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

Note from Jake: This is part three of Matt’s series on social conservatism from the fall of 2012 which we are re-publishing this week.

Part 1, Part 2

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.”

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 langu age 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.

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  • 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…?

        • 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

    Matthew,

    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.

    js

  • Pingback: Four Theses on Conservatism and Cultural Restoration « Remnant Culture()

  • Matthew – Do you expect Huckabee, et. al. to give first principle philosophy discussions for stump speeches! You remind me of Paul’s encounter with useless philosophers. “For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing. (Acts 17:21) You are the Christian ethicist — your are not to critique others only, but to strengthen God’s principles to the benefit of your audience with your knowledge! There is nothing more useless in the engineering world than someone who criticizes a design and then when you ask him for his calculations to prove his point all he can do is “wave his hands and say repeatedly my idea is better”! Management and the decision makers quickly become tired of such behavior when they fail to do the calculations to prove their point.

    • hoosier_bob

      Huckabee’s failings were indicative of those of social conservatism generally: He had no ability to translate his policy positions into a language that made sense to those who aren’t Christian conservatives. Because the world around us is a reflection of God’s handiwork, we ought to have little difficulty in making a pragmatic case for socially conservative policies (if they’re indeed good policies). Also, when we try to make the pragmatic case, it helps us to refine our ideas and improve them.

      Then again, there’s a certain “lost cause” mentality that runs through a lot of evangelical political discourse. Sometimes I wonder whether evangelicals don’t take a certain pride in presenting their ideas in ways that are bound to be off-putting to anyone from outside of the evangelical ghetto. In many cases, I fear that guys like Huckabee run for political office for no reason but to create a following who will support the launch of a post-election TV show.

      • We each have our audiences. I think Huckabee is excellent with his audience. How are you doing with your audience (or field of harvest)?

        • hoosier_bob

          The point that Matt is making is that Huckabee’s audience isn’t large enough to support a winning electoral coalition. The same was true of Ted Cruz. If evangelical candidates can’t manage to connect with any audience besides fellow evangelicals, then you don’t have much room to complain when your candidates keep going down in flames.

          In past elections, evangelical candidates could generally count on receiving some support from the alt-right. But Trump has given the alt-right a voice that it hasn’t had before. I don’t think that alt-right folks will go back to relying on guys like Cruz and Huckabee to do their bidding. Just look at the contempt that Trump supporters heaped on Ted Cruz, the quintessentially evangelical candidate, during the primary. Moving forward, I doubt that evangelical candidates can rely on passive support from the alt-right. The two movements have diverged, and alt-right has successfully displaced evangelicals as the primary alternative to corporate conservatism within the GOP. I suspect that this spells the end of evangelicalism (and social conservatism) as a political force.

          • I agree that all Republicans must increase their voting block by doing some Economics 101 (non-evangelical stuff) to counter the liberal media/teachers propaganda that has been pumped into citizens far too long. At this point if the conservatives (Christian & easily politically offended) point their Pharisaical noses in the air against Trump, then we are officially doomed as a country. I think we are doomed – truly THE Whore of Babylon from Revelations gave her acceptance speech last night! I am in bewilderment at how Hillary can get $48 MM from Wall Street as a collectivist compared to Trumps $19K. We are truly seeing fulfillment of “And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thess. 2:11-12 NKJ)

          • hoosier_bob

            I don’t see it happening. The alt-right is here to stay. And that will also represent the end of the evangelical coalition. Some evangelicals (mainly older whites in the South) will make their peace with the alt-right, and find a way to meld its overt racism and sexism with their version of Christianity. Meanwhile, other evangelicals will strike out in alternative directions.

            I suspect that evangelicalism is in much the same place in which fundamentalism found itself in the 1940s. There was a hunger for some alternative to fundamentalism, but no clear vision of what that alternative would be. Eventually, neo-evangelicalism emerged, largely with the help of J. Harold Pew’s pocketbook. The movement that Pew once funded has hit the same crossroads. It’s numerically dominated by Boomers, and plays too much to their theological and political fetishes (which, in most cases, amount to little more than relitigating the merits of the social changes that occurred during the Civil Rights era). Gen X and Millennial evangelicals are showing increased disinterest, especially as the movement doubles down on issues that are of little concern to them, like same-sex marriage. Older evangelicals’ unflagging support for Trump will likely be the event that precipitates a divide within the movement along the lines of what we saw in the 1940s within fundamentalism. After all, there are plenty of us who see nothing Pharisaical about doubting Donald Trump’s ethical fitness to be President.

          • “Overt racism & sexism” where did that come from? People (i.e., races) are different and the sexes are different let just leave it as a statement of the obvious and move on.

            This post can not address all the past failures and dangers of a Hillary Clinton as President, since the Clinton’s public record is extensive and very scary. One can compare them to the exploits of Ahab and Jezebel with her as his evil “fixer” (I Kings 16 – II Kings 9). In summary, we appear to be observing the parable of two sons in real time.

            “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, `Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, `I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, `I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. (Matt. 21:25-32 NKJ)

            Trump, as the first son, has a profane mouth that requires walking his comments backward sometimes, but Hillary, as the second son, says whatever her audience wants to hear only to deceive. The tax collectors and harlots are the evangelical working class and the Pharisees are the leftist leadership offended at Trumps comments. These modern day Pharisees strain at a gnat (e.g., his politically incorrect jokes) but swallow a camel (e.g. allowing unvetted Muslim immigration & abortion).

          • hoosier_bob

            I’m sure that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he proffered the parable. This illustrates precisely why evangelicalism is going to split over Trump. When older, white evangelicals believe that voting for Trump can be analogies to “enter[ing] the kingdom of God,” the movement has outlasted its utility.

          • Evangelicals are the church and nothing (I mean nothing!) will outlast the church or as Jesus said “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18 NKJ)

          • hoosier_bob

            The “church” to which the Gospel writer refers is the invisible body of the elect, who are known only to God. I find it unlikely that he was referring to a particular socio-religious movement among white, middle-class Americans in the latter half of the 20th century.

          • You keep trying to categorize people by race, age, and economic class; only racist and socialist constrain their thinking along those lines – however as scripture states the evangelical church is “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Col. 3:11 NKJ)

  • hoosier_bob

    This is another great piece. This weakens back to the thesis of a piece entitled “The Case for Middlebrow Conservatism” that was making the rounds shortly after President Obama was first elected.

    Social conservatism has always been good at making the low-brow case for its positions. Its weakness lay in making the middle-brow case for those same positions. And, if you can’t make the middle-brow case, you’re going to lose a large chunk of college-educated voters. And that’s what keeps happening to social conservatives. They have no ability to proffer arguments that are remotely persuasive to anyone who’s not already a committed social conservative. If you’re a majority that’s fine. But when you’re not, that’s a problem.