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.

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.

11 Responses to If You Want the Meaning of ‘Social Conservative’ to Change, You Have to Earn It

  1. Just to clarify, am I the “Matt” referenced in the final paragraph? I don’t see another mentioned so I’m just a little curious.

    Good thoughts, though, David. You’ve been on your A-game a lot lately.


  2. Adam Caress says:

    Well, just to clarify, I didn’t say you “can’t” say social conservatives lost, I just said I found the way that you (and those you quote) used the term “social conservatives” confusing, inasmuch as is doesn’t actually refer to “those who base their approach to social issues on traditional or Orthodox Christian doctrine.” I would agree that you (and the authors you quote) are using the term the way it is commonly used: to refer to only those who oppose abortion and gay marriage. But I also think that this definition implies that these are the only two issues Christians care about, which in my experience simply isn’t true. And so my article was openly challenging the common usage of the term (and its implications), not just your usage.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Catholic, and I think part of the confusion in terminology has to do with the differences between traditional Catholic and Evangelical teaching on social issues. For instance, Catholics have prioritized caring for the poor, or “social justice” if you will, since long before the existence of the Republican Party. With all due respect, they have been “earning it” on this one for centuries, and they’ve remained consistent to this day. In fact, thanks to Catholic prioritization of social justice, the American Catholic Bishops were notably outspoken advocates of Obamacare—until it became clear that the law as passed was going to violate the religious freedom of Catholic institutions by forcing them to act against their own consciences and doctrine. Not to mention all the other issues where Catholics have earned it; the Catholic Catechism also condemns torture, preaches a compassionate open immigration policy, opposes the death penalty, and says war should be the last of all resorts. These are not new ideas for Catholics. But even as the Church has campaigned stridently concerning specific issues, it has refused to have its message be co-opted by either party and has remained notably non-partisan (Bishop Timothy Dolan appeared at both major party conventions this past year). This is why Catholics, unlike, say, Evangelicals, tend to vote roughly 50/50 Republican/Democrat.

    All this to say, given that the Catholic Church is the oldest Christian denomination, and therefore “conservative” in the broadest and most literally accurate sense, I would maintain that any definition of “social conservatives” which fails to take into account Orthodox Catholics is an inadequate definition. But perhaps the term is beyond rehabilitation. As long as it can be used to lump Orthodox Christians in with the likes of Todd Akin—whose electoral loss was nothing more than a referendum on stupidity; nothing in his ridiculous and scientifically flawed comments is representative of the pro-life movement or Orthodox Christianity—perhaps rehabilitation is impossible. My loyalty isn’t to the term “social conservative,” it is to the doctrinal principles which I feel that term should represent. And I would be the first to say that if the term is not capable of representing those principles, it might be time to find a better term.

  3. I think it’s a lot easier to say that the tide is turning on gay marriage than on abortion. There has been slow and steady progress in the fight for GLBT rights with a few states passing “traditional marriage” laws along the way, whereas both abortion rates and the rates at which various demographic clusters support or oppose abortion have varied over the decades. While I certainly agree with you that the average evangelical mouthpiece overstates the importance of electing a “pro-life” politician, I think that Akin & Mourdock’s failed candidacies probably make you feel better more than they actually signal a sea change in the world of pro-life political activism. More data is required to assess the situation.

  4. Emily O. says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the Republican Party split in two down the sort of line these posts seem to be defining? On the one hand, the Tea Party or some reincarnation thereof could represent socially and fiscally conservative people who lean toward libertarianism. On the other side of the line, a more moderate and well-rounded view of Christian Conservatism could arise, which emphasized social justice as well as the hot-button abortion and gay marriage issues.

    I’m aware that the political ramifications of a three-party system would be massively problematic, and I’m fairly certain I’d still vote Democratic myself. So this hypothetical tangent doesn’t really purport to solve the overarching issues of American politics – but it is interesting to think about at least.

  5. AC says:

    Few questions to throw at Mr. Sessions
    1. do you believe there is a correlation between moral decay and expansion of social programs.
    2. how is amnesty of illegal immigration justified, and what does that mean for the future, why not just have open borders?
    3. is gay marriage a state issue?should marriage be one size fits and all? and what would the ramifications be?
    4. poor are taken care of in America right now, I agree we should take away their support, but what about the economics? are we stealing from our children and grandchildren to ensure stabilization and expansion of entitlements……is there a place for fiscal responsibility even with tax increases on the wealthy
    5. is abortion ever justified? when?
    6. what are we to do with Radical Islam? and when should Islam be called out as a political-social power grab that will lie & use force when peaceful conversion does not work.

    • GVG says:

      1 – “Correlation does not imply causation.” Perhaps the impoverishment of the people who has the need for social services is what is driving the moral decay.

      2 – If instead of prosecuting the immigrants, the BUSINESSES THAT HIRE THEM had their assets confiscated just like it is done with drugs, there wouldn’t be the need for illegal immigration. Reduce the demand and you might reduce the offer. Simple capitalism.

      3 – If you take religion out of the equation, any policy that discourages promiscuity (and marriage is the most effective of all) is a good one. If nothing else, reduces the spread the STDs.

      4 – A functional society is one that allows for the decent survival of most of its components. If a too sizable chunk of said society is impoverished, that is not a functional society. Examples of functional societies: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan. Examples of non-functional societies: India, Brasil, Somalia,Egypt. Which group do you want to belong to?

      5 – Women will not abide to being wards of the state during pregnancy. An embryo does not start to have a cortex (the brain structure responsible for sentience) until 26 weeks of gestation. After that (as spelled out by Roe versus Wade), if the survival of the mother is imperiled than SHE decides for self sacrifice or not. Government mandated self sacrifice is an oxymoron. The state does not have the right to legislate over people’s internal organs. Women are people. Embryos without brains are not people YET. Repeat until it sinks: Society has no right to control females’ organs.

      6 – What other people do to their religion in their own countries is none of anybody’s business. Terrorist (that is people who murder others for political purposes) should be caught and persecuted according to the law of the land regardless if they are atheists, Christians, Muslims or worshipers of the Great Spaghetti Monster.

      Anything else?

  6. AC says:

    sorry, I meant to say we should not take away from the poor….I work in Social Services, and realize the need for the most vulnerable: poor, elderly, disabled to be cared for!

  7. JH says:

    I can’t speak for David, but I will approach your staw-man questions:

    1. do you believe there is a correlation between moral decay and expansion of social programs?

    What are the mores/morals you are talking about? How do you measure them and over time? Since you eluded to decay and expansion, then the most significant statistical correlation (if there is “moral” decay) of the decay would be the expansion of US military programs including war.

    2. how is amnesty of illegal immigration justified, and what does that mean for the future, why not just have open borders?

    For many years, war has been used as a mechanism for “opening” up borders of a given country where as migration is just an economic device. If so how is war a more legitimate form of border penetration than migration? And what are the grounds for the respective justification?

    3. is gay marriage a state issue?should marriage be one size fits and all? and what would the ramifications be?

    Now you’re trying to cloak the religious overtones of marriage with jurisdiction assignment. None the less, it does not matter because, what is the point of a government ordained institution of marriage when a union of individuals can be organized using legal instruments such as trusts, corporations, LLC, etc.? Thus, shouldn’t marriage, in general, be eliminated because it is legally redundant?

    4. poor are taken care of in America right now, I agree we should take away their support, but what about the economics? are we stealing from our children and grandchildren to ensure stabilization and expansion of entitlements……is there a place for fiscal responsibility even with tax increases on the wealthy

    What is do you mean, “the poor is take care of”? The two biggest factors of long-term poverty are mental illness and the cost of health care treatment? Over the last 10 years, public mental health care has been
    cut but military spending has rocketed. Why now concerned with deficit spending? As opposed to during the Cold War, when the USSR was finding itself bankrupt with it military spending and the Generals warned the Premier in 1982 that they were running out of resources and would not be able to sustain troop levels? Next Social Security is well funded and the only threat to SS is the constant borrowing from the trust fund to finance the deficit in the general fund. The biggest expenditure of the general fund is the US Military, general fund entitlement programs don’t come close! With the wealthy, since you want to talk about economics, in economics wealth and income are a result of marginal product of labor (working) and and returns to calculated risks. So tell me something what product, work or calculate risk a person produced or take on when they inherited a financial endowment? Why should one lucky sperm cell be rewarded over all other sperm cells when it did absolutely nothing to inherit the wealth?

    5. is abortion ever justified? when?

    So if the goal is to minimize or to eliminate abortions, wouldn’t there be a greater effect by expanding public funds for adoptions then spending on the improbable result of getting a sustainable Congressional super majority of social conservatives?

    6. what are we to do with Radical Islam? and when should Islam be called out as a political-social power grab that will lie & use force when peaceful conversion does not work.

    Who are “we” and if you mean the US, why is it up to the US and who decides what is the metric or what is Radical Islam? Given that, in the past 60 years how many people have been killed by Middle Eastern terrorists vs. how many civilians been killed by the state of Israel?

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