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.

email
  • http://www.facebook.com/redamhicks Reda Marie Hicks

    I really appreciate your comment about needing leadership that knows (and sticks with) the social values we hold, not only so that the external perception is one of consistency, but because those values are rooted in faith. The thing I find disheartening about the current rhetoric is that it strikes me as very godless. Is it anything new that a government (or the people who elected it) would turn away from the narrow path? And has the conservative political leadership become so caught up in the frenzy that they no longer believe God is in control, even of this? If so, it is not leadership at all, but instead shifting sand which is indeed foolish.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I am a democrat and will stay that way. But I want a strong Republican party because I really do believe in some of the issues that it stands for. I hope that your idealism carries through. Because a party that implicitly accepts racism, paranoia, fear and hatred is not one that is going to go anywhere.

    I know most Republicans are not inherently racist. But Obama lost several percentage points because he is black. The way I hear many speaking of the immigration issue is clearly racist at root. Again it is not all Republicans that are racist, but the fact that I do not hear many rejecting the racist parts of the rhetoric means that it is easy to dismiss all Republicans as racist.

    The fear that Obama is a muslim is not going away. It is still nearly 30% of republicans that believe it and Evangelicals are the most likely group. I spoke to an acquaintance that has been involved in the planning of the national prayer breakfast. His overt condemnation of Obama as a muslim was sickening. It was beyond the pale and while confronted about it he decided to wrong a longer blog post to try to prove it. Literally hundreds of people forwarded it on facebook and other places. This is a man I really do respect for his prayer ministry. But he has lost all balance on this point. It is no wonder that Obama has been so reluctant to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast if my friend is an example of those that are planning it.

    This is not just a political issue. This is a values issue. We cannot fight political battles in a way that rejects our faith values. I know that Republicans are not alone in this. Democrats have their own issues that needs to be dealt with. But Democrats are not identified in society as so closely aligned with faith. (Do you know as a percentage Evangelicals were more supportive of Romney than Mormons?)

  • Charlie

    The election will have some awful consequences, but then every human decision is part of a battle between sin and the Kingdom of God, so awful consequences are sewn into most of our endeavors. Obama is a hard left pro-abortionist, so we can expect him to try to safeguard his ideology in the law and in the Supreme Court. The HHS regs demonstrate a failure to understand or respect religious freedom in the public sphere, but despite his efforts the courts may force him to back away from a universal right to contraceptives and abortion drugs.

    Ultimately, though, our political system still holds that the states have the right to set various laws and policies, and I believe we will continue to see red state/blue state distinctions on gay marriage and abortion rights. Evangelicals can win those battles on the local level, even if they can’t on the federal level.

    Republicans have been hostile to illegal immigrants, so it’s little wonder they are fleeing to the other side. It may appear to be pandering, but the reality is that the Republican party needs to take a reformist stance on immigration that is rooted in the Christian command to pursue justice for marginalized and abused people (justice in my usage does not equal “obeying the law”, but the protection of the dignity and rights of human beings who are created in God’s image). That means lots less talk about fences and much more talk about fixing a broken immigration quota system, giving priority to the reuniting of family members, recognizing our need for a labor pool that is treated with respect and transparency, creating paths to citizenship for those who want it. Christians can begin the process by reaching out to Hispanic communities church by church.

    • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

      I have seen several people analyze the increase in hispanic immigration and suggest that the wall type policies have made things worse. As it is more difficult to move back and forth people are just staying instead of moving back and forth as they have historically. And then there is the results of nafta destroying a lot of the farm labor that was based in Mexico.

  • E Silverman

    Matt, usually your columns strike me as extremely sensible, but I am not sure your analysis here is on target. Consider the following:

    Romney was not a social conservative, did not have a record as a social conservative, and did not run in the general election on socially conservative issues. Therefore, it is very difficult to interpret this loss as a loss for social conservatism.

    In fact, if Romney had selectively run on socially conservative issues (just as the democrats mirco-targeted their voters with socially liberal issues to turn out voters), he would have done better. These are very effective issues for getting out the core vote.

    This is the second presidential election cycle in a row where the Republicans ran someone who had no history of being a social conservative, did not run on socially conservative issues, and the second time they lost. Bush ran both times as a social conservative and won both times. One of the reasons the republicans lost this election is because the base vote didn’t show up in the required numbers. Most social conservatives understand if their candidates don’t run with these issues ‘front and center’ in every context, but completely ignoring them the way Romney did was very foolish (just as McCain and Dole had). In fact, the only Republican president to win in my lifetime without embracing social conservatism was Bush, Sr.

    On immigration, the Republicans for the previous three presidential cycles (Bush x2 and McCain) ran candidates who were for comprehensive immigration reform. So, this ‘flip’ on immigration after this election is not really much of a ‘flip’. They have been divided on the immigration issue for a long time.

    But, what was disturbing about this election wasn’t the liberal vs conservative ‘social’ issues, but instead how the Republicans lost demographically. Romney offended Hispanic voters in a way that Bush and even McCain did not (I believe Romney’s ‘self-deportation’ line from one of the primary debates hurt him badly). He did not understand their importance. The Republican attention to recovering ground with that demographic now is perfectly reasonable, but they need to proceed very carefully.

    Finally, Romney ran a mediocre campaign. He offered no clear plan for the economy and taxes, just vague ‘squishy’ generalities. He let Obama air negative ads for months in swing states without rebuttal, even though Romney had money to go on the air too. He stood by as Obama and his friends told outright lies about Romney’s taxes and his positions. His get out the vote effort stunk, ending with fewer votes than McCain had four years ago. So, I suggest that many of the ‘end of conservatism’ conclusions being offered are pre-mature.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Eric. I actually think I signal support in this direction in my second paragraph. It’s probably my lack of clarity, but if you substitute “the notion that this election is a disaster for social conservatives” with the “it” in the first sentence, you’ll catch my drift.

      Matt

      • E Silverman

        Thanks, Matt. I am not sure what the future holds for politics in our country. Both parties are deeply flawed in my view. But, God is good in all things! Glad to see that your career continues to flourish.

  • http://twitter.com/thomasmward Thomas M Ward

    It’s good to recognize–and this is more a matter of laying emphasis than disagreeing with you, Matt–that there’s nothing inconsistent between handwringing and hoping. Even if someone thinks that Romney’s loss is very very bad for social conservatives (and I do, while recognizing that he himself probably isn’t a social conservative), he can still think that all is not lost, that unforeseen good (even political and social good) may come from a second Obama term, and so on.

    I might go so far as to add that it’s very salutary for social conversatives to be doing a lot of handwringing, a lot of wallowing (as I’ve described my own reaction). We need to be aware of the kinds of issues at stake, both intellectually and affectively aware. Spending a few days being really really bummed out seems entirely appropriate and hopefully will spur conservatives toward deeper thinking and more resolute action.

    But let’s not be hasty. If Treebeard could spend a week just breathing, I feel fine spending a week in lamentation.

    All that said, thanks for practicing cheerful conservativism, Matt.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Tom,

      I’ve been thinking we need a strong dose of Entishness lately online, especially around the RHE situation, so I appreciate you bringing that up. I’ve a lot more thoughts on the appropriateness of public lamentation, but I’ll simply add this to the mix: Entishness cuts both ways, and what seems like disaster in the moment may not ultimately prove to be. I’d like to be more considered in both directions, if we can, if only because our response to the election is also establishing a context for how our political action is perceived the next four years, and that suggests to me that we should be really careful in how loudly we protest and lament.

      Does that make any sense?

      matt

      • http://twitter.com/thomasmward Thomas M Ward

        I have no discernment of spirits when it comes to what we used to call New Media. I don’t know what’s useful and what’s not, what’s harmful and what’s not. But I do think that there’s too much “meta” in the social conservative commentary I read. One of the commenters on your RHE review actually said something to the effect that he hadn’t read the book, wasn’t interested in reading the book, but was interested in how the book fit into the conversation. To me that’s crazy. It demonstrates in a reductio-ad-absurdam sort of way the fact that too many commenters are chiefly occupied with commenting on commentary. If we spent less time in the meta and more in the meat, we’d write a lot less and probably think more. Look–I’ve spent 5 minutes writing this meta-to-infinity comment!

        Entishness is not the same as being meta, and you’re right that it’s very much needed and that it cuts both ways. To my shame I hadn’t let Treebeard rebuke my own hastiness about reacting to the election. I might not have listened to him, but he deserved his say.

  • Pingback: Was the election a disaster? | Denny Burk

  • http://hereiblog.com/ Mark

    Matthew, I understand that these are your thoughts and a few other comments have pointed out alternative points of view. However, I am not sure that your first points follows.

    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.

    Many Christians believed that neither candidate was a great choice, but that Obama was merely the worst choice. It does not necessary to deem the default position of identifying evangelical conservatives as Republicans purely because many of those evangelicals consider the election a disaster.

    I think that a conservative evangelical, such as yourself, who positions the Republican party with evangelicals pigeon holes evangelicals and makes for an unhealthy way forward. Plus, the recent reports are that many conservative evangelicals did not vote in the recent election.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I don’t quite understand your final paragraph. But I’m not suggesting a closer identification because Mohler etc. are dubbing it a disaster. I know they’ll draw the lines in all the right places, and the like. But then, I think that everyone else is going to simply so associate Rs with Es because of the line, regardless of how loudly Mohler and the like protest.

  • http://danieldarling.com Daniel Darling

    Matt,

    I both disagree and agree with this. I agree in the sense that the apocalyptic hand-wringing is way off, as if we should be surprised that a popular liberal president wins in 2012. And I agree that conservatives have been far less cheerful than they need to be.

    I strongly disagree on immigration and hispanics, in this way. First, I believe immigration reform is a moral issue and there are many social conservatives like me who see our current system as unjust–and the idea of shipping 12 million good people as a humanitarian crisis. But on another level, the conservative platform is 30 years out of date and seems to speak to an American we wish we were instead of the one we are. It’s the party, frankly, of old cranky white men and offers nothing for the changing demographic. It’s political malpractice, in my view, to push certain groups like Hispanics, etc to vote against many of their principles because we’ve sent them the message that we dont want them here and that they are the root of America’s problems. Instead of uniting in common cause on many social issues of agreement, on building stable family-based communities, we’ve pushed them into the arms of the left.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Dan. As I specified above, whether amnesty or something like it is actually right isn’t my concern. The arguments about what conservative’s policy should be are, to me, separate from whether conservatives should decide what they should be 7 days after losing an election.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.p.carter Joe Carter

    While I largely agree with the post, I disagree the first sentence: “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.”

    For it to be “bad for everyone involved” implies there is an alternative. The DNC has morally disqualified itself from the votes of pro-life evangelicals. The Democrats are now so openly and enthusiastically pro-abortion that I can’t imagine why any Christian could, in good conscience, support them.

    That leaves us three options: (1) not voting, (2) voting 3rd party (strategically the same as option 1), or (3) providing qualified and conditional support for the GOP. Because option #3 is the only realistic option for change, we can expect to be identified with the Republicans. The imbalance in political identity is the fault of the Democrats—who have written their support of evil into their party platform—rather than with evangelicals.

  • http://twitter.com/eleysium j

    Hard not to believe that the consequences for our Supreme Court are not a disaster – and thus for the pro-life cause.
    “The U.S. fiscal gap, calculated (by us) using the Congressional Budget Office’s realistic long-term budget forecast — the Alternative Fiscal Scenario — is now $222 trillion.” source: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2012-08-08/blink-u-s-debt-just-grew-by-11-trillion.html

    Imagine post Katrina New Orleans on a large scale and that might be what it looks like when we default, as we surely have to. Maybe in 4 years or maybe in 10, but it’s coming down the line. This was probably the last slim chance we had to turn the tide and now it is gone for the rest of our lives. In fact, we now will get to see the flowering of new agencies, mandates, rules and costs that will skyrocket when the Affordable Care Act finally kicks in.

  • Flyaway

    Does anybody else besides me feel that this election was about Israel? The middle east is heating up and with the U.S. possibly withdrawing support God will have to deal with Israel. Also with all kinds of immigrants from communist and muslim countries coming to America this will give a bigger chance to spread the gospel. I hope Christians will concentrate on spreading the gospel and making disciples. Many evangelicals in the Seattle area are pacifists and don’t want the U. S. to have nukes. This is another possibility that God will use this to bring us back to Himself.

  • wmrharris

    Understanding that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind. As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.

    I would opt for the culture making approach.

    Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jon Chait).

    To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.

    And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?

  • Pingback: Around the Horn: 11.15.12 | Treading Grain

  • Pingback: Around the Horn: 11.15.12 | Treading Grain | The Paper Scissors Site

  • Pingback: Culture buildling as a political act « Written and Noted

  • Michael Snow

    What Christian conservatives must do if we are to be salt with savor instead of salt cast out into the street, is to re-claim Christian basics which have been grossly transformed by the world. http://tinyurl.com/ajnu5rr