American social conservatism faces an existential crisis. While in comparative terms we remain a deeply religious country, the power of the pulpit is increasingly giving way to more personal perspectives. Young people and America's ballooning minority groups are clearly trending in a more socially liberal direction. Faced with a population more willing to question previously untouchable orthodoxies, social conservatives must reconsider what they can offer 21st century American society. What do social conservatives hope to achieve, and how can they realistically implement this agenda in our new social reality?
The social conservative movement is motivated by a large cross-section of concerns, but it also clearly possesses identifiable key themes: Strong families, social stability, religion, and honorable personal conduct. On paper, these pillars offer little controversy. After all, who opposes happy families and decent citizens? The problem is how the social conservative enterprise has tightly defined each of these goals.
Consider marriage and family. Social conservatives like to argue that marriage is good for society. In a major sense they are right. In marriage, the mutual interest of two is substituted for the self-interest of one. But marriage isn't just about two people, it's also about children. This is where social conservatism struggles. In America in 2011, more than 100,000 children were waiting for adoption. They deserve families. As many as 80 percent of children in foster homes have serious emotional problems. The need for parents is real. But social conservative discourse inhibits the resolution of this challenge. While many gay couples are eager to adopt, social conservatives don't consider gay households sufficiently fit for the term "family."
Adoption by gay couples is increasingly accepted across America. But via their insistence that gay couples cannot marry and raise children, social conservatives are denying many in-need kids a stable family unit with two parents. Different religions clearly have the right to bless or not bless marriages as their beliefs prescribe, but in opposing gay marriage under secular law, social conservatives are doing serious harm to society.
Social conservatives also need to consider their approach toward abortion. As society's acceptance of abortion grows, social conservatives must stop so zealously insisting on outright bans. Let's focus on a simpler and more achievable goal that all Americans can get behind: Reducing abortions in America. Of course, this requires a massive break from conservative tradition. Many conservatives believe very deeply that abortion is murder. So accepting any abortions seems morally reprehensible. But it's time to accept that abortion is here to stay. The best we can do is try to limit the scope of the practice, not abolish it outright.
How can conservatives help reduce abortions? First, by recognizing what doesn't work. The latest evidence shows that abstinence-only programs are ineffective. Social conservatives will have to accept a greater role for comprehensive sexual education in schools, and try to encourage safe sex. And to attract voters repelled by "rape" rhetoric and vaginal probes, social conservatives must tone down their language, and in its place offer substantive policy alternatives like adoption and financial aid. No one expects social conservatives to end their opposition to abortion, but legislating on the basis of conception is impractical and counter-productive.
Social conservatives also need to come back to (and in many ways reconceive) compassionate conservatism. Conservatism can't be so literally defined as translating religious edicts into policy prescriptions. We need to see the broad tenets of our faith as signposts for policy. What is more Christian than ensuring better education in poorer neighborhoods? Doesn't ensuring access to health care dovetail with what Christ preached? Social conservatives must stop screeching about death panels and start looking for ways to be compassionate. Not abandoning conservative principles, but renewing them. Social conservatives must embrace a new tolerance. While they of course have the right to complain about anti-Christian sentiment, they also have the responsibility to admonish unwarranted hostility against other religions, like Islam.
Social conservatives have two choices. They can either forge a new relevance for the times, or by their continued ideological intransigence, they can stay on the course to irrelevance. In deciding which path to take, social conservatives should ask themselves a further question, one of identity. What do they care more about? Supporting freedom, families, and those in need? Or the rigid adherence to an anachronistic, authoritarian morality that is detached from the mainstream of American society.
Tom Rogan is a conservative writer who blogs at TomRoganThinks.com.