Rusty Reno is right in saying that social conservatives should take the lead in American conservatism. The reason why is plain.
Unlike the libertarians, we have a substantive account of the good to which we think society should tend. Unlike the alt-right, our account of common life is not itself a rejection of centuries of Christian teaching and a reversion to paganism. Unlike the Intellectual Dark Web, our account really does attack the central problems that confront our nation rather than merely appearing to confront them.
Not only that, the 2016 election made plain that libertarians—social liberals, fiscal conservatives—do not exist as a significant voting bloc. On the other hand, the combined forces of social and fiscal conservatives and social conservatives and fiscal liberals account for somewhere between 60 and 66% of the nation’s population. A conservativism that leads with social conservatism and refuses to be blindly committed to “free” markets (but what do we mean by “free” I wonder?) is a winning coalition, or at least it would have been three years ago.
Yet if there is a problem social conservatives have often had it is failing to explicate and embody the broader moral order inherent in our own beliefs. We ourselves were party to the redefinition of marriage decades before Andrew Sullivan began speaking about such a thing as same-sex marriage.
If we are to lead the conservative movement, let alone if we are to help grow the conservative movement, we must recognize that social conservatism is not reducible to banning abortion and a return to natural marriage and a walking back of the many victories won by sexual progressives in recent years. This was the cardinal error of the Nashville Statement—it merely addressed symptoms rather than the disease, a disease which has affected conservatives nearly as much as it has progressives.
This was always the primary problem with Sohrab Ahmari’s broadside against David French that has sparked such a row amongst American conservatives. Ahmari led with a jittery reaction to a drag queen story hour event happening in Sacramento and from that developed his critique of liberal proceduralism.
The framing naturally lends itself to both inciting panic (and the ends-justify-the-means sort of thinking that often grows out of panic—thus the fantasy version of Trump put forward by Ahmari) and toward alienating virtually anyone who does not share social conservative ideas about sexual identity.1
In this, it merely followed an established trope amongst conservatives of badly describing the crisis of our moment and, based on that bad definition, accepting Trump as the necessary rebuttal to the problem. The totality of social conservatism is not contained in a rolling back of our nation’s sexual practices and beliefs to the year of our Lord 2000 or 1980 or even 1950. In his attacks against liberalism, Ahmari recognizes this, but by framing the issue around something like drag queen story hour he highlights the sexual revisionism near the heart of our current moment without situating that particular issue in a broader story about common life.
The underlying difficulty before us is that in our imagination of the world we and many of our peers still tend to view the world and ourselves as a sort of infinitely malleable putty to be assembled in whatever way maximizes our choices as we pass through the world.
We must articulate a form of social conservatism that sees the natural world as well as the various human communities formed in response to the world as having a similarly demanding nature, such that we cannot refashion them merely to maximize choice. To do so is to condemn oneself and one’s neighbors to loneliness and a crisis of identity.
This world and the life that arises out of it is delightful and coherent. The good life for humanity is the result of us understanding ourselves to have places within that pre-made order. We need a social conservative that helps us understand our role in the world as conforming ourselves to what is needed for the world to thrive. We are shepherds, which is to say we are concerned with tending to lives that are not our own and doing all we can to insure their health. We are self-sacrificers, not self-actualizers, as a friend of mine put it.
Learning to see and love the life of the world will inevitably alienate us from progressives who would trample underfoot anything that gets in the way of individual self-expression. But there is a real and important sense in which that is merely an incidental battle for us. For if the progressives were somehow “defeated,” (whatever that means) and a reverence for the natural order were not regained first amongst ourselves and then amongst our political rivals, we would have merely turned the clock back ever so slightly.
If social conservatives truly wish to lead, then we must lead our fellow conservatives and, indeed, our political rivals, back to nature, back to the life of the world. And we must call them to see that it is good, complete, whole. Only then will social conservatives be ready to lead.
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- Several commentators reasonably observed that if one’s complaints are that known conservative causes are languishing in America, that is an odd claim to make in the aftermath of a major Presidential victory, holding both chambers of congress for two years, controlling the Supreme Court, controlling most state-level governments, and passing a number of aggressive anti-abortion laws.