Yesterday 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 that of the writers I quoted, who all self-identify as social conservatives—that social conservatives understand this year’s election as a defeat. He claims that I (and other social conservatives!) can’t say social conservatives lost, because, basically, “real” social conservatism wasn’t on the menu.
I get that a lot of conservative evangelicals or “Orthodox Christians” or whatever else they call themselves are not happy with the Republicanized version of social conservatism, which boils down to abortion and gay marriage. Like Adam, they don’t call themselves Republicans and don’t consider those two issues the extent of a robust social conservatism. Social conservatism imagined more broadly might, for example, realize that harsh immigration policy hurts Hispanic families, and that torture as well as abortion is inhumane. Adam is right that something like this might be considerably more attractive to the American electorate than what any actual Republican has been running on.
But I think he’s being obtuse on the matter of what I mean by “social conservative,” and what virtually everybody else who uses that term means. He wants to bend the definition of social conservatism so he can say it hasn’t been tried, rather than accept what it looks like in practice, and how the term is almost universally used in American political discourse. Of course he can argue that the socially conservative positions that were not part of the election can’t be said to have lost. Of course. But the ones that were part of the election most certainly did.
For me, the two biggest signs of social conservatism’s defeat have nothing to do with Romney. They are the four ballot victories for gay marriage, the defeat of the outspokenly pro-life Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin, and the re-election of Iowa’s controversial, gay-marriage-supporting Supreme Court justice. I don’t think one can argue from this that America has gone overwhelmingly blue, just that we’re now past the tipping point, where a roughly half-and-half country is starting to fall toward the liberal side on these issues rather than the conservative one. Gay marriage, especially, is a lost cause for the religious right. The writers I quoted were not conceding final defeat, or suggesting that a broader social conservatism not be fought for; they were conceding that the long-term trends appear to be have turned against the two main socially conservative issues in play in American elections: opposition to gay marriage and reproductive rights.
Here is how Adam tries to expand the current definition of social conservatism to claim that it didn’t suffer a defeat:
[F]or 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.
I’m sure he speaks for lots of others here, but this broader “ideal” definition is simply not what “social conservative” means in American politics. The people the media calls social conservatives, and people who call themselves social conservatives, are primarily concerned with marriage and abortion. All of their arguing, essaying, crusading, fundraising, and mobilization is based on motivating Christians to vote for Republicans based on those issues. They can make nice gestures toward other issues, like Adam does, but those two are what they live and die on. The definition of social conservatism as “Republican base voters who care about gay marriage and abortion” is, thus, based on what most people who call themselves social conservatives actually do in U.S. politics. Adam can try to confuse this all he wants, but it’s a completely fair definition, and one that will remain in place until social conservatives produce some evidence that they care about torture and immigration even half as much as abortion and gay marriage. There is currently little proof they rate anything even close to two issues, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
So we come back to my point that social conservatives smelling the coffee. What I meant, quite simply, was that people who are in general sympathy with positions known as socially conservative—which predominantly means abortion and gay marriage—looked at the election results and saw that those two issues are probably not going their way in the future. That’s it. In American politics, “social conservatives” are people who care about those two issues, not necessarily people who embrace a full gamut of “orthodox Christian” beliefs on other issues. And those positions can arguably be said to have lost this year. Some people like Peter Leithart think that’s a good thing precisely because Christian “public philosophy” needs to be expanded. I suspect Adam, Matt and Rod might agree. But until that happens, they have no ground to dispute people like me who call the current, Republican incarnation of Christian political views social conservatism.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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