Why social conservatives shouldn't despair — even if liberals win the culture war
Social conservatives are in an apocalyptic mood in 2015. One week religious liberty becomes a kind of curse word, deserving of economic sanction. The next week Caitlyn Jenner is celebrated as a post-surgical goddess. The expectation that the Supreme Court will recognize a nationwide right to same-sex marriage is now fully priced in to the moral market.
Social conservatives see a steep decline of religious affiliation, and secularism swelling over what was once Christendom. They talk of retreating from politics to find spiritual renewal and rebirth in more rigorous and countercultural expressions of religion.
For them, it seems, all the slopes are slippery. They don't believe assurances that the tax-exempt status of our churches are safe. People in my own parish expect a moral panic about religious education, and believe that the legal precedents protecting it, like the one set by Pierce v. Society of Sisters, will be re-examined or overturned. And I'm tempted to agree. Maybe today's social conservatives will continue sliding down into history's bottomless canyon, where the dead have only our pity or contempt.
But history has surprising turns, ones that can be hard to see even in retrospect. It is possible to imagine a future in which 2015 doesn't augur the beginning of conservatism's final descent, but instead represents a temporary nadir.
There are no golden ages. The high marriage rates and high legitimacy rates of the 1950s were stalked by panic and Freudianism. Popular psychology was as ascendant, glib, and corrosive then as our own age's attempts to explain everything through economics and social science. Many Cold War conservatives were convinced that communism would triumph over the West. Conservatives of the late 1980s and '90s thought that the increasing crassness of popular culture and the rise in crime were related and unstoppable. Entirely wrong, all.
My personal apocalyptic moment came when I was in my early 20s. I had come to adore the traditional Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church. It became the banner of my life, the cause before all causes. I was convinced that semi-modernist celebrity pontiffs like John Paul II would reign forever, or at least until the last partisans of the old liturgy were finally extinguished. The future was a goofy guitar Mass stomping a Marty Haugen beat on a human face forever.
What a surprise, then, when a few years later the liberal coat-and-tie wearing adviser of Vatican II, Fr. Ratzinger, became pope and restored the Mass that he and his confreres nearly destroyed.
It was a lesson that conservatives should allow themselves to be surprised, even by liberals and progressives. It's worth considering whether there are some trends or ideas advanced by others that are inadvertently conservative, and potentially very much so.
Consider feminism. The occasional overlaps between feminists and social conservatives are well known. The cause of liberation is now often confused with "prudishness," by both critics and promoters. The 1989 cultural freakout over the 2 Live Crew album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was fueled by the religious right, which viewed it as a threat to purity and chastity. Today it would be much more effectively opposed by feminists as a retrograde product of "bro-culture" and an encouragement to rapists. I leave it to others to figure out which charge is more moralized. Although there are important differences, '90s-era parental warnings about obscenity are not entirely different to trigger warnings today. Ask any libertine. Both imply that some souls are too innocent and vulnerable for adult themes.
Then there's environmentalism and the desire for organic, natural, and sustainable products. Conservatism as a political doctrine is supposed to connect the energies of the living to the interests of the dead and the unborn. Today the moral movement that speaks for our great, sacrificial duties to posterity is the environmental one. Conservatives should consider whether a movement so dedicated to protecting the lives of yet unborn animals and endangered ecosystems can forever remain hostile to the claims of unborn children, or allow the logic of the market to completely destroy the natural family. The desire to be organic and authentically human yields already surprising results. Even "natural family planning" methods that were the secret knowledge of extra-chaste Catholics and extra-crunchy liberals are now a hot investment in Silicon Valley.
There are many others, too. A social conservative might be predisposed to dislike union organizers, until he considers them as one of the last voices for voluntary social solidarity unaffiliated with the state. New Urbanists are not just allies in the fight for beauty, but against the dumbest features of municipal cronyism. Conservatives once loathed identity politics as an effacement of a common American culture they sought to protect, but it may turn out to be the last protection of conservative Christians if they become a minority movement.
Social conservatives must prepare for a difficult future, but they'd be unwise to despair of it. The safe spaces made for others may become our own, someday.