"Most modern liberals, at their most consistent, want a situation in which as many individuals as possible can realize as many of their ends as possible, without assessment of the value of these ends as such, save in so far as they may frustrate the purposes of others. They wish the frontiers between individuals or groups of men to be drawn solely with a view to preventing collisions between human purposes, all of which must be considered to be equally ultimate, uncriticizable ends in themselves." — Isaiah Berlin
I've written a lot lately about how conservatives lost the culture war. Some of my socially conservative friends were upset when I argued that at least part of the reason for this was that "pro-family" activist groups aren't as effective as fiscally conservative groups. I still believe that to be true, but I also believe that the culture war wasn't a fair fight. It has always been rigged.
Social conservatives are greatly outnumbered (a byproduct of having lost the culture war argument). We hear a lot about the supposed "three-legged-stool" of the conservative movement, but in fighting the culture war, social conservatives are on their own. In fact, it's wrong to think of this in terms of a left versus right paradigm. It would be better understood as part of the continuing struggle between virtue (as social conservatives define it) and liberty (defined by our modern secular society to mean the freedom to do whatever we want). In that light, liberty is murdering virtue.
Let's take a step back for a moment first. Many prominent conservatives, like anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, argue that conservatives just want to be left alone. In fact, Norquist has dubbed conservatism the "leave us alone" coalition.
Cultural conservatives see this as naïve. The state, they reason, will never leave us alone. We either win or we lose the culture war, but you can't opt out. In this regard, they are like Winston Churchill, who said of his predecessor: "Mr. Chamberlain can't seem to understand that we live in a very wicked world … English people want to be left alone, and I daresay a great many other people want to be left alone too. But the world is like a tired old horse plodding down a long road. Every time it strays off and tries to graze peacefully in some nice green pasture, along comes a new master to flog it a bit further along.'"
Since the state will never really leave us alone, social conservatives reason that the state should encourage ordered liberty. That means that the state should incentivize behavior that has served Western Civilization well over the years. In other words, as Dylan said, "you're gonna have to serve somebody," so social conservatives reason that a virtuous society should encourage behavior deemed virtuous by traditional Judeo-Christian culture, and discourage behavior at odds with that.
This, of course, is unpopular in the modern world — not just amongst liberals, but also with libertarian-leaning conservatives, and the general public. In today's America, there is huge value placed on people being able to do what they want and be who they want to be. Trying to deny them those "rights" has become something of a taboo in many circles.
Of course, there has always been a tension between virtue and liberty. But at some point, America ceased emphasizing community values and began valuing extreme individualism. More and more, Americans — including many conservatives — now believe that individuals should do whatever they want so long as it isn't hurting anybody else.
But the cultural conservative says that there is a "tragedy of the commons" problem with this — that the "if it feels right, do it" mentality will eventually hurt society collectively.
And while social conservatives attempt to argue this point on purely secular grounds, the truth is that it makes little sense without God. As Dr. Benjamin Wiker writes in his new book, Worshipping The State, "For liberalism to make sense, we would have to live in a world without ends — to put it in technical philosophical terms, in a non-teleological universe (telos means "goal" or "end in Greek), where, since there are no ends written into nature (including human nature) by God, we are free to create them ourselves."
Absent a higher purpose, laws are arbitrary. Never was this spelled out more clearly than in the Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe v. Wade: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
In a moral relativist world, aborting an unborn child becomes "giving a mother the right to pursue happiness." Making divorce easy becomes "unburdening individuals to pursue happiness."
Almost every hot-button issue we wrestle with can fundamentally be traced to the struggle between what traditional conservatives deem to be virtue (based on tradition and Judeo-Christian teaching) and the desire to satisfy the individual's desire for extreme freedom.
Wiker says it best:
Americans have been formed by two distinct streams of influence, Christianity and Enlightenment Liberalism. That's a rather combustible and uncomfortable mixture, given that the essence of Liberalism is its embrace of life in this world as the highest good, and its consequent hostility to the Christian emphasis on the next. Historically, Liberalism (true to its name) seeks to liberate society from the moral burdens of Christianity, so that we may be free to enjoy this world without guilt or obstruction — without worrying about the demands of virtue. The great modern Liberal thinkers, Hobbes and Locke, therefore replaced the Christian goal of virtue, with the Liberal goal of individual rights — rights being defined in terms of individual desires, so that "I have a right to ________" merely means "I want _______."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why ABC threw its Bachelor under the bus
- Why are so many elderly Asians killing themselves?
- Why I'm sick and tired of seeing naked women on HBO
- Here's proof that Justin Bieber is just as spoiled as you always thought
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Here's how Iran is covering Russia's invasion of Crimea
- Why Ted Cruz is the real-life Frank Underwood
- Watch Zach Galifianakis get annoyed at President Obama on Between Two Ferns
- 4 easy ways to resolve life's toughest questions
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week