangelical engagement counseling programs involve careful, deliberate consideration of the questions involved? “The church never talks about [x]” is a sure sign that the church talks plenty about [x] and whoever utters that just isn’t paying attention. But for many evangelicals contraception remains the unquestioned option—and in some cases, unquestionable—option. I’ve heard prominent evangelicals start their defenses of public funding for contraception by saying, “Well, I’m an evangelical, so that means I’m okay with some forms of contraception.” Well, then. That settles it.

Now, among the internet’s response to Hobby Lobby it’s been popular for young evangelicals to run about saying that contraception reduces abortion, so obviously we ought to support more access to it as a social policy. Rachel Held Evans is the latest exponent of the view, but Jonathan Merritt and I have been around it on Twitter as well. The argument sounds awfully nice to the happy, half-informed, pragmatically minded, pro-life evangelical’s ears: we’re against abortion, contraception means less of it, let’s all go have cake.

But there are troubles with this sort of reasoning. (I mean, you know what else would reduce abortions? Killing people. It’s foolproof. ) The study that has become the go-to source on the question simply isn’t as watertight as it seems in the headlines and news reports. And Michael New’s commentary doesn’t even mention that at least some of the IUDs that were handed out have an abortificient effect. Even Planned Parenthood acknowledges that IUDs sometimes have a post-conception effect: that is, if life begins at conception then they are abortifacients.

But it’s easier to find a study that proves the point and call it a day, so let’s call to the stand one of our own. Now, if you think that increased access to contraception would reduce abortions, then it would make sense that better access to emergency contraception would do the same. Only it turns out that’s (maybe) not the case. While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same in the places where access laws were passed.* Why? Well, the authors muse, “[emergency contraception] may induce a behavioral response that leads to more sexual encounters, and hence, more pregnancies.” Given the rates of birth and the size of the population, it doesn’t take that many more people statistically to have sex more often to keep the pregnancy rate the same. (As to what this means for America’s falling birth rate, well, draw your own conclusions.)

But here’s the real kicker: emergency contraception dropped in price and became easier to access when the pharmacy replaced emergency rooms as the point of sale, but reports of sexual assaults decreased as well. The authors are appropriately cautious, saying that the evidence is “suggestive.” But it makes some intuitive sense: nurses and doctors get trained to ask about such things, while pharmacists do not. The authors suggest that to “mitigate this impact, new policies may be necessary to encourage crime reporting by sexual assault victims that visit pharmacies.”

'Hobby Lobby in Macedonia, Ohio' photo (c) 2013, Nicholas Eckhart - license:

If you think they’re protesting contraception, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, is it fair to extrapolate beyond the fact that emergency contraception doesn’t decrease abortions to other forms of contraception? It’s not a straightforward deduction, by any means. But then that’s just my point: the soft consequentialism that stands beneath the social sciences is far less useful for thinking through these things than it seems, and far more potent in the hands of news commentators and writers than it should be. At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history. But the casual observers of culture that make up the commentariat don’t have the discipline even to wait for the academic cycle of evaluation to do its work. What’s that? There’s a study that says the hook up culture doesn’t exist. Now we know!

I could go on, but at this point I feel obliged to simply turn the microphone over to Helen Rittlemeyer, whose excellent essay on the social sciences is germane to all this. A teaser, so you can hear what good prose sounds like, but go read the whole thing:

Lesser pundits and journalists parrot academic studies as if they were unimpeachable, even when the resulting headlines are as absurd as “Racial Inequal­ity Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion,” “Feminists Have Better Sex Lives,” or (my favorite, courtesy of Yahoo! News) “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds.” Even Ross Douthat, generally reputed as a moralist, can be caught buttressing with social­ scientific evidence a claim as uncontroversial as that serious downsides attend being a pothead: Excessive marijuana use, he reports, “can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility.” The im­pression left by these sorts of citations is not rigor so much as lack of confidence in one’s assertions, and persuasion, like seduction and stand­up comedy, is 90 percent confidence.

*Author’s note:  Thanks to a commenter, I’ve edited this sentence for clarity. 


Hobby Lobby and China’s Abortion Policy

In the ongoing public dispute over whether Hobby Lobby is justified in its resistance to the so-called “contraception mandate,” the reductio ad China has been one of the more effective rhetorical moves that liberals have made. Rachel Held Evans has deployed it a number of times on Twitter, and Daily Kos has a version of it as well. The rhetorical point is an easy one to make, if only because it seems so intuitive and straightforward: Because Hobby Lobby does business with China, and China has forced abortions, they are inconsistent for objecting to the now-infamous HHS mandate on grounds that it would involve them in practices they find morally repugnant.

How might Hobby Lobby’s rejoinder go?

'Hobby Lobby' photo (c) 2011, Ken Teegardin - license:






The first thing to notice is that the analogy only goes forward if it is true that “doing business”—a phrase so ambiguous that it’s basically useless—with China means providing material support for abortions, or support for the government’s decision to create conditions where forced abortions occur. If people can “do business” with China without supporting the policy or contributing material support for the abortions that occur, then the charge of inconsistency would fall apart or we’d have to get back to talking about whether compliance with the HHS mandate is sufficiently morally problematic as to give business owners legitimate grounds to object to it.

Construed broadly, however, the notion “doing business” with China means either of the conditions above may have the rather nasty consequence of implicating *anyone* who has ever bought a Chinese made product in providing material support for abortions. That may be acceptable to some people, but it initially seems to me too rigid of a criterion. One way around that would be to say that our involvement with “China” as consumers from Hobby Lobby (or any other business) is for some reason less culpable than the businesses who purchase those products there. But that ignores the fact that businesses purchase Chinese products because (surprise!) people in the States buy them. If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.

In fact, if we attend for a second to the various relationships at work then it becomes clear why the *reductio ad China* is nothing more than a bit of sophistry. Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. If Hobby Lobby were to pay their employees ten dollars more per week, the question of material cooperation drops away, as the financial compensation would not include morally repugnant benefits. But their relationship to abortions in China is mediated both by the businesses that they purchase products from and the government that has the one-child policy. Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.

Which is to say, the analogy gets its rhetorical energy precisely by leaving out the very distinctions that reasonable moral reflection about how to move through the world depends upon. Using “China” (among other terms!) without discriminating between the government per se and their policy, Chinese businesses, the people who are employed at those business, Chinese society shortcuts any meaningful moral analysis.

But let’s just focus on Hobby Lobby’s relationship to the respective governments. As Bethany Persons rightly noted, Hobby Lobby engages in voluntary contracts in China with other businesses, contracts that the government presumably has some interest in allowing to continue precisely because of the financial benefits for the Chinese people. The non-coercive character of the relationship means that the form of negotiation is one of persuasion: Hobby Lobby cannot change the Chinese policy, except by leveraging their business status within the country for good. The only problem, though, is that Hobby Lobby is relatively insignificant to China on its own, which is why the main responsibility for such negotiations and pressure falls to the American government. Because of the overlap of our economies, both China and the United States have interests in each other’s nations, which makes it harder to critique each other but not—as President Bush showed—impossible.

Their relationship to the HHS mandate obviously lacks that voluntary character. From Hobby Lobby’s standpoint, there are two intertwined wrongs: abortificients are being used, and the United States government is compelling them to purchase insurance that pays for them. Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.  Nor would it account for the fact that as an American business owned by American citizens, Hobby Lobby and their owners may have special obligations to pursue the right within their own country first and foremost.  Nor does it acknowledge that Hobby Lobby has legal recourse to pursue righting the second wrong that it lacks with the Chinese government. But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.

There may be good reasons to think Hobby Lobby is morally wrong to press its case against the government, but the fact that they purchase products in China is simply not among them.

On Joseph Bottum’s Enchantment and Public Arguments

Joseph Bottum is back to singing the “re-enchantment” song, suggesting that conservatives ought give up “preaching social ethics” because it’s “boring and it’s doomed”:

Forget the culture-wars crap. It was a fight worth having, back in the day when there was enough Christendom left to be worth defending. But such as American Christendom was, the collapse of the Mainline has brought it to an end. Start, instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.

He then added this in response to Rick Garnett, an excellent Catholic pro-life lawyer who offered his own response:

Forgive me then, Rick, if I continue to propose that ordinary prayer and everyday awareness of the reality of God are more likely to find willing ears—if I preach the metaphysics of Christianity rather than the law-and-policy-betrayed social ethics of tattered old Christendom.

There’s a whiff of false dichotomy there in Bottum’s approach to these things, which Garnett picks up on as well, and an artificial universality that inevitably accompanies sweeping prolegomena of this sort.  We might all say “yes” to re-enchantment, but mysticism won’t make it very far in a courtroom.  It may be that legal changes are a rear-guard action, an attempt to stitch together a fraying social fabric and hence unlikely to hold forever. Bottum’s right that laws are neither permanent nor the dominant forces shaping culture.

But then it’s a mistake to say that the law and social questions are somehow divorced or separate from the possibility of re-enchantment, too, the way that Bottum seems to imply when he suggests that we ought pursue re-enchantment first.  The legal disputes about marriage have actually presented conservatives with their best opportunity in decades to help people get clear on intractable beauty and goodness of marital bonds.

Bottum would have us not speak of the legal case until we “preach the word of God in trees and rivers.  But why not instead preach that word within the meaning of marriage, since that’s what people are interested in sorting out these days?  The arguments in the courtroom may have to be boring.  But it seems that an enchanted imagination might see something more in the public controversies that ensue than simply a dispute about the law.  Such controversies may be providential summons to our society to rediscover the nature of a lost goodness.  The enchanted strains of the beauty of the world may be drowned out by the culture wars.  But it’s not clear why we would want to chastise the clamoring insistence that there is something important here, about this thing that drives our public debates.  We ought to have more public chattering about these things, more dialogue and disputation, even if it seems repetitive and boring.  If our “social ethics” does not contain the mysteries it needs to transform the hearts, then we ought keep pressing inward.  We were made for more, after all, and all who seek….find.

Which is to say, it is true that conservatives haven’t been particularly aesthetically minded in their public pursuits.  But to steal from another writer who knew a thing or two about an enchanted cosmos himself, if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.

But that line expresses the heroic mysticism of those who advocate for traditional marriage or the pro-life causes, despite them having very little odds of “success.”   The very sort of enchantment that Bottum wants such advocates already embody, even if they so with less flair than Bottum or I might want.  We ought pursue re-enchantment. But that won’t tell us whether any particular law is just or not. A government has only one option to preserve its legitimacy, and a society only one option if it is to discover enchantment by any means other than total disintegration:  we must pursue justice without heed for the long-term consequences of our actions, consequences which we cannot control, much less reliably foresee given the massively complex set of factors at work in any situation.

Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a “seat at the table” of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles.  It is precisely because we do not know the future and that we are not responsible for those who assail us that we can promote unpopular goods without concern for their “effectiveness” or “utility.”  Few outlooks are so opposed to Bottum’s “enchantment” project than that of consequentialism, it too can sneak into our consciousness through rather poetic means.  Maintaining a hopeful belligerence and willingness in the face of seemingly impossible conditions may be a short path toward cultural marginalization; but it’s just that sort of mystical disinterestedness in pragmatism that I think Bottum wants.  It is a belligerent affirmation that these things are worth doing for their own sake, even if we go about doing them badly.  Conservative Christians might be tempted to remind themselves that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and so be of good heart.  But I doubt the martyrs themselves were interested in that when they climbed up on the pyre:  they were on the side of the right and were about to meet God, and what else matters?  To steal again, we ought to love effectiveness like life and drink our failures like wine.

Conservative Christians need the poetic imagination of Bottum and others; but we need to enfold it into our public argumentation about these contested questions, to see these things poetically while also considering them legislatively and legally.  Social ethics need not be sterile, and a strong dose of poetry may open up ways of putting things that the philosophers had not yet considered.  But we ought not forget that poetic, heroic lives are where enchantment properly begins.  And in the face of injustice, those who spend their lives advocating for the laws, making philosophical arguments, and doing the dry, boring work of social ethics are not engaged in a lesser task than those poets who remind us of the beauty and goodness of the world we live within.  Nor is it a less urgent task.  For we are all called to courageously and cheerfully say how the world is, in the grammars where God has placed us, with the sort of radical disinterest in our own work’s success that turns us to ask that it would be founded in prayer.

The Election Disaster? Social Conservatives and Hope

Since the election, conservative evangelical handwringing over the future has reached something of a fevered pitch. Al Mohler has been the loudest voice, pronouncing the election a “disaster” for social conservatives, a point that was repeated by my friend Denny Burk.  And then Mohler repeated the point for the NY Times.  I could dig out the lamenting tweets I’ve seen, but frankly I haven’t the time.  My friend Gary dubbed it “freak out panic end of the world despair,” which to me about sums things up.  Your mileage might vary.

What should we make of all this?  How about a list, since we haven’t had one in a while.

1)  The willingness to dub this a “disaster” actually reinforces the identification of evangelical conservatives with Republicans in the public square, an identification that seems like is bad for everyone involved.  I mean, on the one hand you have a lot of younger evangelicals who are very frustrated with the old guard for their rather unsophisticated approach to political engagement.  On the other hand, the Republican party isn’t exactly in great shape these days.  And they’ll almost certainly figure out a way to blame social conservatives for all this anyways.  So it does conservative evangelicals no good at all in the aftermath to be among the loudest voices shouting about how bad it has all gone and functionally blaming a shift in social issues for the losses.

2)  It actually may be a pretty unsophisticated analysis.  Folks like my friend David Sessions will presumably suggest that this point is merely clinging to the flimsy pieces of evidence that everything isn’t as bad as all that, but it’s worth noting even for that.  As Matthew Schmitz points out, social conservative issues actually did better than the candidate who we somehow dubbed to represent them.  How does that fit the disaster meme?  Also, turns out that on the Presidential level a disastrous get-out-the-vote effort by Romney’s team had who knows what sort of political effect.  While Mohler dubbed this election a “seismic moral shift in the culture,” that presupposes not much had gone on in America since in between the last election.  And that this election happened out of nowhere.  The reality is that this game has been afoot for a while, and taking one election and responding like this simply confirms for most people how out of touch conservative evangelicals actually are.

3)  Okay, though, I get it.  I mean, I said it was bad and said that conservatives should probably get ready for a long series of defeats.  And here’s the thing:  I meant that.  Like, really meant it.  From what I can tell, the Republican party is so soulless right now that their main pundits are already in the process of flipping on illegal immigration in order to win votes.  Now, whether we think “amnesty” or what have you is the right position is currently not my concern.  My point is simply that they are obviously so desperate to return to power that they’re willing to hack away at their principles to get there.  And that’s supposed to win trust back?

4)  Let’s run through that last point, just a bit more.  We’re being told repeatedly right now that conservatives need to “reach out” to Hispanics. From what I can tell, the desperation amounts to little more than pandering of the very worst sort.  We might as well wear a sign and shout that we need votes and we don’t quite care what it takes to get them.  You can make a case for pandering as a matter of political expediency.  But in an environment where a party already has no credibility, I fail to see how hasty reversals of its positions one week after losing an election is going to build any at all.  Ross Douthat in his judicious Douthatian way called that notion into question.  I might go a step further and have a hearty laugh over it.  I mean, we just nominated someone who elevated pandering to an art.  And how did that go for us?  But all of a sudden, many of the Republican pundits are suggesting we should all follow suit or we shall all experience doom (the same argument, we should all remember, that was foisted upon us as the reason to vote for Romney).  Turns out, we truly nominated the candidate we all deserve.

Obama Progress

What conservatives need is someone who can speak with authority about conservatism, who understands it well enough that they can cheerfully and graciously interact with those who disagree with us and win them to our team.  But that sort of public speech only comes if we understand our positions to the bottom and have the firmness of resolve that comes from believing they are genuinely true.  And if we can’t reach that point, then we ought to change ‘em anyway—but not for the craven political end of securing votes.

5)  It was said early on that this was a “status quo” election.  And it was—for evangelicals and for conservatives.  In their response, they seem to be standing by the status quo of viewing politics as the most significant cultural bellweather on the one hand and of privileging the acquisition of political power over principles on the other.  It’s an unholy mess and unbecoming of our leadership.

What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope.  And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles.  Or maybe I speak too broadly.  So let me narrow the scope:  that is what want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.

Along these lines, let me highlight this bit from Peter Leithart’s fine piece:

Yet conservative Christians have much to die to. Not least, we have to die to a rhetorical style and a public posture. The media exaggerates the crankiness of religious conservatives, but they are exaggerating something real. Does the frenzied tone of Christian commentary manifest confident Christian faith? I don’t remember that Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fear.”

In the suggestion that this election was a “disaster” for social conservatives lay the seeds of fear and the beginnings of a less-than-cheerful oppositionalism to the President’s policies for the next four years.  But we as Christians are called to a politics of hope and that must frame our public discourse.  Not the sort of sentimentalized bastardization of hope that attaches it to the rise and fall of political, social, or moral orders.  But the hope that endures well beyond them, that cheerfully faces a world that is hardly to our liking and entrusts our children to the providential care of the loving and triumphal God.

With a grin: rejecting the victim’s stance

One of the great follies of our day is that every group’s story has become a tragedy. Our society has increasingly embraced a discourse of victimization, in which every subculture tends to define itself in terms of grievances created by other groups. This is most prominent in queer, feminist, and racial discourses, but it has crept into every corner of our society, to our great harm.

A culture in which the language of victimization is primary is doubly broken. First, it drowns out the cries of real victims in a torrent of illegitimate (or at least, much less legitimate) claims. People who have suffered real abuse find it much harder to get a hearing when others are using “abuse” as merely one more lever to achieve their own ends. To be sure, many of the groups that cry “victim” do so with some legitimacy. Christians in America really never have to worry about being beaten mercilessly for their proclaimed identity; people who come out as gay do in certain parts of the country. Feminists have had legitimate complaints about male abuse of power, and we would do well to listen – which is not to say that we must agree with every such complaint; we shouldn’t, and I don’t.

Even when communities have experienced real hostility and oppression, though,the choice to define themselves entirely in these terms of persecution is to everyone’s detriment: the second pernicious consequence of embracing a pervasive culture of victimization is that the possibility of dialogue between oppressor and victim erodes rapidly. Rational discourse is and must be out the window. All that remains is conflict, lasting until the old grievances have been redressed and the power balance righted – or at least, right from the perspective of the victim. Anyone who has studied the French Revolution knows how that plays out.1

Christians, then, ought not perpetuate a culture oriented around the language of victimization. Continue reading

Recovering our Confidence: Four Theses on Social Conservatism (#4)

This is the last in my series on social conservatism.  For the previous installments, look here and here and here


Cover of


One of my underlying themes through this week has been the current lack of confidence among mainstream social conservatism.  I’ll grant this is a somewhat surprising subcurrent:  after all, the religious right hasn’t exactly earned its street cred through timidity and reserve.  But I have always been haunted by that old verse, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength,” as though the most authentic and honest sign of assuredness is the mocking silence in the face of those who oppose us.

Still, that lack of confidence in our positions has a pervasive effect on everything social conservatives do.  It’s impossible if you’re not confident to speak of social decline without sounding a little hysterical.  The boldness of a prophetic witness will take on the tenor of the irritating shrill who simply can’t let alone.  It is impossible if we are not confident for our intellectual positions to sound like good news.  Good news is not the sort of thing that has to be browbeaten into folks.  It can be offered, cheerfully and with a smile, and it will have more influence and effect than all the cautions and warnings of social decline might ever have.

Here, the “culture war” mentality really does a number on our effectiveness.  If the point is defeating our opponents, rather than persuading them to join our side, then why should we work to make our positions sound like good news to them?  Why would we spend the ridiculous amount of energy it to see our opponent’s positions from the inside so that we can make the appeal more effectively?  I’m not sanguine about the prospects of persuasion here:  I don’t think I’ve ever talked anyone out of their position on, say, gay rights.  But in one sense, the fact of persuasion doesn’t really matter.  Because even in cultural exchanges, one man sows, another man waters.  Continue reading

Recover Intellectual Creativity: Four Theses on Social Conservatism (#3)

I’m in the middle of writing four theses on social conservativism.  Don’t miss the first two in the series

Let’s start today with a detour through David Brooks’ column from this week, which hits on some of the themes I addressed on Monday and Tuesday:

Republicans repeat formulas – government support equals dependency – that make sense according to free-market ideology, but oversimplify the real world. Republicans like Romney often rely on an economic language that seems corporate and alien to people who do not define themselves in economic terms. No wonder Romney has trouble relating.

Some people blame bad campaign managers for Romney’s underperforming campaign, but the problem is deeper. Conservatism has lost the balance between economic and traditional conservatism. The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.

I’m not quite of Brooks’s mindset that traditional conservatism has to look like government subsidized social welfare programs, but for today’s purposes that’s neither here nor there.  What’s interesting is Brooks’ tacit affirmation of the intellectual struggles that conservatism currently faces.  Economic conservatives speak in “formulas” and have forgotten the other half of the party’s “intellectual ammunition.”

Mike Huckabee in 2007 in Washington, DC at the...

Mike Huckabee in 2007 in Washington, DC at the Values Voters conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, though, social conservatives haven’t fared much better on that front.  Social conservatives and Brooks’ traditional conservatives don’t overlap as much as they should, as most social conservatives haven’t spent any more time with Burke or Kirk than anyone else.  But in terms of intellectual correspondence, social conservatives have a lot more sympathies with “traditional conservatism” than the economic conservatives seem to these days.  The emphasis on the pre-political institutions of family and church (the parts of Santorum’s clip that I really like) are as close, on any widespread level, to a Kirkean conservatism that I have found.

Having neglected our traditionalist conservative heritage (or having never received it to begin with), social conservatives have also tended to “repeat formulas” rather than reload the “intellectual ammunition.”  While there are occasional bright spots—First Things, Public Discourse, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru—they don’t get much air time at places like the Values Voter Summit.  By and large, the mainstream of social conservatism tends to be relatively intellectually stagnant and formulaic.  Which isn’t, if you catch my drift, a sign of its health. Continue reading

End the Hostilities Against Elites: Four Theses on Social Conservatism (#2)

This week, I’m hammering out four theses on the future of social conservatism in America.  My first post was yesterday.  Here’s my second. 

Thesis:  For social conservatism to thrive, it needs to end its hostility toward elite institutions that are currently opposed to it.

Consider this bit by Rick Santorum from this year’s Values Voter Summit, which both stunned and saddened me:

Now, I’m a Rick Santorum fan.  I like the fellow.  Yes, he has a penchant for occasionally putting things badly (a problem rampant in social conservatism, and if I ever talk more one I’ll probably suffer from).  But when I first heard him speak, I came away thinking that he was presidential material.  Is he perfect?  No way.  But there aren’t many folks out there who can make a decent case for why family-friendly tax policies are good for America, and he’s one of them.

But still, if this is a snapshot of social conservatism, the movement is in far more trouble than we realize.  Let me be really tough on Santorum for a second and count the ways in which this statement goes wrong: Continue reading

What’s Conservative about “Non-Culture War Conservatism”?

That’s the question my friend Greg Forster put to me after I listed four “moves” that I think conservative folks should make to avoid getting caught up by the culture wars.

It’s probably safer for me simply to agree with Greg and then move on, a course that I’m strongly tempted to take.  But the pleasant disagreements are often the most fruitful sort, so it’s worth pushing forward a step to see what we find.

A note up front, however:  I take it that Greg seems to think that I’ve tried to specify the nature of conservatism in my post and as such it fails.  That he thought I would attempt such a thing is indicative of my lack of clarity (and perhaps a reputation of biting off more than I can chew).

My point wasn’t to specify the nature of conservatism per se, but only to outline what those culture-warriors who happen to be conservative should do in order to reframe how they think about things.  The difference is subtle, but important:  there are other principles that conservatism needs, as Greg’s post clearly highlights.  Which is why I even suggested up front that I’d gone with a “misnomer,” and that my goal was to highlight the differences with the excesses of the Christian right rather than what I have in common.  Non-culture war conservatism, as it were, rather than non-culture war conservatism. 

That said, Greg points out that that a robust doctrine of creation “gives us an external standard against which to judge the social order as we find it – a standard toward which we should presumably wish the social order to make progress.”  That is doubtlessly true, which is why we shouldn’t be so hardened in our conservatism that it becomes the sort of ideology that Greg doesn’t want us to become enmeshed in.  I’ve sometimes appealed to Chesterton’s famous quip that, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”   I’ve no interest in an “ideological dispute” if by that we mean the sort of blinkered, reactionary adherence to a position simply for the sake of keeping the opposing spirit alive.  And while “conservative” and “progressive” (or these days, “liberal”) are often ideological terms they do not need to be.

A picture of Russel Kirk

A picture of Russel Kirk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But for whatever it’s worth, rejecting the suggestion that conservatism as an ideology is a distinctly conservative thing to do.

Second, Greg wants to know what differentiates my affirmation of the moral imagination from that of, say, Romanticism.  Not much, except that we’ll take our poetry with a bit of moral order too.  Keep moves one and two together rather than breaking them apart and you’ll stay firmly lodged within a traditional understanding of morality without being subject to the reactionary resentment that drives so much of our politics.  Greg’s critique seems to suggest a burden for the moral imagination of avoiding Romanticism all on its own:  it cannot, which is why we must get the doctrine of creation right.

Third, Greg raises the prospect that the counter-polis move is most often associated with revolutionaries, even those (like Alasdair MacIntyre) of the crypto-Marxist sort.  That may all be true, but O’Donovan is not swimming in the same stream that MacIntyre is, nor am I.  Simply because the move shows up in a variety of places does not entail that it is distinctively non-conservative.  Affirming that the church is its own culture does not mean we ought all go become localists or sign up for Benedictine communities, and if MacIntyre’s route seems the most plausible that is only because O’Donovan’s path still has not been studied enough.

Finally, I’ll leave the decision to others about whether it is “conservative” to affirm exceptionalism based on America’s responsibilities rather than its virtues. If it is not, as Greg suggests, then so much the worse for the term and the movement that claims it.


The Christian Right’s Democratic Virtues: An Interview with Jon Shields


WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23:  Ted Gentile of M...

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 23: Ted Gentile of Merrick, NY, holds a crucifix at the March for Life rally on January 23, 2012 in Washington, DC. Pro-life activists gather each year to protest on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Earlier this year I raved about an important book that has been (unfortunately) overlooked by most commentators on evangelical political engagement.  I invited Professor Shields to answer a few questions based on the work and he graciously accepted.

1) You point out James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars does not draw on participant observation.  How important is it for those who are studying evangelicals to interact with them in their research?  Should readers privilege those studies that do have participant observation over those that don’t? 

Hunter’s study was groundbreaking in so many respects and of great importance to my own intellectual development.  But it and other important studies of the culture wars did not examine what rank-and-file activists actually do and say in the public square.  The only way to assess the actual public behavior of ordinary activists is to observe them.  So insofar as one is interested in the public behavior of activists, then, yes, I think one should privilege studies that draw on participant observation.

Unfortunately, participant observation of social movements is rarely done by academics.  One recent exception is the work of Emily Ekins, a Ph.D. student at UCLA.  Ekins attended a Tea Party rally where she took hundreds of photographs of handmade signs and then did a content analysis.  Much like my own work, she found that the media’s depiction of the movement didn’t fit the reality on the ground.  Only a small percentage of Tea Party signs, for example, expressed concern over issues of race or immigration.  A mere 1.2 percent of signs, for instance, raised questions about Obama’s place of birth.

2) You write:  “What is most striking about the varied world of pro-life activism is not the belligerency of Christian activists, but the degree to which they embrace the deliberative norm of civility.”  Why do you think Christian activists are so often painted as uncivil?

When I observed pro-life activists actually trying to talk to pro-choice citizens, I found that they were usually very civil.  But, as my book shows, this is only part of the story.  If one looks at Christian radio personalities or at direct mailings or at fringe organizations, belligerency is quite common.  The media picks up on these latter examples partly because they are somewhat more visible, partly because they make for more interesting stories, and partly because of the sociology of the newsroom itself.  So the media has identified real incivility in the Christian Right.

The problem is that the news is always “a highly refracted version of reality,” as Walter Lippman taught us years ago.  It’s an easy lesson to forget in the information age, where the media’s gaze only seems to be omnipresent.  And it is also one of the reasons that systematic academic studies that use participant observation, such as Ekins’ work on the Tea Party, is so important.

3) What role do you think moral skepticism should play in a deliberative democracy?  

Good question.  In my book I argue that we can’t expect activists to genuinely doubt the justice of their own cause or be open to embracing their opponents’ perspective.  After all, movements are driven by strong convictions rather than provisionally held beliefs.  But this is a narrow claim about the nature of politics.

Moral doubt does have a place in other contexts and institutions, especially the academy.  The problem occurs when academics, who are understandably attracted to this ideal, attempt to smuggle this value into their assessments of politics.  Doubt may be good for philosophy departments, but it’s a fatal disease in social movements.  If we value an engaged and active public, then we need to accept the dogmatism that comes with it.

4) You suggest that moral deliberation and active participation may be in “fundamental tension” with each other.  Are they incompatible virtues for social movements to try to practice?  

The relationship is not “incompatible” since there are also ways in which these virtues work together in practice.  For example, ordinary activists only receive a democratic education after they have been radicalized.  Only when citizens have committed themselves to a cause will they have any practical incentive to practice deliberation.

I also think it’s important to think about how these virtues play out not just in a single movement, but in competition with other movements.  Competing movements force one another to sharpen their arguments in light of counter arguments and objections.  In this way, they contribute to a larger marketplace of ideas.  To be sure, movements also undermine deliberation by mobilizing strong moral passions.  But there is no grand public debate over contentious questions absent the mobilization of moral passions that are not always easy to control.

5) You write:  “Indeed, while secular critics feared that religion corrupts politics, evangelicals have long held the opposite concern: it is politics that contaminates religion.”  A lot of younger evangelicals seem to have never heard that dimension of evangelicals’ engagement with politics.   Why do you think that story has been overshadowed by that of evangelicalism’s purported subordination of their religion to their political positions? 

Whether they realize it or not, young evangelicals are part of this long tradition of worrying about the corrosive effects of politics on Christianity.  Evidence for the power of this tradition can be found in the Christian Right itself, where there is a surprising amount of ambivalence about political engagement.  When activists in Concerned Women for America were asked whether the church should “change hearts” or “change hearts and social institutions” some 84 percent chose the former.  That’s a high ratio for an organization committed to changing social institutions.

Given those facts, I’m not surprised that multi-issue Christian Right organizations such as Concerned Women for America have suffered from serious decline and have always been difficult to maintain.  The one exception to these developments has been the pro-life movement.  Evangelicals find it relatively easy to overcome their ambivalence about politics in the case of abortion since they think that human life itself is at stake.