Now is a tough time to be a social conservative. Most of you may not know this, but even though I mostly write about economics, I’m a staunch social conservative. In fact, I was a ProLife activist years before I became interested in economics.

In this post, I’m going to explain how I think social conservatism can be saved.

Wait, you mean it can be saved? 

It sure can. I know that many doubt this – they see social conservatism kind of like geocentrism, a belief that was bound to die out as new scientific evidence amassed.

But here’s the thing: Geocentrism was a belief about the natural world (more specifically, it was the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe), while social conservatism is a belief about how society should function and about which ethical foundations we should build our nation on. Basically, social conservatism – just like any other ideology – is outside the realm of science. You can never “scientifically disprove” social conservatism, just like you can never scientifically disprove liberalism. You may in some cases be able to scientifically disprove certain claims that followers of the respective ideologies make, but never the ideologies themselves.

Remember that social conservatism has been declared dead before – during the late 1960’s when the hippie movement was at its peak, no-one ever imagined that a guy like Ronald Reagan would ever become president.

Remember what stopped the hippie/free love movement? Oh yeah that’s right… STDs. Otherwise known as “the consequence of their actions”. That’s the thing about liberalism: It isn’t just “wrong” – it’s directly unhealthy. It’s easy to forget, even as a christian, that the rules that we get through the Bible are there for our own good – not because God is trying to mess with us and ruin our fun.

Similarly, the current trend of social progressivism will end (at the latest) when it’s time to pay the bill: Families are a fundamental building block of civilization. Trust me, it won’t be pretty once they are gone.

Anyway, so what should we do?

The two big problems, in my view, that social conservatives face are that 1) we have really bad leaders and 2)  voters tend to think that we want to turn back the clock.

Yes, we have really bad leaders – and your favourite SoCon politician is most likely one of them.

First, let’s talk leadership: The social conservative movement unfortunately is really bad at picking leaders. It’s kind of like a good-natured 14-year old girl who keeps falling for the wrong guys who lead her astray – in this case, the “wrong guys” are guys like Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has no semblence of leadership qualities, Santorum has no semblence of electability, and Perry has no semblence of debating skills. So why has the SoCon movement embraced them?

Because they – we – are desperate for leadership. We cling onto anyone who is willing to talk the talk, even if they have never walked the walk (Gingrich being the prime example). It’s like a 14-year old who is so happy that someone is willing to tell her that he loves her, she doesn’t even care that he’s only saying it to get in her pants (or get elected in the case of the politicians).

Don’t you tell your daughters to stay away from those guys? Don’t you tell your daughters they’ll find someone better eventually if they just wait and leave it to God? Good. Now, dear social conservative, it’s time you live ackording to the rules you give your kids.

And for those of you who think Santorum is electable and that the left is just mocking him because they are scared of him: Imagine if the Democrats nominated a guy who said that he was going to focus his campaign on something no-one else had ever talked about… the dangers of abstinence.

Now let’s say this candidate was down 15 % in the polls against the Republican candidate. Of course, his supporters insists that he just needs to get his message out, and that the polls are skewed, and that the lamestream media is conspiring against him.

Would you not be happy? As a republican, I go to sleep dreaming about that every night: That democrats, having won two presidential elections, will become so self-confident that they nominate a guy like Walter Mondale or George McGovern.

Why would you be happy? Because, regardless of your stance on abstinence, abstinence is too small an issue to really matter. There are basically two scenarios:

1) The Democratic nominee doesn’t manage to convince voters about the dangers of abstinence, makes a fool of himself, and loses the election.

2) The Democratic nominee does manage to convince voters about the dangers of abstinence, but that doesn’t make anyone vote for him, because the issue of abstinence just isn’t very big. They want to hear his plan for the economy, what he intends to do about Iran and North Korea. Even if he is able to convince them on the issue of abstinence, that’s just not enough to get him elected.

Replace the word “abstinence” with “contraception” and “Democrat” with “Republican” – and that’s Rick Santorum.

You may think it’s different, because Santorum is right and the hypothetical democrat would be wrong. But here’s the thing: Social conservatives need to stop believing in Hollywood endings. We criticize Hollywood all the time, yet we seem to believe in the world as Hollywood portrays it: The good guy always win. We think that if we just run purists for long enough, that voters will eventually reward us and we’ll ride off into the sunset and govern happily ever after.

That’s just not real life. We’re the good guy, but we may not win (politically that is). Some say winning is not important. If you feel that way, feel free to get out of electoral politics and work for Social conservative causes outside of politics altogether. In politics, we have elections, and you’re supposed to at least try to win them.

Even someone who understands that most SoCon leaders today are so bad they wouldn’t be trusted to manage a fast food joint, may still sigh and say “Well, they’re all we got – those were the only SoCons running”. That, however, is only partially correct: Other Social conservatives who didn’t run, didn’t do so exactly because they recognized that the movement wouldn’t support them, because they are the type of social conservatives who believe that talking is better than screaming, that actual plans matter more than slogans, and that we should have visions for the future instead of dreaming of the past.

hatethesinlovethesinner

Speaking of visions for the future…

As social conservatives, we should never give anyone the impression that we want to go back to the past.

Why? Well, partly because “Let’s do it the way we used to” is the worst political slogan one can ever imagine, but mostly because a truly socially conservative society really hasn’t existed.

Think back at the 19th century: Sure, there were no gay marriage and no-one was trying to legalize abortion (even most feminists opposed it). But overall, from a social conservative perspective, the 19th and early 20th century really wasn’t much better from today from a Christian perspective:

Back in the 19th century, alcoholism was rampant and destroyed thousands of families (as it still does today).

In addition to alcoholism, there was adultery, which was way more common than anyone who lived back then would like to admit. Only women were really punished (legally and/or socially) if they were caught committing adultery, despite the fact that the bible makes no difference between male and female adultery. Presidents keeping mistresses was acceptable up until JFK. Oh and while we’re on the topic of marriage, perhaps we should mention domestic violence and forced marriages.

Also, while there were certainly more christians back then and church attendance was higher, remember that very few Christians back then were born again Christians – many were just “christians in name only”, who attended church because that’s what you were supposed to be doing. Christianity, to many (most?) people in the 19th century, was more about memorizing rules and rituals, not about redemption, forgiveness, experiencing the holy spirit and all the other things that we today would say being a christian should be about.

Basically, America (and Europe even more so) back in the 19th century was not socially conservative as much as it was pharisaic.

Here’s my point: Humans have always been sinful, and gay marriage (and abortion, drugs etc) is really just the latest “trend” in our sinful nature. The fact that today’s sins are bad – and they most certainly are! – is no excuse to be nostalgic about the past.

Instead, we need to present a vision for the future, free from the sins of the present as well as the from the past. And, if anyone calls themselves a social conservative but disagrees with this, than that person or organization must be disowned by every true social conservative. After all, conservatism is not about worshipping the past; it’s about learning from the past.

We need to learn how to explain values and why they are needed, in practical terms that anyone – christian or non-christian – can understand. This is not nearly as hard as it sounds: The negative effects of (for example) single motherhood are very well documented by social scientists across all disciplines. That is not to rack down on single mothers, who (most of them anyway) are doing all they can to raise their children to be good citizens – but the statistics really do speak for themselves. Same thing goes with abortion: Does anyone seriously believe that the US would be facing a pension crisis if there had been roughly 50 million more americans, most of them in working age?

In summary, this is how we save social conservatism: We choose our leaders wisely (and we stop letting talk radio choose them for us… in fact, let’s stop listening to talk radio altogether), by focusing on the future and not the past, and by reaching out with common sense arguments backed up by data. If we do this, social conservatism doesn’t have to go the way of the dodo. In fact, if we can only get our act together, I can safely say the battle has only just begun.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit Subnet 24 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

5 comments
  1. Gee John, I’d agree with your observations about Santorum, but then we’d both be wrong. Remember, Reagan wasn’t electable. Bush I wasn’t electable. Bush II wasn’t electable. I am curious as to who you believe is the ideal socially conservative candidate.

    1. You’re wrong. Bush 43 was considered electable quite early – he then made some stumbles that made people doubt his electability, and then he ultimately won on a technicality. Reagan was pretty unknown until a few weeks before the actual election (his debate performance turned things around), while Santorum is a known good. Bush 41 was very much electable from the beginning, his election was never in doubt actually (he was a sitting VP of a popular government and had lots of establishment connections)

      Also, Santorum is crazier than any GOP candidate since… I don’t know, ever? “The dangers of contraception”… where does he get everything from? Santorum is a special type of crazy; he plays in his own league. He manages to say stuff that even makes staunch prolife activists like myself cringe.

      Finally, it’s always easy to point to times when conventional wisdom has been wrong and say “See, this proves that experts are useless” – but that’s just a case of confirmation bias. We rarely hear about all the thousands of times when experts have been right – Sharon Angel, Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, Joe Miller, Bob Dole etc. It’s easier to focus on the exceptions than to focus on the very obvious rule.

      1. John, why don’t you read my article on Caffenighted Thoughts on the subject of contraception. You’ll learn that artifical contraception is quite dangerous socially as history has shown quite clearly. It’s also quite dangerous physically with well known long term potential health risks to women, some of which include cancer and blood clots. Santorum crazy, hardly. Being uninformed about the topic and labeling someone else as crazy? Well, pick your own label.

  2. Mr. Gustavsson, you state: “I know that many doubt this – they see social conservatism kind of
    like geocentrism, a belief that was bound to die out as new scientific
    evidence amassed.
    But here’s the thing: Geocentrism was a belief about the natural
    world (more specifically, it was the idea that the earth was the centre
    of the universe), while social conservatism is a belief about how
    society should function and about which ethical foundations we should
    build our nation on. Basically, social conservatism – just like any
    other ideology – is outside the realm of science.”

    Are you trying to imply sir that geocentrism is an ideology? If you are you are very much mistaken. In any event, as far as geocentrism goes the scientific evidence including that of NASA’s Planck satellite findings released last March 21st, is actually stronger than ever that geocentrism is indeed true.

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