Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

The Uneasy Union: Social Conservatives' Place in the Republican Party

May 26th, 2009 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Last Thursday, Maggie Gallagher pronounced that the trouble with social conservatives is that they "have had bad models for political action" and that they "lack institutions that can defeat our enemies and directly assist our friends."

Gallagher's analysis is interesting and insightful.  But for whatever shortcomings social conservatives have politically, Gallagher's point masques the true problem with the social conservative alliance with the Republican Party.  Fundamentally, it is an uneasy union, for the principles driving the major wings of the Republican party--the libertarians and economic conservatives--are undercutting the social conservative case in the public squre.

The social conservative position on controversial issues like abortion, stem cell research, and homosexual marriage has largely been driven by Catholic natural law theorists like Robert George, Francis Beckwith, and others.  Whatever persuasiveness one thinks these have--and I find them very persuasive--it's impossible to deny that their effect is muted in a legistlative system with a metaphysic that assumes the individual, and not the family, is the basic unit of governance.  When preserving the autonomy of the individual is the  criterion for whether legistlation in a given area is appropriate or not, the reasoning for conservative positions on issues like abortion, stem cell research, and homosexual marriage must necessarily adapt, or falter.  Arguments against homosexual marriage on grounds that such marriages are intrinsically incapable of producing children will necessarily fail.  A government that governs individuals, and not families, will have no incentive to promote a traditional family.

What's more, when the basic duty of the government is to protect the autonomy of the individual, then in a liberal democracy, the government ought not legistlate on matters on which significant moral disagreement exists.  Here the case is set against social conservatives:  by virtue of the theory of governance, moral argumets in themselves will not suffice to legistlate a particular position.  Additionally, to establish a moral case against a behavior, social conservatives must demonstrate that the given behavior harms another or somehow restricts their autonomy.

All this is problematic for social conservatives, since it means that to establish their case in the public square might entail changing the rules by which the conversation is conducted away from an unrestrained individual autonomy.  While possible, such an ideological shift is highly unlikely, especially when social conservatives main political allies would be foes in the fight.

This is the irony of the Republican alliance: the very principles that undercut the social conservative position drive the economic conservatives and libertarians.  As such, any alliance will be uneasy at best.  The philosophical principle that the government is supposed to get out of both business and individuals's way cuts against the social conservative notion that the government has a positive role in promoting a certain social order.  Or frame it negatively, if you must:  if the (natural) family is the basis for governance, then the government has an obligation to protect the natural family from social decay.  Either way, social conservatives will likely be sympathetic to a more expansive view of government than economic conservatives or libertarians would like, which explains the success of Mike Huckabee, an individual with economic policies that most economic conservatives find distasteful.

None of this is to say that the social conservative view of the state is correct.  It is simply to point out that while it is fine to say that politically social conservatives are behind the times, the analysis does not go far enough.  Because social conservatives have been rejected by the Democratic party, we must make friends with people who philosophically are our enemies.  We must defend the individual against the state on economic matters, while critiquing unrestrained individual autonomy on ethical matters.  While political institutions would help, then, our best weapon is to break the alliance with economic conservatives, which a European style Christian Democrat party would do.  Intuitively, social conservatives have understood this, which is why Dobson et. al. are so routinely threatening to do precisely that.

What's more, Republican power brokers need to realize that such a party would be welcome by most young pro-lifers.  While it may be easy to accuse young people of deep inconsistencies--I have done so myself--the ascent of the pro-life position and leftist economic policies among America's young people reveals, I think, an ideological core that is more unified than most Republicans would be willing to admit.  Institutional Republicans shun those like Huckabee (or Douthat) who are comfortable with a neo-compassionate conservatism to their own detriment.

While I am an economic conservative, my ties to the Republican Party are built on political expedience alone:  if the Democrats were to ever nominate a viable pro-life candidate to the Supreme Court, I would in good conscience consider voting for him.  In this, I know I am not alone.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.