Given the ongoing economic recession in America, it should come as no surprise that the economy was far and away the leading issue for voters in the recent re-election of President Barack Obama. According to The Washington Post, an overwhelming 60 percent of voters said the economy was the biggest issue facing the country, dwarfing runner-up issues health care (17 percent) and the deficit (15 percent). And so, given this economy and these numbers, using President Obama’s defeat of challenger Mitt Romney to argue that “social progressivism” has triumphed over “social conservatism” in the “culture war” is inherently problematic.  And so I read David Sessions’ recent Patrol post “Social Conservatives Are Smelling the Coffee” with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But beyond that, the different ways people use the term “social conservative” made it difficult for me to decipher just who Sessions’ post was referring to. For instance, some use the term “social conservative” synonymously with the term “Republican.” But if Sessions’ post was simply referring to Republicans, then his claim that social conservatives had lost the Presidential election would have been tiresomely redundant. After all, we all saw the same electoral results.

But I don’t think Sessions and the other writers he quotes were simply referring to Republicans.  For years now, pundits on either side of the ongoing “culture wars” have used the term “social conservatives” to refer to Christians, or more specifically, those who base their approach to social issues on traditional or Orthodox Christian doctrine. But the problem with this use of the term social conservative is that these pundits typically use it to refer to those who adhere to traditional Christian doctrine on exactly two issues: abortion and gay marriage. In other words, the two issues where Orthodox Christian doctrine most obviously overlaps with the Republican Party platform.  Oddly enough, the reason this exceedingly limited classification continues to exist is because it is actually convenient for leaders in both parties to maintain it.

Such a classification allows Republican leaders to cast their party as the “party of traditional Christianity” without having to consistently adhere to traditional Christian doctrine across the board. And the same limited classification also allows Democratic ideologues to cast the Republican Party as the “party of wacko Christianity” even though the majority of those who vote Democrat self-identify as Christians. But when you strip away the rhetoric, the basis for this classification still only boils down to two issues, and considering the depth and breadth of traditional Christian social doctrine, that’s a pretty slim categorization.

I am not a Republican. I have all kinds of problems with the machinations of both parties, and I have no interest in being beholden to either’s platform, which is why I am registered as an Independent. But I do consider myself a social conservative, inasmuch as my approach to social issues is based on Orthodox Christian doctrine.  And for me, an ideal socially conservative candidate would be one who’s traditional Christian belief in the fundamental dignity of human life and sanctity of marriage was augmented by similarly orthodox views on torture, warfare, care for the poor, the equal human dignity of all people, and on and on. If “social conservative” means a person who bases his or her position on social issues on orthodox Christian doctrine, then a truly socially conservative candidate would adhere to—or at least attempt to adhere to—all of these doctrines, not just those which line up with the Republican platform.

By this definition, Mitt Romney was only a marginally socially conservative candidate. And so I have trouble buying the idea that his defeat was emblematic of the defeat of social conservatism in general.  I mean, wouldn’t he actually have fared better electorally if he had been a truly socially conservative candidate?  For instance, what if he had refrained from proposing to cut government social programs which aid the poor like welfare and Medicaid?  And what if his Christian convictions had kept him from making unsympathetic statements about the 47% of Americans at the lower end of the income scale—statements which provided endless fodder for President Obama’s unprecedented negative ad campaign?  How many more swing voters would have gravitated to a Romney candidacy that actually reflected the traditional Christian admonition to care for the poor?

Similarly, what if an Orthodox belief in the equal dignity of all human persons had inspired Governor Romney to adopt a more compassionate and inclusive immigration policy?  Would he still have received only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote?  And what if he had adhered to the Orthodox Christian condemnation of torture and pledged to actually close Guantanamo Bay (something his opponent notably failed to do in his first four years in office)? And what if, instead of affirming the President’s unconscionable drone bombing campaign, Romney had instead decried the targeted bombing of civilians and proclaimed an Orthodox Christian affirmation of Just War Theory?  Given an election where, in spite of the President’s clear electoral victory, margins were razor-thin in the handful of crucial battleground states (as well as in the aggregate popular vote tally), it is not difficult to imagine that a greater adherence to socially conservative Christian Orthodoxy on just this handful of issues could have swung the election decisively in Romney’s favor.  In fact, I think a pretty convincing case can be made that if Christians were more consistent in their efforts to hold candidates from both parties to traditional Christian principles it would result in more electoral gains than losses.

However, let us leave all that aside for a moment and, for the sake of argument, grant Sessions his point. Let us assume that the recent election results really do mean that voters—and by extension American culture at large—really have rejected social conservatism and Christian Orthodoxy as “old-fashioned” and irrelevant.  And let us assume, for just a second, that in order to continue winning elections, Christians would need to “smell the coffee” and leave behind their venerable doctrinal tradition. Even if such a compromise could guarantee electoral victories, would it be desirable?  Are winning elections and maintaining so-called cultural “relevancy” really more important for Christians than staying true to the Biblical teachings embodied by Orthodox tradition?  I, for one, certainly don’t think so, and I was heartened by the post-election sentiment of the Catholic Priest Fr. Robert Sirico which succeeded in putting elections in their proper perspective, and I’ll finish with a quote from his recent article:

“I have recently taken note of a great deal of frustration on the part of good people that seems to come to a head around election time. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me in my pastoral capacity to tell me of the great anxiety and despair they feel over the political mood in our nation; how exhausted they feel over debates and campaigns and solicitations. How they are fearful of the future. It seems to me that we appear to have forgotten, or need to realize anew, that the solution to this frustration is not, and never has been, success in any given election. It may surprise some to learn that the Kingdom of God is not and will not be brought about by politics. I do not, of course, say that politics is unimportant… But if you believe that it is or can be of ultimate importance, then I fear you not only commit heresy, but you concede the whole point to those who see the state as the be-all and end-all.”

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About The Author

Adam Caress

  • Pingback: If You Want The Meaning of ‘Social Conservative’ to Change, You Have to Earn It | Patrol - A review of religion and the modern world

  • Clay Crouch

    I applaud your call to the adherence to orthodox christian doctrine in regards to “torture, warfare, care for the poor, the equal human dignity of all people, and on and on”. Does orthodox christian doctrine subscribe to the enslavement of a fellow human? Does orthodox christian doctrine demand the exclusion of women from participation in secular and church government? Does orthodox christian doctrine require the denial of basic civil rights to those whose sexual orientation is something other than heterosexual or whose skin is a different color? And on and on. To imply that orthodox christian doctrine has been static in its applications in society is simply a denial of history. Finaly, and here’s the real rub,the question that went begging in your piece is whose orthodox christian doctrine.

    • Adam Caress

      As a Catholic, I am partial to using the Catholic Catechism as my guide to Orthodox Christian doctrine. And given that the Catholic Church is the oldest Christian denomination, I think its doctrine can be seen as fairly representative of “Orthodox” Christian belief. And for the record, the Catechism is clear in its condemnation of slavery (sec. 2414), its opposition to discrimination against homosexuals (sec. 2358), its opposition to racial discrimination of all kinds (numerous sections), etc., etc. Have their been individual Catholics, particularly those in positions of leadership, who have violated all of these doctrines (and many more) throughout the centuries? Absolutely. Thanks to human nature, there is a divide in any organization (religious or otherwise) between doctrine and practice. But it should be noted that none of these things has ever been part of official Catholic doctrine.

  • Richard Bell

    Caress argues for his version of a seamless document version of Christianity, supporting immigration, protecting the poor, opposing torture, condemning the use of drones, etc. Romney would have done better, he argues, if Romney had embraced these Christian-value-based positions.

    But what is his evidence for this argument? He may know something I do not, but my impression is that the socially conservative churches have been supporters of all the policies which Caress proposes that Romney should have challenged. If Romney had taken any of these positions, it’s more likely that he would have faced a revolt among his base voters, rather than a large swing from Obama voters.

    Caress’s argument falls into that old category, “If pigs had wings, then pigs could fly.” Given how cynical voters are about politics, if Romney had suddenly adopted these positions, people would either have laughed, or thought he had gone mad.

    I agree with Caress that the world would be a better place if our politicians would adopt the more humane policies he suggests. Perhaps such a party could emerge from the wreckage of the Republican Party–but we would be looking at an entirely new party, not unlike the birth of the Republican Party itself.

    In my view, the rich funders of the Republican Party and the leaders of socially conservative churches struck a true “Devil’s bargain” in the mid-1970s, when the church leaders agreed to deliver the votes of their congregations in exchange for temporal power. The Bible warns explicitly about the dangers of this temptation. The Devil himself once offered Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the earth if only Jesus would bow down and worship Satan. Jesus turned down this temptation. The church leaders of the 1970s succumbed, and we are still paying the price.

    This election will have been a powerful one indeed if it causes the scales to fall from the eyes of enough people who now understand that they have been mislead into worshiping at the altar of temporal, not spiritual, power.

    • Adam Caress

      As pointed out in my previous comment (addressed to Clay), I have used the Catholic Catechism as my representation of Orthodox Christian doctrine. And the Catechism decisively advocates care for the poor, condemns torture, opposes warfare as anything but a last resort, opposes the death penalty, advocates open immigration, etc., etc. And there is nothing in the creed of any Christian denomination that contradicts Catholic teaching on these issues.

      The fact that many Christians themselves oppose these principles has more to do with the unfortunate conflagration of Christian and Republican principles, which, as I point out are actually very different things. And I think a party that consistently followed these “socially conservative” traditional Christian principles would have the potential do better electorally than either party as currently constituted.

  • James

    I really appreciate Adam’s article. Maybe it is convenient for me to appreciate it given the fact that I too consider myself to be a social conservative, but in trying to express my conservatism in the political sphere fail to be able to join the ideology of either party. I also found Mr. Sessions’ article myopic. What does he do with me? A Ph.D. student from one of the most conservative theological seminaries in America–one in which we strive to read Scripture through the lens of the church fathers, thus, we are actually conserving traditions of the past because we believe that they provide meaning in the present (this is actually what conservatism means). I am conservative socially believing that civil unions are much better socially than redefining marriage, and that abortion should be illegal; but along with those things–no, in coherence with those things–I also believe in just war theory, gun control, higher taxes in order to care for the poor and needy, etc. This meant that I voted for Barack Obama.

    Does my vote mean that I am anti-social conservative? Mr. Sessions seems to believe it does. Or does my vote give power to the argument that the country is now in a post-social conservative era?

    Maybe it would be wise to actually think through what these words mean, namely social and conservative. Because maybe in the year 2012–voting for Barack Obama was the most socially conservative thing one could do.

    • Patrick Sawyer

      James,

      I find your comment interesting. I would like to dialogue with you outside of this venue. As a Christian who has done graduate work in both a seminary context and a secular context and who teaches at a secular university, I would like to get a better understanding as to how you reasoned to make the decision to vote for Obama. You can email me at thepatsawyer@gmail.com if you are interested. Best.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407055219 Ann

      Fran – I just watched this trlaier and it is absolutely exquisite. That’s the only word for your work. You captured the couple’s feelings for one another on video. The ceremony and videos of them and their family was exceptional. The bride looks so beautiful,, sweet, and loving and the groom looks so in love with her .you caught it all on the film. It was sooooo sooooo good. I loved it. The flowers, the venue, all of it is fantastic. Very, very well done. You impressed me with this one.

  • Bill

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. What occurs to me though is that the reason that abortion and gay rights are the two issues that have come to define the “culture war” and that Republicans can rally around opposing has to do with economic issues. Call my cynical but being against those two issues allows for a social conservative stance without sacrificing anything on the economic front. The other issues mentioned – everything that touches the military industrial complex, welfare, care for the poor, health insurance, and environmental stewardship – all involve a financial cost that makes the social good too expensive for fiscal conservatives to support. Social issues are well and good if they help secure the votes of a particular demographic but if it begins to carry a pricetag “values” are abandoned.