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.
It is difficult, of course, to be thoroughly confident when in a defensive posture. The work of conservation isn’t the same as defending (with its connotations of hostility and warfare): it is the work of weeding out positions and attitudes that would undermine social stability, of cultivating and tilling the soil so that cultural flourishing can take root. It means something more than merely preserving the status quo: it requires a conservative imagination, a way of seeing how stasis inevitably erodes all that falls into it and working toward the perpetual renewal of all that we hold dear. (Semper Reformanda and all that, and not just for the Protestants, either.)
Practically, if we look at the two central concerns of the social conservative world—abortion and marriage—the differences are considerable. The pro-life movement has joined the civil rights movement as one of the most successful social transformation agendas in American history, in part because of the depth of the vision behind it and because fundamentally, it is driven by a progressive impulse (the little “p” is, as a friend recently pointed out, quite important). While overturning Roe v. Wade has a profound symbolic force that makes a good stump speech line, anyone who thinks pro-lifers are going to be done the moment it is overturned has clearly never met anyone close to the cause. This is a movement full of people eager to adopt a child rather than see it aborted, a personal expense that is massive. It is a movement that where Roe is symbolic precisely because of the emphasis on a “culture of life,” an emphasis that has lead to social systems and cultural transformation efforts that extend a long ways beyond the courthouse and legislature.
Marriage, though, is currently not a progressive movement. Because the question of gay marriage has begin to dominate the conversation, nearly all of the energy and activity among conservatives has gone into defending the status quo rather than sowing seeds for a culture of healthy marriages. Even the most symbolic marriage law in the land is unremittingly defensive—the “Defense of Marriage Act.”
The cultural conversation on marriage wasn’t always like this. Years ago, I read Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s book The Case for Marriage and it revolutionized how I thought about the issues—yet if memory serves, it barely mentioned the questions about homosexuality or gay marriage. Yet there is no energy or interest in working to build restrictions around divorce these days, like there is around those who are trying to build walls around abortion. Heck, evangelicals even seriously considered making Newt Gingrich their standard bearer. Marriage needs a culture the way life does, but it will only come about if social conservatives are willing to reconsider how they approach some of these questions.
My final thesis, then, is that the confidence of social conservatives comes when we have the integrity within our own movement on the causes that we care about. Even though divorce isn’t as bad within the church as it is outside, our lack of confidence on marriage (fueled in part by that damnable narrative) makes it incredibly difficult to speak with the soft, assured, and authoritative voice that confident people use.
Addendum: I woke up this morning and realized that I probably owe a strong debt to Ross Douthat and his book Bad Religion for some of the threads in this piece. More on that soon, though.