Last week, David French wrote that “religious conservatives” who vote Trump will make themselves into “the cheapest date in American politics.” As if to prove French’s point, my friend Wayne Grudem published an endorsement of Trump that bent over backwards to let him off easy for his polymorphous wickedness, and Michael Brendan Dougherty highlighted the embarrassing contrast between that endorsement and Grudem's attacks on Bill Clinton in 1998.
I wish I could be as optimistic as French about the future of social conservatism. He thinks that the choice of whether to become a cheap date is still before us. I wonder whether it hasn't already passed. That's one of the lessons of the fairy tales: The moment you become aware that you're making a moral choice with titanic consequences is the moment after you’ve made the choice and sealed your fate.
The fact that French's column was even necessary in the first place has already revealed a certain cheap-dateness at the heart of the social conservative movement. That the revelation should come so late in the day, and from a columnist rather than from someone more professionally central to the movement, leaves me wondering whether any alternatives to cheap-dateness are viable for social conservatism at this point.
As I said last week when I resigned from the Republican Party after a quarter-century of loyalty: There will always be a future for certain basic ideas—fidelity to transcendent values and to the past that has made us who we are—but the particular historic expressions of those ideas are transient. There may or may not be a future for “social conservatism,” or even for “conservatism,” and our focus now should be on conserving our best ideas and commitments, rather than these ephemeral constructions of them.
Trump has revealed to the world that one can complete a full takeover of the Republican Party without conceding anything to either social conservatism or economic conservatism. Social and economic conservatives must now either sue for peace or take on prophetic roles outside the two parties. The question is whether there are enough leaders in each faction who understand the possibilities of the second option and have the integrity to choose it. In both factions, the columnists and other professional talkers are divided. Some have sold themselves into captivity and some have bravely put on the camel hair.
But the organizational leaders of social conservatism—the people who do for a living, rather than talking—haven't demonstrated the same variation of responses. Their pow-wow with Trump in June was futile from the beginning. With Trump's character and track record, what arrangement could they possibly have reached with him that wouldn't have constituted cheap-datism? That many came out of the meeting professing to be stymied by their political predicament showed that they are not a lost cause. But their lack of vision, which made the meeting necessary at all, is staggering. It's their job to put social conservatism before the world in the best possible light, and here they were holding a meeting whose only possible purpose would be to negotiate the terms of Babylonian captivity. Michael Ferris was right in declaring, even before the meeting took place, that its taking place would be a catastrophe.
There are other ways of influencing politics besides brokering votes in elections. One hesitates even to ask, say, what the civil rights movement might have looked like if Martin Luther King's vision had been similarly limited.
The contrast with the “doers” of economic conservatism is stark. The Koch brothers clearly want nothing to do with Trump—and for principled reasons, to their great credit. The Club for Growth took a stand against Trump in 2011, telling him to his face that he didn't “have core principles.” The Club was one of the few reliable anti-Trump voices in the primaries, even arguing that sinister candidates like him shouldn't be included in debates. That was prescient advice, and it should have been heeded. What is a party for if not to make precisely that kind of call?
And what is the social conservative movement for if it cares less about “core principles” than does the Club for Growth?
Greg Forster is the author of six books and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness.