Legendary film critic Pauline Kael is once said to have remarked that she didn’t understand how Richard Nixon was elected President. No one she knew—and her circle of acquaintances all lived east of the Hudson River—had voted for him.
Here comes Sarah Westwood , a “lonely College Republican.” Here’s her version of Pauline Kael: “Most kids my age bristle at the word ‘conservative,’ and I don’t blame them. The right has done nothing to welcome young people.” Now I don’t doubt that in her set—students at relatively elite colleges and universities that have no discernible religious affiliation—there aren’t many who are willing to call themselves Republicans, though she seems blissfully—well, not blissfully—unaware that the exit polls tell us that while Barack Obama won the youth vote 60 percent to 37 percent, Mitt Romney won the white youth vote 51-44. This tells me that the GOP problem with young people is a product of its problem with non-white voters.
She’s right that Republicans need to do better still, but wrong in her diagnosis and prescription. For her, the problem is those darn social conservatives—“the religious right and the gay-bashing, Bible-thumping fringe that gives the party such a bad rap with every young voter.” According to her, “the evangelical set essentially hijacked the Republican Party in the 1970s,” and she and her essentially libertarian buddies need to take it back.
I’ll concede her this much: There’s oodles of evidence of a sea change in opinion about same-sex marriage. In a sense we’re reaping what we sowed some decades ago when we—I’m speaking loosely here—abandoned a conception of marriage that made children and obligation central and replaced it with one that emphasized self-actualization. (Indeed, I could be so bold as to blame John Locke’s contractual reimagining of the family, for though he made reproduction an important goal of the marriage contract, once self-interest and consent take the front seat, people can agree to all sorts of arrangements; and once, some time later, reproductive technology became available, you didn’t need a man and a woman in the same room at the same time to make babies. If this doesn’t persuade you to blame Locke, let me add this: he thought that virtually every “social” function of a parent could be, in effect, contracted out.) I don’t know what’s going to put that genie back in the bottle.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I’m going to abandon the defense of traditional marriage, and of the religious freedom of those who support it. In the short run, I don’t expect to win many of the battles on that front of our culture war, and I can only hope and pray that we’ll be more successful on the second front.
But let me get back to Ms. Westwood. I wonder how liberty-loving and “rebellious” it is of her to employ the term “gay-bashing” in the metaphorical sense. That term once had a precise meaning, applying to homophobes who literally assaulted gays. She seems to apply it to anyone who has moral objections to homosexuality. This move lends itself to limitations on liberty—of speech and of religion—which I wouldn’t think would be her cup of tea. And, indeed, if I were to follow her lead—characterizing criticism, perhaps based on stereotypes, as “something-bashing”—I might call her an Evangelical-basher. Another term for that would be religious bigot. Or hater.
But I’ll refrain from following Ms. Westwood into that thicket.
I will , however, remind her that the youth vote is 19 percent of the electorate (11 percent if you restrict it to 18-24 year-olds), while evangelicals comprise 26 percent of the electorate and those who attend religious services weekly are 42 percent of the electorate. Of the latter two demographic categories, 78 percent and 59 percent voted for Romney. I’m going to be generous and assume that a GOP that takes her advice can win 60 percent of the youth vote; 60 percent of 19 percent is 11.4 percent. On the other hand, 78 percent of 26 percent is 20.2 percent and 59 percent of 42 percent is 24.8 percent. Alienating or marginalizing voters that comprise almost a quarter of the electorate seems like a bad trade for the uncertain prospect of winning slightly more than 10 percent of the electorate.
Perhaps there’s another way, one that begins by refraining from bashing anyone and indeed from using the word “bash” to characterize any moral disagreement. Beyond demanding civility and a careful attention to data, I won’t at the outset ask Ms. Westwood for anything. On my side, I have to recognize that the country is changing and that politics can play some part in defending what I hold dear, but that recovering an appropriate appreciation of the centrality of marriage and family is a much larger theoretical, cultural, and social undertaking.
Right now, Ms. Westwood may or may not be a part of the problem. I invite her to become part of the solution.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?