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.

Some of that stems from, I think, the culture war mentality that has pervaded the mainstream of the movement.  One of the hidden yet potentially devastating costs of a culture war mentality is that it locks people into a framework and keeps them pursuing the particular questions that emerge from within it.  If the point of our efforts is winning, then questioning our own presuppositions is out of bounds.  That may be fine for a while, and it may raise more money and ensure that folks are on the team, but eventually intellectual stagnation will set in.  It has to:  the only way to avoid it is to question our fundamental commitments even while we are holding on to them. 

This was, I thought, one of the more interesting points to come out of Jon Shields’ excellent reading of the pro-life movement.  He pointed out that in their training, questioning and dialogue were encouraged—except on the basic commitments of the pro-life cause.  The presupposition seems to be that students already understand the pro-life position—they simply need help on how to argue for it effectively.

Again, I’m not suggesting that social conservatives should become less confident in their positions by questioning them.  I’m suggesting that our reluctance to question our first principles is a sign of our lack of confidence in them.  My proposal is simple: if we think these things are really true, then we ought to set them on the table and consider them from a hundred different angles to ensure that they are.  The push may not raise as much money, but it would (I suspect) generate a ton of new and more interesting arguments and imaginative construals for our positions than social conservatives currently have on hand.

One more point on this, which makes all this a little harder:  the evangelical wing of the social conservative movement—which has provided much of the energy, even if not much of the arguments—has largely been allied not with a robust natural law approach to politics, but with an emphasis on Scripture and revelation that both narrows the possible coalition and undermines intellectual creativity.  It is fine to believe things because “God said it.”  That’s as sound a reason as you’ll ever find for believing something.  However, there is a further question that deserves consideration:  Why does God say so?  If your answer to that is sputtering and “Um, because!” then you might consider doing a bit more work to understand the Bible. Allowing the fact that “God said it” to close off inquiry necessarily ends any attempt to find reasons that might allow us to translate our positions for people who don’t already share our presuppositions.

I should note, this is a practical political problem:  Mike Huckabee became a national level candidate because he spoke the language of social conservatism well.  But he could not become President because he had no ability (or interest) in translating his commitments so others could buy into them.  If social conservatism rests on true ideas, on really true ideas, then we ought to be able to find reasons for them everywhere.  The entire realm of God’s creation is open to us, which is why Chesterton could start from a chicken and end up at the existence of God.


  • Adam Shields

    I think that Andrew Sullivan is an interesting test case for this. He actually understands traditional conservatism. In many cases I think he is right, he makes mostly cogent arguements. But like many Christians he views conservatism through his desire for legalized gay marriage. Christians often use similar types of arguments that ignore counter statements for their issues.

  • MRS

    Funny how Sullivan’s “conservatism” means large social welfare programs and high taxation.

    • Adam shields

      Yes but my point is that he uses the language of conservatism well Nd argues for positions that are not always conservative. In a similar way many Christians argue for positions that have have no basis in classically conservative positions but claim them to be conservative.

      • MRS

        For example…?

        • Adam Shields

          For example restrictions on religious liberty for religious minorities. Think of all of the Christian elites that spoke out against building a mosque near Freedom Tower. The classically conservative position has been that religious freedom for the minority is important to insure religious freedom for the majority. But most Christians have very vocally opposed supporting religious freedom (especially around zoning) for Muslims.

          In a fairly similar way, the rule of law is a conservative position. But the importance of rule of law is consistent application. There is nothing particularly conservative about supporting torture. And while there was a good statement and pretty strong support for anti-torture legislation from the NAE, it was rejected the most rank and file Christians and by the republican party (and then also ignored by Democrats later once Obama was in power.)

          The issue is what do you mean by conservative? Sullivan means slow changing, lack of government interference (but responsible government). Many Christian social conservatives mean intrusive government for social issues, but a hands off government for economic issues.

          And many current neo-conservatives believe in a hand off government inside our borders but a very invasive government policy outside our borders.

  • Steven

    “I’m suggesting that our reluctance to question our first principles is a sign of our lack of confidence in them. My proposal is simple: if we think these things are really true, then we ought to set them on the table and consider them from a hundred different angles”.

    Yes, yes, YES! Ditto for other issues. For example: on a personal/autobiographical note, this notion of “confidence in the truth” was hugely important for me as I slowly made the transition from anti-intellectual to professional academic. If God exists and created the world and everything in it, then higher education and the questioning of faith and the reasons for faith need not make me an atheist (which was what I was always afraid of before – read: I lacked confidence in the truth, as well as in God to keep me in the Truth).

  • Jason Summers


    At his best, Santorum recognizes the sort of structural pluralism of society that the Center for Public Justice has long advocated; would that he do so more and more fully. Brooks too often seems to understand this, as he does here in recognizing that government must relate to individuals in the full plurality of their roles (business owners, parents, neighbors, and citizens).

    To the extent that social conservatives (especially evangelicals) have bought into a “me and Jesus” pietism, they have sunk their own ship by all too easily welcoming on the leaden cargo of Liberal individualism.


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