Every four years, pundits praise the death and irrelevance of social conservatism only to be surprised when a politician that identifies with the movement becomes nationally relevant, even if he (or she) doesn’t win. Bush beat the frontrunner McCain, then Huckabee made McCain sweat, and now Rick Santorum has hung in there longer than anyone had expected.
The rumors of social conservatism’s death may not have been greatly exaggerated, as the sayings go, but they certainly have been a tad bit premature. For good or ill–and probably some of both–social conservatism is still around and kicking and probably will be for a while. Or so Daniel Bell argues in his provocatively titled new book The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism.
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.”
There are all sorts of knots that deserve untangling here, like evangelicals’ uneasy relationship with the natural law tradition (which Andrew notes) and the secularized deity at the heart of the American political order.
But as a thesis for social conservatism’s ongoing relevance, Bell’s is a plausible one.