So, What Exactly Does Social Conservatism Mean?

Let me set the stage thusly. Troy Senik excerpts Mike Murphy:

The Republican challenge is not about better voter-turnout software; it is about policy. We repel Latinos, the fastest-growing voter group in the country, with our nativist opposition to immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship. We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same…

  1. BrentB67

    To me social conservative means wanting government, usually federal, to intervene to limit potentially corrupt behavior that may not always have specific impact to society and individual citizens. E.g. banning abortion, defining marriage, outlaw prostitution, etc.

    I think the target gets harder to define when you discuss at what level/where those things should be addressed e.g. federal vs. state government.

    I believe abortion, same sex marriage, and prostitution (citing examples above) are all corrosive to society and given a choice I will live in a state that does not allow them.  However, I do not support the federal government reaching into individual state’s affairs to legislate these things.

    I am not sure being a Christian makes me a social conservative as I defined it earlier. Christ’s commission does not include ‘go out and pass laws to ban sin and punish those that sin anyhow’. Christ encourages us to live lives that honor Him and the Father such that things like examples here are non issues in society.

  2. BrentB67

    When I read Troy’s piece and the quote you use to kick off your post I thought it did a great job of highlighting the root cause of republican electoral failure – what does it mean to be a republican. What does it mean to claim that mantle? What does a republican stand for?

    The party platform reads pretty well, but when the lights are turned on republicans and it is time to stand up for any of those things they tend to fold up like lawn chairs.

    ‘Not Obama’ isn’t a core value or principle, it is an absence of ideas and commitment to those same ideas.

  3. Robert Lux

    Social conservatism to me means, in a nutshell, the restoration of natural law and natural rights as the underpinning of the Constitution.  Perhaps the best quick, accessible explanation of this is by Tom West and Douglas Jeffrey here.

  4. Guruforhire

    Imagine 2 fields each with a cow.

    One cow is free to do as he likes within the confines of the fence, he can munch any grass he wants, and nobody will come around and poke him with a stick.  But he has to stay within the fences.  The farmer will ask you to pull the plow to plant the crops that feed you.  You can say no but then there is no food.

    The other cow has a bigger field, the grass is greener in some spots, but the farmer is going to come and make him pull his plow.  He can only eat from the grass he allows him.  But look at how big his field is.

    There may not be a big difference at the end of the day, you are a cow in a field with a yoke around your neck and chewing a cud.  But in one scenario are you recognized to be your own cow.

    Agency with more restrictions or no agency and less restrictions.

  5. liberal jim

    I think the fundamental difference between what is generally called So Cons and Libertarians, Conservative and Liberals is that the latter group generally makes arguments based on materialistic conceptions, while So. Cons. tend not to.  Real wealth consists of  ideas, attitudes, moral codes and mental discipline not tangible things.  It seems to me So. Cons. tend to make arguments consistent with this principle far more often than do others.

    A So. Con may make and argument against gay marriage, but they do so because they think gay marriage will affect societies attitude toward marriage.  They may or may not be correct, but what the are concerned about are peoples attitudes about marriage , not what a gay couple is doing or not doing.

  6. cbc

    Social conservatives come in different flavors within the Republican party.  I am a religious (but not Christian), fairly libertarian, socially conservative Republican. 

    As a social conservative I believe that there is a moral component to civilization.  That moral component consists of adherence to what Aristotle called natural law (and the founders called the Second Table),  a commitment to the founding institutions of the Declaration, the Constitution, limited government etc.  The principle in the Declaration is biblical in origin.  Our civilization and the strength of our prosperity also includes a respect for the so-called bourgeois virtues (see Benjamin Franklin) and for people who build businesses.  

    As a constitutionalist I may be religious, but I don’t want to impose religion on government.  On the other hand I don’t want the government restricting me in the practice of my religion provided that in that practice I do not violently harm other people.

  7. Fake John Galt

    Yes by all means lets kick religious people out of the Republican Party. I can definitely see how having morals and principles is a negative in politics.

  8. KC Mulville

    The problem with culture is that we all belong to it. What the culture teaches, it teaches to everyone. Culture isn’t neutral, and it isn’t silent. It promotes certain things, and discourages other things.

    Culture works chiefly through institutions, e.g., education, media, and government.Those institutions aren’t inward-looking enclaves. Their power, and reason for existence, is precisely to promote or discourage the public. Those institutions intentionally sway the public.

    Now the logic is simple. If you believe that certain things are wrong or immoral, you don’t want the institutions of society promoting them. You don’t want institutions discouraging the principles you do believe.

    But we all know what’s happened in the last century. Liberals have “captured” our cultural institutions. And not only do liberals promote ideas here or there, they have established a choke-hold on the mechanics of the conversation.

    Worst of all, liberals have used their choke-hold on the cultural conversation to advance relativism. Simplistically, that’s the notion that you are your own judge of truth. I argue that this means, in effect, that relativism means you’re entitled to believe whatever you want.

    That, I reject.

  9. TheSophist

    liberal jim — very interesting point. Because if that’s the case, then I think I could make the argument that SoCons have no real place in politics. Their place is in moral institutions of church, schools, and media.

    Isn’t politics ultimately concerned with material things and the practicalities of here and now? After all, look at the litany of Facts in the Declaration of Independence. They are all practical, material things: quartering of troops, levying of taxes, etc.

    Yes, natural law and the philosophies of Locke et. al. underlie the Declaration, but the driver is inherently material, no?

    So I return to my thought that perhaps SoCons should be focused on the institutions and the structure of power: devolving power away from Big and Faraway to Small and Local. Then turn their energies towards making inroads into churches, schools, newspapers, movies, and books. No?

  10. Schrodinger

    Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, 3 as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4 by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.

    2 Peter 1:2-9

  11. Patrick in Albuquerque

    Apparently being a SoCon means that people like Akin and Mourdock are fit for public office.

  12. katievs

    I agree that we should emphasize the value of institutions for fostering the only kind of culture that can sustain a society of limited government.

    That means, above all, defending marriage, which is the basic institution of the civil society.  Abolish marriage and chaos ensues.

    In addition to emphasizing institutions, we also have to re-assert the value  and rights of the individual vis. a vis. the collective.  We have to oppose abortion.

    Robert is right.  It’s about natural law, under God.  Without that, there’s only “will to power.”  

    As American history shows, being under God does not entail theocracy.  I don’t know anyone who wants a theocracy.

  13. katievs
    Patrick in Albuquerque: Apparently being a SoCon means that people like Akin and Mourdock are fit for public office. · 8 minutes ago

    These two should not be lumped together.  Mourdock’s position, however unfortunately expressed, is entirely defensible.  It is mainstream pro-life.  

    Akin’s position is not mainstream and not defensible.

  14. Rachel Lu

    As a definition, I think Robert puts it in a nutshell. Expanding on that, though, social conservatives believe that there are particular social forms that promote human thriving and others that don’t. Government, along with society as a whole, should favor the ones that do. What that amounts to in policy terms varies somewhat. 

    The errors of the RINOs are actually nicely analogous to the ones Democrats make concerning fiscal policy. At bottom, their progressivist assumption is that social norms must loosen and traditional sexual morality and family values must erode. After all, the young people want it, right? It’s the way of the future, right?

    As in the fiscal case, though, the progressive way is really the path to servitude and social collapse. You can’t build a healthy society on that foundation. Conservatives want to build societies that work for actual humans, and they understand that sometimes that means taking the road that’s immediately harder.

  15. KC Mulville
    TheSophist:  I could make the argument that SoCons have no real place in politics. Their place is in moral institutions of church, schools, and media. [...] Isn’t politics ultimately concerned with material things and the practicalities of here and now?


    So long as the Supreme Court sets law, and the makeup of the Supreme Court is determined by politicians, we are forced to fight a political battle.

    Most social conservatives are fiscal conservatives also. But because Democrats tend to be “living constitution” devotees, and they nominate people who are willing to use the law to manipulate social questions (cf. Harry Blackmun, Vaughn Walker, etc.), we have to depend on Republicans to fill the courts with fair judges.

    Most of the social questions are haggled at the Supreme Court. We’d rather they weren’t, but ever since the evolution of a warped view of “privacy,” we have no choice.

    Liberals say that we’re looking to pack the court with activists, just like they do. That’s why we like Antonin Scalia so much, because he refutes that accusation. We want a fair fight, not to rig the fight like they do.

  16. The King Prawn

    If institutions derive the society rather than the other way around, then how did the Declaration or the Constitution ever come into being?

    I contend (even against Prof. Rahe at times) that our institutions are reflections of culture/society/the people rather than net influencers of society. We produced virtuous institutions when we were a virtuous people. We corrupt our once virtuous institutions now that we’ve become corrupt. Or, as Ben Franklin said:

    Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.

    So what is a socon? He is one who wishes to prevent the corruption that requires us to be governed despotically.

  17. The Mugwump

    Institutions do not create virtuous people.  Any organization, be it governmental, religious, or cultural, can just as easily promote vice as virtue.  As conservatives we therefore reject government dependency, religious intolerance, and cultural immorality as societal vices.  We embrace self-sufficiency, faith, and personal restraint as the antidote for societal decline.  When public vice becomes the norm, we naturally retreat into a private world of personal virtue.

    When the cultural virtues necessary to maintaining a republic are lost, there is no return to virtue by external imposition (including legislation) because personal virtue is a voluntary code of behavior for righteous living.  That’s not to say that all is lost because vice has certain consequences such as personal unhappiness, economic hardship, and destructive behaviors.  What follows is a national trauma of which economic collapse is just one possibility.  The virtues will return when they become necessary for survival.

    Marxist ideology has introduced a toxin into the bloodstream of the body politic.  The disease must run its course before a recovery is possible.  A sick society will be prey to demagogues and sociopaths until the patient realizes that the bleeding only makes him weaker.  Such is our current condition.

  18. katievs
    ~Paules: Institutions do not create virtuous people. 

    Aren’t you loading the question, Paules, with the word “create”?  

    Obviously institutions don’t create persons.  But they can be conducive (or not) to personal virtue.  Marriage being the most important of those institutions.

    A strong marriage culture tends to issue into strong, happy, capable new individuals.

  19. katievs
    The King Prawn: If institutions derive the society rather than the other way around, then how did the Declaration or the Constitution ever come into being?

    It’s a “virtuous cycle,” don’t you think?  Good and just laws and institutions are conducive of virtue, and a virtuous people will construct and uphold good laws.

    But, to bring it back to Robert’s point, the key is natural law, which precedes human creation.  I mean, we didn’t invent marriage, we received it.  It was given.  

    The most basic institution, like our basic rights, precede and supersede human government.

  20. The Mugwump

    ~Paules: Institutions do not create virtuous people. 

    Aren’t you loading the question, Paules, with the word “create”?  

    Obviously institutions don’t create persons.  No, they teach and disseminate virtue.  But they can be conducive to virtue.  Marriage being the most important.

    A strong marriage culture tends to issue into strong, happy, capable new individuals. · 2 minutes ago

    A virtuous people will choose marriage over sexual license, and a two parent household over bastardy for the propagation and rearing of children.  Institutions that preach “alternatives” to marriage out of foolishness or deliberate malice attack the very foundation of society.  You and I don’t disagree.  If you want to know where we’re headed as a society, just look at the mayhem and murder in communities where bastardy is the norm.  Our cultural elites ignore the problem because their only concern is the maintenance of power.  And damn the rest of us.       

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