Note from Jake: This is the final post in Matt’s social conservatism series published in 2012 which we are re-publishing this week.
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.
How the Culture War Twists Our Strategy
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 where Roe is symbolic precisely because of the emphasis on a “culture of life,” an emphasis that has led 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.”
We don’t know how to talk positively about issues like same-sex marriage.
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.
Regarding whether you’ve persuaded people on gay rights… well, when we met I was a hardcore anabaptist who was skeptical of overturning Roe v Wade (though I was pro-life) and didn’t have a problem with the idea of gay marriage. Now, maybe four years later, I’m a Constantinian who is totally comfortable with overturning Roe v Wade and defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Make of that what you will.
Clearly you’ve been hanging out with all the wrong people.
For more insight on evangelicals and divorce, there is this blog post by Al Mohler where he talked about an article by a political scientist on why there is no culture way on the subject – http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/30/divorce-the-scandal-of-the-evangelical-conscience/
The journal article is available here – http://www.psqonline.org/article.cfm?IDArticle=18549
Matthew, your call to confidence in our perspective on marriage is welcome, and I think it’s profoundly necessary. I’ve seen this even in my own interactions with non-Christian friends who either are homosexual or accept homosexuality: I catch myself being almost apologetic for not accepting it, which isn’t right.
How do you think, however, we could begin giving a positive narrative about heterosexual marriage in a way that is sensible to non-Christians? The logic of it makes sense if someone assumes the authority of Scripture, certainly. But the prevailing ethic, especially among younger generations, is that we need to be able to follow the yearnings of our own hearts (provided they don’t lead to harming others) to be happy, and we need to enable others to do the same. It’s not a particularly tenable principle in general, certainly; but is there a way to offer an alternative narrative that is not within the sphere of Christianity?
I ask this really hoping that there is a way, not as a skeptic or a downer.
I think one way is in pointing to the fact that man is not an island and how one can harm others without even touching them or their bank account. I like to use the housing analogy. What your neighbor does with their house affects the value of your home. If they keep their house repaired, the yard cut, the music at acceptable levels, don’t sell drugs etc, then that is one thing but if they do the opposite, then the value of your house will go down. If we can get the culture to understand a broader view of harm, then I think various discussions will be easier to have.
THIS is THE question that we have to think about. I have more thoughts in reply than fit in a blog post, and certainly than fit in a comment box! : )
More to come on this. I’m going to be spending a lot of time wrestling with this exact thing.
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This is another good piece. When you’ve spent no effort trying to persuade others of the merits of your positions, you can’t really complain when they haven’t come over to your side.
From First Things and ASP:
“We support constitutional and legal measures that establish the Right to Life from conception until natural death.
We support the legal recognition of marriage as a union of one man to one woman for life.”