Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It’s true. I am not a social conservative, but that does not mean I am unsympathetic with the concerns of those who describe themselves as such. I am certainly much closer to them than I am to the economic libertarians in the conservative movement or to the lifestyle libertarianism that has come to dominate élite opinion in the arts, the media and the courts. At the same time, I cannot add my own name to the number of professed social conservatives. Why?

Take abortion as just one example. I am unequivocally pro-life. I believe that we are obligated to care for the lives that have been put in our care and to protect the vulnerable. I agree with the late Senator Edward Kennedy (yes, you read right!) that “human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.”

Moreover, try as I might, I cannot follow the logic of those advocating a so-called consistent life ethic, in which abortion is lumped together with a host of other issues, including poverty, health care and the like, which generally involve differing prudential judgements as to how best to provide undoubted, albeit scarce, goods in the most equitable manner. The fact that many proponents of the seamless garment approach turn out to be pro-choice on abortion does little to recommend their position to those who believe abortion to be a genuine justice issue.

At the same time, being pro-life can hardly add up to a coherent approach to understanding the important role of political authority in God’s world. St. Paul famously affirms the place of government and its divinely-appointed mandate in Romans 13:1-8. John Calvin writes of civil government that “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” The various Reformed confessions, from the 16th-century French and Belgic Confessions to the 17th-century Westminster Standards, all affirm the crucial function of the civil magistrate in God’s governance of his human creatures. In other words, far from being among the adiaphora peripheral to the faith, the place of civil government is a genuine confessional matter.

Even when government tolerates specific injustices, it nevertheless plays a crucial larger role in the maintenance and flourishing of human social life. Although it would take too much space to recall every possible way it does this, we can point to six basic tasks: (1) to uphold the public legal framework within which a variety of human activities take place; (2) to defend life, liberty and property; (3) to protect the diversity of human communities; (4) to care for the commons, that is, the shared patrimony of the body politic; (5) to temper the harsh edges of the economic marketplace; and (6) to assume some responsibility for the economically disadvantaged.

Though there are undoubtedly individual exceptions to this, social conservatives are generally unable to comprehend the place of government beyond the life issues to which they properly draw our attention. Yet what if we were to succeed in enacting legal protections for the unborn? What if governments were to come to recognize that the legal redefinition of marriage and family lies outside their sphere of competence? What if even the thought of ending prematurely the lives of the frail and elderly were to be excluded from the realm of civilized discourse? What, in short, if every issue dear to the hearts of social conservatives were to be resolved in their favour? One suspects that many of today’s political activists would declare victory and go home.

Yet the political process is always animated by a genuine spiritual vision with profound ramifications for the doing of public justice. For that reason Christians cannot afford to abandon the realm of government, even if their pet issues were to be settled. When approaching the closed union shop, for example, liberals and socialists find themselves on different sides of the issue, though each side wishes to see justice done and is convinced that the failure of its position would be nothing less than the triumph of injustice. The liberal believes that legal recognition of the closed shop is a violation of individual liberty of contract, while the socialist believes that it enhances class solidarity, a necessary means to doing justice to those in a naturally disadvantaged position. Given their respective worldviews and their concomitant views of justice, the stance of each party makes sense within the context of its own set of controlling assumptions.

What does the social conservative believe? It’s not clear that she possesses, as such, the resources to answer this question. She may indeed have an opinion on the matter and she may express it publicly, but not as a social conservative. This is a principal reason why social conservatism is incapable of carrying the day over the long term: it fundamentally lacks the cohesiveness necessary to serve as a genuinely political philosophy. At most it can add up only to an ad hoc movement based on co-belligerency on concrete issues. If we seek a theory of justice based on a solid, spiritually discerning understanding of God’s world, of human society and of the place of the state within it, we shall have to go elsewhere.

More on: Politics

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles