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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