What is a social conservative?

Thanks to Rich Shipe for alerting me to this article in “The Weekly Standard” by Jeffrey Bell entitled: “Alive and Kicking: Reports of the Demise of Social Conservatism Are Greatly Exaggerated. Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism has taken hold nowhere but in America, that the conservative parties of other Western nations have acquiesced to abortion, sexual permissiveness, the decline of marriage, and other cultural changes, concentrating instead on economic issues. Then Mr. Bell says this:

But there are several offsetting factors at work that have made and will continue to make social conservatism hard to marginalize. For one thing, social conservatism is the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in the core ideas of the American founding. It has taken over that role from parties, professions, and ideologies that used to perform it, and as a result it is touching a deep chord with millions of American voters.

Most social conservatives believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is true: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” While almost all Americans respect these words at least as a sentiment or metaphor, it is a fact that most–not all–social conservatives believe them to be literally true, while most–not all–opponents of social conservatism do not believe them to be literally true.

As long as these key assertions of our nation’s founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot–and in a way that, given the very different founding narratives of most countries in Europe and elsewhere, cannot easily be replicated beyond these shores.

Does this explain social conservatism? What would you add?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    Social Conservatism, like all other movements, it seems, could be said to be in a state of fracture at the moment. There is a strong core of pro-lifers, but the strongest of them may consider it their only issue. There is a strong core of anti-gay-movement folks, but they may not be pro-life. There are Creationists, and there are Intelligent Designers. Theses two core groups tend to look with disdain upon each other, respectively “liberal” and “conservative” to each other to a large extent. What part of Libertarians are SC’s? How would you characterize “crunchy conservatives”?

    Yes, SC’s tend to take the words of the Constitution much more literally, but there is a continuum within that statement also. “Life” for some is described the concept of the “seamless garment”. For others, the death penalty is on the table.

    To summarize, the only way to “look” at social conservatives is peripherally. Look directly, and the myth is dispelled. Yet in some diaphanous way, there IS such a “grouping”. Perhaps it is only known by its reputation.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    Social Conservatism, like all other movements, it seems, could be said to be in a state of fracture at the moment. There is a strong core of pro-lifers, but the strongest of them may consider it their only issue. There is a strong core of anti-gay-movement folks, but they may not be pro-life. There are Creationists, and there are Intelligent Designers. Theses two core groups tend to look with disdain upon each other, respectively “liberal” and “conservative” to each other to a large extent. What part of Libertarians are SC’s? How would you characterize “crunchy conservatives”?

    Yes, SC’s tend to take the words of the Constitution much more literally, but there is a continuum within that statement also. “Life” for some is described the concept of the “seamless garment”. For others, the death penalty is on the table.

    To summarize, the only way to “look” at social conservatives is peripherally. Look directly, and the myth is dispelled. Yet in some diaphanous way, there IS such a “grouping”. Perhaps it is only known by its reputation.

  • Paul

    Mr. Bell writes: “As long as these key assertions of our nation’s founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot…”

    I would assert that social conservatism is the “default” worldview for all times and cultures. When there is peace and plenty, then most are willing to experiment with new ideas or allow philosophies to have their try, but come war, famine, plague, disaster, or economic collapse, I believe that Social Conservatism will resurface as the dominant or “default” view which binds us and supports us — a realization that Social Conservatives have had all along.

    Interestingly, the same can be said of the Church. We always come back to the center before some new fad or phase begins. And when it dries up (as conservatives ‘know’ that it will), people come back to the base for what has bound us and protected us all along.

    I presently see in both Church and Society the beginnings of the rebound back to the center, the core, the ‘fundamentals.’ As the baby boomers begin to move out of the focus and busters move in, there is less demand for sugar and more demand for meat. As we have recently observed, even the Church Growth folks are realizing the emptiness of their ideas.

    Sadly, this is not a yo-yo effect, but a pendulum or bungee cord so that it will probably over compensate in a somewhat less but still opposite direction. We also see already the uber-conservatism which is not based upon a core ideal, but upon reaction (overly so) to the left agenda. Pietism or Dogmatism will be the battle in another 40 years, I fear; but that too will rebound to the center. It’s a constant pattern I would say.

  • Paul

    Mr. Bell writes: “As long as these key assertions of our nation’s founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot…”

    I would assert that social conservatism is the “default” worldview for all times and cultures. When there is peace and plenty, then most are willing to experiment with new ideas or allow philosophies to have their try, but come war, famine, plague, disaster, or economic collapse, I believe that Social Conservatism will resurface as the dominant or “default” view which binds us and supports us — a realization that Social Conservatives have had all along.

    Interestingly, the same can be said of the Church. We always come back to the center before some new fad or phase begins. And when it dries up (as conservatives ‘know’ that it will), people come back to the base for what has bound us and protected us all along.

    I presently see in both Church and Society the beginnings of the rebound back to the center, the core, the ‘fundamentals.’ As the baby boomers begin to move out of the focus and busters move in, there is less demand for sugar and more demand for meat. As we have recently observed, even the Church Growth folks are realizing the emptiness of their ideas.

    Sadly, this is not a yo-yo effect, but a pendulum or bungee cord so that it will probably over compensate in a somewhat less but still opposite direction. We also see already the uber-conservatism which is not based upon a core ideal, but upon reaction (overly so) to the left agenda. Pietism or Dogmatism will be the battle in another 40 years, I fear; but that too will rebound to the center. It’s a constant pattern I would say.

  • Bror Erickson

    I guess I’m not sure what these words have to do with Social conservatism perse:“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
    Libertarians invoke these same words for their live and let live attitude. There is nothing in here say that would prohibit gay marriage, the legalization of currently illicit drugs, prostitution or otherwise unconservative views of what should and should not happen in one’s bedroom. Maybe with a few jumps of reason and logic one could do that, but even the culture of the era in which these were written would say that there is nothing particularly socially conservative about these words. I’ll let Frank tell us what if any gay culture there was in that time. But drugs now illegal were certainly more acceptable at the time those words were written, prostitution was rampant, and our forefathers were not the most virtuous when it came to chastity. I don’t say this to deminish them, they were great men, but let’s not white wash them with Hagiography.

  • Bror Erickson

    I guess I’m not sure what these words have to do with Social conservatism perse:“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
    Libertarians invoke these same words for their live and let live attitude. There is nothing in here say that would prohibit gay marriage, the legalization of currently illicit drugs, prostitution or otherwise unconservative views of what should and should not happen in one’s bedroom. Maybe with a few jumps of reason and logic one could do that, but even the culture of the era in which these were written would say that there is nothing particularly socially conservative about these words. I’ll let Frank tell us what if any gay culture there was in that time. But drugs now illegal were certainly more acceptable at the time those words were written, prostitution was rampant, and our forefathers were not the most virtuous when it came to chastity. I don’t say this to deminish them, they were great men, but let’s not white wash them with Hagiography.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As a conservative Christian who is otherwise liberal-leaning, I have no idea if I’m a “social conservative” or not. Maybe?

    I will say this: I don’t think the idea that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are inalienably given to “all men” by God is biblically defensible. Certainly God gives life to all people (though he also gives to authorities the power to take it away). Liberty also is a blessing from God, but not one that is guaranteed — how else can one explain the existence of slavery under the Israeli theocracy? And I don’t see how the “pursuit” of happiness is much of a right that can be forfeited, anyhow.

    Of course, it was convenient for the founding fathers to believe that God necessarily condoned their actions — that if they didn’t have liberty, that God blessed any actions they undertook to reclaim it. But this thought is rooted more in the Enlightenment than Scripture.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As a conservative Christian who is otherwise liberal-leaning, I have no idea if I’m a “social conservative” or not. Maybe?

    I will say this: I don’t think the idea that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are inalienably given to “all men” by God is biblically defensible. Certainly God gives life to all people (though he also gives to authorities the power to take it away). Liberty also is a blessing from God, but not one that is guaranteed — how else can one explain the existence of slavery under the Israeli theocracy? And I don’t see how the “pursuit” of happiness is much of a right that can be forfeited, anyhow.

    Of course, it was convenient for the founding fathers to believe that God necessarily condoned their actions — that if they didn’t have liberty, that God blessed any actions they undertook to reclaim it. But this thought is rooted more in the Enlightenment than Scripture.

  • fw

    I am gay and I am a social conservative by virtue of being a christian.

    It is quite another question as to how I feel this should all translate into how we should be governed.

    Example: I feel drugs are a scourge, and yet feel that war was lost long ago and would favor decriminalization and regulation. I feel that christians should probably not divorce, but i would strongly oppose laws forbidding divorce as in roman catholic countries. etc etc etc….

    What IS this post all about?

  • fw

    I am gay and I am a social conservative by virtue of being a christian.

    It is quite another question as to how I feel this should all translate into how we should be governed.

    Example: I feel drugs are a scourge, and yet feel that war was lost long ago and would favor decriminalization and regulation. I feel that christians should probably not divorce, but i would strongly oppose laws forbidding divorce as in roman catholic countries. etc etc etc….

    What IS this post all about?

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    The only reason we have to discuss what it means to be a “social conservative”, a “crunchy conservative”, a “neo-conservative”, a “Reagan Democrat”, a “Green Libertarian”, a “Whale Boat Neopolitan” or any other label is because of widespread media use of the terms. The terms do not serve to describe anything concrete. They come to mean different things to different people and eventually outlive their usefulness. Sometimes they are used intentionally as caricatures, but often people will use one or another to actually describe themselves. But it still doesn’t mean anything. For example, I know five different people who describe themselves as “crunchy conservatives”. But when questioned about what they mean by that, none of them agree with each other or with the original author of the book CRUNCHY CONSERVATISM.

    Sincerely;

    Bruce Gee, Neo-Confessional-libertarian-GreenonWednesdays-Gnarly Conservative

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    The only reason we have to discuss what it means to be a “social conservative”, a “crunchy conservative”, a “neo-conservative”, a “Reagan Democrat”, a “Green Libertarian”, a “Whale Boat Neopolitan” or any other label is because of widespread media use of the terms. The terms do not serve to describe anything concrete. They come to mean different things to different people and eventually outlive their usefulness. Sometimes they are used intentionally as caricatures, but often people will use one or another to actually describe themselves. But it still doesn’t mean anything. For example, I know five different people who describe themselves as “crunchy conservatives”. But when questioned about what they mean by that, none of them agree with each other or with the original author of the book CRUNCHY CONSERVATISM.

    Sincerely;

    Bruce Gee, Neo-Confessional-libertarian-GreenonWednesdays-Gnarly Conservative


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