I’m not sure how long I’ve been arguing that conservative evangelicals lost the culture war, but it’s been a while. Over time, I’ve realized that’s not exactly right; the culture war is much too complicated and entrenched to ever really be “over.” But we speak of it simply in terms of the religious right’s attempts to turn back the clock on policy related to sexual morality, last night was as close as you can get to definitive proof they have lost. That doesn’t come as a surprise to most social conservatives, but it’s worth hearing them reflect about the position they’re in:

Rod Dreher:

As a social conservative, I am as pessimistic as I’ve ever been about the future of social conservatism in US politics. It’s not because of the maladroit campaigning of people like Mourdock and Akin. It’s because of the demographic changes that this year’s election appears to lock in. Social conservatism is concentrated among older voters, who are dying off, and being replaced by younger voters, who simply aren’t socially conservative, and aren’t likely to become socially conservative (at least not as socially conservative as older, expiring Americans are). I know liberals and media figures love to say that social conservatism is a loser’s game. I don’t think that’s quite true, at least not in the way that they mean. But I think it is true that going forward, it will be very hard for a presidential candidate to win nationally if he or she is heavily identified as a social conservative. We social conservatives are going to have to figure out how to deal with that. They’re not going to be able to tell us to go away, but we are in a weak position.

Ed Stetzer:

We must face the reality that we may be on the losing side of the culture war. For decades, the “religious right” has focused its energies on winning the day through political means. But this year, voters in more than one state appear to have clearly passed referenda supporting gay marriage. This marks the first time for any state to legalize same-sex marriage by the expressed will of the people rather than through court rulings or legislation. While this certainly does not mean we should stop legal or political efforts completely, it does mean that we should begin thinking about what it looks like to be the church in a “post-culture war” era.

Matt Anderson:

Conservatives have been arguing for quite some time that they had more marriage support than polls and media coverage indicated, and they pointed to the polls to do it.  That narrative is now dead.  Whatever else we make of gay marriage, it seems clear that (along with marijuana use) it is slowly becoming the law of the land.

Matthew Schmitz:

In the wake Barack Obama’s resounding victory on a socially liberal line and the unprecedented success of gay marriage in the referenda in Maine and Maryland, we’re going to hear calls for the abandonment of social issues. As a Christian, I do not think ceaseless talk about homosexuality is the best way to spread the gospel of love. As a citizen, I view a culture of divorce as a greater problem for the common good. If I had my bones, I would have socially conservative candidates act like Robert McDonnell in his race for Virginia’s governorship: Hold the line, but do not rhetorically escalate. Quietly move forward a culture of life.

I’m not sure what all this means, and it seems like there’s still a belief that the messaging and the GOP are more of a problem than the substance of the social conservative position, which I think is overly optimistic.


About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

28 Responses to Social Conservatives Are Smelling the Coffee

  1. Jason Lewis says:

    I think the writing is on the wall for social conservatives, in a literal-allegorical sense:

    God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

    I was proud to vote for Question 6 here in Maryland, and as an Episcopalian, I’m proud that my church was blessing same-sex unions “before it was cool.”

    It’s not that I don’t think social conservatism will experience resurgences from time to time, nor that it won’t continue to exist in small pockets for decades to come. A century (or more) ago, the “social conservative” positions were anti-miscegenation, pro-segregation, and “blacks, Irish, and dogs need not apply.” Today, however, even extreme conservatives tend to eschew blatant racism, at least in public.

    Like the poor, social conservatives we shall have always with us, but just as an overall increase in the standard of living redefines what constitutes “poor,” an overall shift in cultural values toward freedom and equality will redefine what it means to be a “social conservative.”

  2. MikeS says:

    Thankfully we seem to have crossed a line where we can no longer privilege Religion in the service of marginalizing our fellow citizens.

  3. Andy Hall says:

    Todd Akin’s explanation of the biology of pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” was “maladroit campaigning”?

    No, sorry. These people didn’t learn a damn thing Tuesday night.

  4. ThaomasH says:

    I’d say the problem is that “social conservatives” have not been trying to win the “culture wars” (awful term) intellectually. They have assumed they are the majority and tried to impose their view by political force rather than trying to argue their views.

  5. Sandra says:

    What I don’t understand is social conservatives’ insistence on trying to use the law to further their worldview. If you believe gay marriage is wrong then preach that, convince people of that, win over your followers and bring them into your fold and give them the strength and support to embrace that value. Who cares that the law allows people who clearly don’t agree with you to pursue a different lifestyle? There are lots of things that the bible says are wrong but that the law allows people to do. “Thou shalt have no other god before me” for example.

    None of what has happened prevents social conservatives from being socially conservative and presenting that as a lifestyle/worldview for others to emulate if they so choose. People might even find their position more attractive when they feel that embracing it does not make them an anathema to those who disagree.

    Even in the case of someone like Mourdock — why can’t he say that though he personally believes that a child conceived by rape is God’s will he would not as an elected offical impose that on others? That would be palatable to most voters while allowing him to be honest about what he believes.

    And I will give my own theory as to why there is such an insistance on pushing these things politically/legally — because political operatives who don’t give two hoots about these issues can then use them for their own selfish goals.

    • Eric says:

      Agree 100%. I would also add that Democrats or Socially Liberal citizens would do well to keep repeating what you say as well. If Obama or Reid, or any of the genuinely religious/spiritual people on the left would say hey–I believe that too–but the government shouldn’t be imposing religious beliefs on any member of society or taking away the rights of the religious, I think it would go far.

    • Allen says:

      Sandra: That’s about as clear and coherent a path forward as I have read. I agree with you completely. Your approach might stop the slow decline of church membership among younger people who, at present, correctly see religion as simply a blunt instrument used by the intolerant to harm gays/lesbians and women. Far better to say that there are certain civil rights — which are outside the scope of the church’s proper influence — and then there are moral beliefs that the church and her followers can embrace and profess within.

      • tacitus says:

        The problem is that the religious right is authoritarian in nature, as are most conservatives in the US. They believe that without the legal means to stop the advance of social liberalism, it will corrupt the nation’s youth and destroy the nation. (Yes, I know it’s not rational, but that is what they believe.)

        They cannot let go.

    • Jan Caldwell says:

      This comment is 100% correct, especially the last thought. Thank you for the precise explanation of the cynism of the GOP.

    • Chris Sherbak says:

      I think the problem people have with abortion specifically is that if you start from the proposition that life begins at conception, not wanting to impose your view basically condones murder. I’m not sure how you can operate any other way within a Christian (Abrahamic?) context.

      I’m not a Christian, and don’t belief life begins at conception, but I can certainly appreciate the challenge of trying to navigate the shoals of that (extreme to me) position. I would offer that working towards more sex-ed and availability of contraception, however distasteful, would help mitigate the notion that abortions are wholly unacceptable to one personally, but can offer some legislative direction to make them as rare as possible.

      Taking a “my way or the highway” just encourages intransigence on both sides.

  6. cahbf says:

    I think we just need ot pick battles that make sense culturally and not just because the Bible says (possibly) something. True conservatism would be encouraging gay people to enter into longterm stable relationships and be a part of the bigger picture, including church. A lot of homosexuals don’t reject church as much as they are rejected by the church. Gay marriage is a net benefit to society if you can let go of the purely (and largely rebuttable) biblical references. Let’s move on and welcome people into the fold and win their hearts instead of beating them with our bibles.

    • tacitus says:

      But in the eyes of religious conservatives, encouraging gays to enter stable relationships is the same as encouraging unmarried people to live in sin together. They cannot even countenance doing such a thing since it would be a sin to do so.

      The greatest concession you’ll ever get from them is when they decide they will simply stop talking about it. When asked, future candidates will merely trot out the same waffling non-committal answers they already do when asked about evolution or the age of the Earth and accuse the press of asking gotcha questions.

  7. varmintito says:


    You’re right, of course, that social conservatives have tried, with diminishing success, to impose their views by political force instead of through intellectual argument. Do they really have a choice? If the tern “social conservative” equates to homophobic, resorting to intellectual argument isn’t on the menu.

    The religious right gave it their best shot in the various DOMA and DADT cases, and got laughed out of court. When social conservatives are forced to make their case based on evidence, subject to cross-examination, they cannot win.

    Faith in an unprovable deity is a powerful force in this world, but when the specifics of a faith are increasingly, and correctly, viewed as spiteful and bigoted, they lose their power to gain converts and gradually alienate adherents.

    Jason has it right, for the brand “social conservatism” to survive, it has to trigger associations with something that appeals to generational cohorts that are becoming increasingly tolerant and increasingly accepting difference, and increasingly takes pride in defining itself by these attitudes.

  8. Mara says:

    “Hold the line, but do not rhetorically escalate. Quietly move forward a culture of life.”

    so basically what Matt Schmitz advises is to keep quite and sneak anti-abortion legislation through while nobody’s looking. (shaking head) It’s pretty sad how many would agree that if you can’t convince others to support your policies, it’s perfectly fine to hide, deceive, and mislead as long as your agenda gets enacted. No wonder people view social conservatives as shystie hypocrits…

    • Karen R says:

      Governor McDonnell made a ham-handed attempt to force unnecessary medical procedures on my fellow Virginians before they could have an abortion. He backed down from the most extreme version which amounted to state-sponsored rape (by legal definition) but his Attorney General went on to impose regulations that will make safe abortion unobtainable in the Commonwealth. One reason women rejected Mr. Romney is the effort to inflict a religious point of view on those who do not share it. As a woman of faith, I reject this approach.

  9. MNP says:

    The only way for social conservatives to succeed is to convince people they won’t force their beliefs on others by form of law. Since that’s ALL they’ve done for roughly two generations it’s going to take time for people to believe it.

    I sure don’t.

  10. […] Sessions at Patrol Magazine has a few more with links if you want to see, but the feeling seems to be pretty much the same: the right is losing the […]

  11. Mark says:

    These quotes are the thoughts of people who have the ability to reflect and consider that they may have been wrong in how they approached social issues. Unfortunately, there are millions of “conservatives”, particularly those who are “Christian conservatives” who have no capacity to reflect.

    I dropped my affiliation with the Republican party many years ago because I found it to be a political party in which I am specifically not welcome. I am an atheist and deal with lots of conservative religious people both online and offline. These people live in a social bubble in which their religion cannot be questioned in any way. They become defensive and irrational just at the thought that you are questioning any element of their religion, and their only tools for defending their points are the apologetic responses taught to them by their religious leaders. Those same leaders have made their own existence dependent on massive social change required by their god. There is no difference between god and the Constitution. In fact, they believe the crap that has been fed to them that the Constitution is from their god.

    Any undoing or divorcing of social conservative dogma from the Republican party is going to be massively disruptive to Republicans for a long time. I cannot help but think it will permanently splinter the party, assuming it can survive at all. The only way this divorce can occur is if a few key people in the Republican establishment who have their own substantial support of followers can stand up and declare that Republicans no longer wish to limit rights of individuals within our society and wish to promote honesty in all discussions. In fact, I assert that if a group of key Republicans did that the popcorn and beer industries would see enormous sales as fellow citizens go home every night to pop a bag and crack open a few bottles and watch this form of reality TV unfold the drama of this divorce. However, those Republicans who wish to engage in this divorce are going to be martyrs. They will not win any particular election. They will have to sacrifice their careers upon the divorce court.

    While the loud vocal minority that typically encompasses the socially-conservative members of the Republican party continue to be the squeaky wheels that get the oil, I don’t see any metamorphosis occurring in the GOP. Somebody has to have the guts to say “God is no longer welcome in our politics.”

  12. tom weatherly says:

    I was in YAF, libertarian,and we were always burdened with the ideological rigidity of the socials. I worry more about social conservatives taking our rights than the left. The left is varied. The socialsall think and feel same, vote same.

  13. Chad says:

    Mark, great post! I couldn’t agree more. I do believe if the right were able to implement something to the effect you spoke of, their party would once again become a dominating force.

  14. Patrick Sawyer says:

    The point of this post and most of the subsequent comments remind me of The Matrix and the scene where Cypher is eating steak and describing the experience to Agent Smith.

  15. […] war” is inherently problematic.  And so I read David Sessions’ recent Patrol post “Social Conservatives Are Smelling the Coffee” with a healthy dose of […]

  16. […] we posted Adam Caress’ long response to my roundup of social conservatives’ reaction to their election loss, in which he responds to my claim—and […]

  17. Sam E. says:

    I suppose many will hate me for writing this and trust me this isn’t a defense of the moral merits social conservatism. If the Republican parties biggest problem is not winning minority I do not see a more socially liberal path as the way to win black and hispanic votes as both minority groups are considerably more religious and in some case yes more socially conservative. I think the death of social conservatism is wishful thinking among white liberals.

  18. C A says:

    Social conservatism only really seemed “absolute” since persons in ancient, medieval, and early modern times didn’t and couldn’t have known any better.

    Social conservatism’s premise rests on intrinsically good social action, but there is no evidence of this inherent good. It may have seemed so long ago, but largely based on those eras’ reasoning and perception. I think today, we realise that absolutes don’t really exist. Also, our understanding of psychology, the human mind and personality is more advanced. We acknowledge that different people need different things to be happy, contented or productive. “Post-modernism” or “relativism” exist for valid reasons. How possibly could persons living in 1850 realise this?

  19. C A says:

    lulz.. social conservatism is based on a false premise. it reasons that its values are absolute and should apply to ALL times.

    This absoluteness seemingly worked since people in medieval or early modern times didn’t and couldn’t know any better. To them, God creating the world and ordering everything per the Bible was their reality. At least today, we have alternative explanations/knowledge to explain things. Social conservatism worked then since it suited their reality and conceptions.

    IMO, there are no absolute values/principles. I don’t even think social liberalism is absolute. But it suits our needs and norms well. We now realise that life and humanity is complex, and that one size fits all views (such as social conservatism) worked when society and knowledge were less complex and intricate.

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