Social Conservatism Beyond Abortion and Gay Marriage

Editorial Note: The following interview is part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."

1.  Is the evangelical commitment to social conservatism fading, as Catholics and Mormons take the lead?  

All in all, this question is probably better directed to an evangelical. But it is worth noting that we're examining this question during an extended period of time when other big issues have dominated. Since 9/11, terrorism, national security, and matters of war dominated our national conversation for a long period. The sudden economic turmoil in 2008 and a downturn that has been effectively a three-year recession have put economics and jobs issues front and center. And a series of dramatic policy changes—the TARP bailout, a huge stimulus, and an exploding deficit have spurred a wave of conservative activism based upon limiting the size and scope of government. 

If evangelicals have more on their minds than social conservatism in recent years, it in part reflects that almost everyone has had more on their minds than social conservatism in recent years.

Secondly, it's rather interesting that "social conservatism" has come to be defined as almost a synonym for "abortion and gay marriage." Social conservatism was once associated with a much wider range of issues: the content and messages on our television, movies, popular music; what kind of values are being taught to our children at school; hostility to expressions of religious faith in public life; general civility and decorum in public spaces; the social cost of legalized gambling, drug use and associated criminal activity, and more. Perhaps evangelicals are less committed to social conservatism, or perhaps their sense of priorities for a better, more conservative society is changing.

2.  Are we reaching a tipping point on the abortion issue?  What's the strategy from here?

Polling indicates that the public is growing more pro-life, and young people—the first generation born after Roe v. Wade—are leading the way. But obviously it is unlikely that the United States will ban abortion completely, at least not anytime soon. The pro-life movement picks its battles wisely—taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, parental notification, partial-birth abortion. They've forced most pro-choice Democrats to acknowledge that the final phrase in Bill Clinton's vision of abortion being "safe, legal, and rare" is meaningless, as they are not willing to do much of anything to ensure that abortion is rare. Had Clinton called for a society where abortion is "safe, legal, and commonplace," many would have recoiled, including the considerable number of Americans who find themselves in the mushy middle—having serious moral objections about abortion, but wary of the complications of living in a country where it is outlawed.

3.  Is the struggle against gay marriage a lost cause, or more costly than it is worth?

I think it has run afoul of a fundamental contradiction. For a lot of straight Americans, the concept of homosexual sex is "icky," and the idea of two men or two women getting married contradicts everything they've believed and known about marriage since the day they first learned the word. Nonetheless, most Americans, including many gay marriage opponents, don't see themselves as "hateful" and would recoil at the accusation. They don't want to say to a gay or lesbian, "You're a second-class citizen, and you don't deserve the same rights as everybody else."

But the traditional view of marriage pretty much requires one group of Americans to have legally recognized marriages (straights) and one not (gays and lesbians). One group of people have one set of rights, and another group of people doesn't have them. Our devotion to a traditional definition of marriage—that goes back to prehistory—runs afoul of our notion of equal justice under the law.

Unsurprisingly, some Christians and conservatives are not terribly interested in fighting a political battle on those terms and are shifting their focus elsewhere; others reconsider whether government should legally recognize marriages at all.

It is worth noting, of course, that the pro-gay-marriage argument has its own contradictions. One of the fundamental justifications often revolves around privacy, or the idea that "the government has no business regulating what goes on in our bedrooms." But obviously, these relationships are not exclusive to bedrooms. If they were, most straight Americans would never notice them. The question is whether a gay man or lesbian woman can live their lives in the public sphere with their same-sex married partners present, as widely and unremarkably as heterosexual married couples do.