Defending Social Conservatism
In my last few articles, I’ve criticized the concept of limited government, supported Black Lives Matter, and continually stressed the importance of increased investment in education and social programs, even if it means reducing defense spending and raising taxes. I’ve talked about conservative values, but then argued why they lead me to support policies that the Republican Party generally opposes. So, you might wonder, why don’t I fully support the Democratic Party since I seem to agree with it on so many issues instead of maintaining my stubborn political independence? Why, when I don’t generally like political labels, do I reluctantly consider myself socially conservative? I’ve wondered this many times myself and this post is my attempt to answer. In doing so, I have several goals for different audiences. First, I hope to convince those on the far Right and Left that there are ways to compromise on public policy without compromising your values. Second, I hope to convince some on the Left that social conservatism isn’t the antithesis to progress, justice, and other important ideals that we share. Third, I want to convince some on the Right that we can and must support the values we believe are important with a little more understanding, empathy, and concern towards those who disagree or would be negatively affected by the policies we support. Lastly, I hope to convince those feeling that you have no home in the current political spectrum that you are not alone.
I hope the last few articles have highlighted the common beliefs I share with those who consider themselves progressive. I believe that certain groups in our country have always been privileged above others and have enjoyed greater opportunities. Though we have made great progress in alleviating these injustices, I believe there is much work yet to be done. I think that the federal government has had a positive role in our progress as a country and should continue to have an active role in making sure that opportunities are equal, poverty is reduced, and power is not concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. I believe that the circumstances of your birth should not dictate the probability of your success, and support progressive taxation to ensure that those who benefit most from our economic system support programs that can bring us closer to that unrealized ideal. I support publicly funded universal health care and believe that immigration to this country needs to be much more open and welcoming. I think we should do more to battle income and racial inequality, and that the idea of trickle down economics is somewhere between misguided and farcical. I think corporate and private greed are very dangerous and we need careful regulation to keep the forces of capitalism from concentrating power. I believe climate change is an extremely important concern and there is an urgent need to do more to protect our environment. However, when it comes to social issues such as traditional marriage, abortion, and gender identity, I generally disagree with mainstream liberals. Furthermore, these issues are important enough that they often outweigh many of my other concerns and lead me to vote Republican much of the time (but not this time — #NeverTrump), despite my disagreement with a great deal of the Republican Party’s platform and candidates. So how can I vote for a party that I disagree with so much because of a few social or cultural issues where I have increasingly unpopular opinions that appear to many to be on the wrong side of history, progress, social justice, and equal opportunity when those things matter so much to me? That is a question I ask myself all the time, and one I think deserves a thoughtful answer. So let me tell you what I believe and why social conservatism (at least my definition of it) seems to be the strongest political root I have.
Without reservation, I believe that the family is the most important and fundamental institution in our society. I believe we can never have any real or lasting progress, prosperity, or justice unless children are taught moral principles in their homes. Though I believe education is extremely important and that the government should invest heavily in it, the influence of this paramount government program pales in comparison to the effect of family on a child. I do not believe that any political institution, constitution, or set of laws can ensure a successful society that is not built on strong families. Governments can do much to erode the positive effects of the family institution, but can do little to compensate for the failure of it. I also believe that faith (not a specific religion, but rather the general acceptance that there is truth, knowledge, and morality that we can and should strive to attain beyond human reasoning) is the strongest force we have for instilling the moral values and principles that are necessary for a successful society. However, I absolutely recognize the negative influences religion (or people’s misuse of it) can have on humanity and that faith is only one of many ways to instill moral values (I was raised in a home where religion did not play a role). I believe that the institutions of family and faith are being eroded for many reasons that I will discuss below, but do not agree with or want to be associated with Bill O’Reillly’s claim that we need cultural warriors to fight against some secular-progressive conspiracy. I by no means think that the Democratic Party or liberal or progressive forces are trying to destroy faith and family and lead us into a Brave New World. However, I do think there are some unintended consequences of these movements that can undermine the foundation of a better future. I am socially conservative not because I think we should always preserve traditional culture, but because I am very concerned about the effect of these unintended consequences on future generations.
These fundamental beliefs, along with specific reasons discussed below, lead me to support traditional marriage and oppose the redefinition of gender (while being willing to reject many socially constructed gender roles). I also believe that abortion is generally too permissive in this country, though I believe that under certain conditions it should be permissible, and when it is permissible it should always be accessible. I recognize that some will take these views as outdated or even bigoted, and I share them carefully knowing that some people whom I care about or whose opinions I highly value will even feel personally offended by them. I also know, however, that many good and caring people share my beliefs and hope we can express them in a way that is conscious of those who disagree. A serious problem has occurred in the history of social conservatism — we have sometimes argued for our preferred policies using hate and prejudice, or at least aligned ourselves with those who do. Just as I argued that we need to acknowledge a clear distinction between peaceful BLM protesters and those who resort to anger or violence against police, we also need a clear distinction between social conservatives that are concerned about the effect of cultural change on future generations and those whose ultimate motivations are hate, fear, and bigotry. In this article, I hope to encourage those who oppose my views to see that distinction, and those who support my views to make the distinction more clear. (This is one of many reasons I think it is so important for conservatives to oppose Trump.) While I support traditional marriage, it is unthinkable to support or condone hate, violence, mistreatment, or discrimination against LGBT individuals, and think we can and should do more to ensure equal treatment and reduce discrimination. As I observe public figures whose policy preferences I share, I am often disgusted by their actions and sad that we do not do more to promote mutual respect. It is my opinion that social conservatives are losing their battle over policy not because of attacks from the outside, but because we, as a group, are not living up to our own values of love and respect. Because of this, supporting traditional families has sometimes become associated with injustice and bigotry. Many caring conservatives are thus leaving the Republican coalition, either because they no longer want that uncomfortable association, or because they truly believe that the policies they once supported are unjust. This has many outcomes. One is that many hold on to other aspects of modern conservatism even tighter, leading to what I think is an unfounded faith in limited government and growth in the libertarian movement. Another is that the remaining Republican coalition seems to grow in its attacks on nontraditional values with hate-inspired tactics. Still another is that many people like myself are lost or disillusioned, feeling like their convictions have no home in the current political system. In my effort to create that home for myself, I will continue my personal quest for a Christian-Democrat party in the US that puts the welfare of future generation above all else, one that fights for economic and racial justice along with defending the traditional values that give our children the greatest chance of success.
The chart below, showing the rise in births to unmarried mothers, is one manifestation of unintended consequences which I believe have long-lasting negative effects (disclaimer: I know nothing about the source, but spot checked a few points with CDC data and it seemed reliable). I am not highlighting these data to say anything negative about single parent families, or to put blame on any particular party or policy. People very important to me are contained within these data, and I have intense admiration for the heroic effort of raising children without a spouse regardless of the circumstances or choices that led to that situation. With that said, every parent I’ve ever met that is trying to do a good job (which is almost every parent), would probably agree that being a parent even in optimal circumstances is an incredibly difficult task, one where we constantly worry that the ultimate desirable outcome will be determined as much by our weaknesses, mistakes, and unavoidable circumstances as by our well-intentioned efforts. Every single-parent I know would probably be the first to tell you that parenting is a two-person job, they are just exhaustingly doing both jobs, choosing to leave some desirable but less essential things undone, and/or getting invaluable help from others (like we all are). Acknowledging the many (even most) cases where children in these situations have great outcomes, it seems obvious that having children raised by both their biological parents is in best interest of all children when those parents are willing, able, and committed. While I am not an expert in this research, there is significant evidence that children in continuous two-parent homes have a much better probability of many good outcomes, though there are a lot of potential reasons why this may be the case (like income as much as marriage) and why it may not be true in any individual household. While most of this research addresses the effects of divorce as well as unwed mothers and several other factors, please note the chart below is only highlighting births where the mother was unmarried. This means that at least 40% of all children born in the US (including 70% of black children) now begin life without their biological parents in a legal family relationship, up drastically from around 5% in 1960. While some may still have two committed parents and some parents may be in a committed relationship without legal marriage, many if not most of these children will not experience the continuous two-parent homes that we know are associated with drastically better outcomes. Many of the other 60% of children will still see their parents divorce and face the challenges associated with it, but this 40% will not even start in the environment that is most likely to lead to success. Further, the racial disparity is severe and will likely perpetuate the racial inequalities I discussed previously. These data include both women who intend to have a child without a spouse and those for whom childbirth is unintended, and ignore unintended pregnancies (45% of all US pregnancies in 2011) that end in abortion (42% of unintended pregnancies). Unintended births are more likely in groups that are already disadvantaged in other ways, and unwed child rearing has more detrimental effects on both the parent and child when it is unintended. Thus, while the rise in births to unmarried mothers may not be as troublesome for women or children in upper income brackets, it is perpetuating cycles of poor outcomes for those already struggling.
When I think about the injustices and unfairness in our country, these data are one of the first things that come to mind. Nothing seems quite so unfair as children being born into a situation where the people responsible for their lives are unable or unwilling to provide the environment that is most conducive to their success. I have two children that were born in such circumstances, and though I am obviously supportive of adoption there is not a single day that I don’t mourn the loss, challenges, and trauma faced by children who cannot be raised by their biological parents. Even our children, who had no significant known trauma and were adopted into a stable two-parent home with all the advantages of above average education, income, and community support, face an uphill battle that causes daily reminders of the unfair disadvantages faced by children in these circumstances. Once again reiterating that many children in adoptive or single-parent homes have great outcomes, we have to recognize that a large portion of children born into disadvantaged situations are having to face the additional and significant challenge of being raised without their biological parents in a legal, committed relationship. The point is that if we care at all about good outcomes for future generations, racial justice, or equal opportunity, we need to try to understand this drastic change in our family culture.
So how did we go from a country where 5% of children are born without married parents to 40% so quickly? Simply explaining a 50+ year trend that has so many underlying factors is a nearly impossible task, but it seems obvious that cultural shifts in values and norms are a large part of this change. It would be difficult to assess the effects any particular policy or movement, but we could probably agree that many if not most people prior to 1960 believed that having a child without being married was a bad idea (for several good or bad reasons) and adjusted behavior accordingly, and that belief and the associated behaviors have slowly eroded. I think the core reason I remain socially conservative is my belief that having a child is not just a matter of individual choice, but an intense responsibility that brings with it social obligations. Liberal forces have brought about important changes that have reduced discrimination and unfair treatment, particularly against women, but a major unintended consequence of the focus on individual and equal rights has been the decoupling of the right to have a child with the social responsibility it entails. (While some may have intended this consequence, I believe it was unintended for the majority who saw the unequal treatment of women as the pressing issue that needed to be addressed but still believed that having a child should entail a social obligation.)
Historically, social and even legal norms were in place to discourage having children out of wedlock and reinforce the social obligation we owed to children. Sadly, women in our culture generally and unfairly paid a greater price for violating these norms while men were not held as accountable for their behavior (a problem that still exists). In my opinion, the great wrong turn in the history of equal rights happened in the effort to correct this injustice. Rather than fighting to raise the accountability and responsibility of men to a level equal to women, our social norms and public policies began to lower the standards of sexual accountability for women and men, ultimately accepting the new norm that having a child is a completely individual choice that carries or should carry no social responsibility. While I firmly believe in gender equality, I remain socially conservative because I believe we need to demand greater accountability from men in the raising of children (a point where I think there could be strong consensus with those who might otherwise disagree with me), but am opposed to any efforts, norms, or policies that reduce the obligations associated with having a child (and to speak bluntly, the obligations associated with any consensual sex that necessarily has the potential to create life), including the obligation to make every reasonable effort to ensure that children are raised in homes where the biological parents are in a committed relationship.
So what does this have to due with current social issues like abortion, marriage, and gender? It comes down to the core concept of social conservatism that we can and must have the freedom of individual choice, but we cannot and must not divorce those choices from social obligations. This core concept is apparent in the discussion of abortion. Rather than make this a pro-life tirade about the necessity of choice and responsibility, I’d like to highlight that even this polarizing issue doesn’t have to be nearly as divisive as we make it. I, like many conservatives, have extremely strong feelings about the permissive nature and scope of abortion in our country, but still think there is a lot of room for compromise. If we focus on an imaginary line in the sand between pro-choice and pro-life and fight for our team at all costs, we will be continually frustrated by the fact that both camps have been relatively equally split for decades with almost 50% of the population in each with few undecided. However, if we drop those unhelpful labels, the same data will say that only about 20% believe abortion should never be allowed and less than 30% believe it should be always legal. The larger majority are somewhere in the middle and understand it is a complex issue. At one extreme, we might oppose a late-term abortion of a healthy fetus that might otherwise be viable for a woman who engaged in consensual sex and had a normal, healthy pregnancy, but at the same time support a woman’s choice for emergency contraception after rape, knowing that both these positions are rejected by those in the extremes. People like me might be feel that abortion in the US is generally too permissive, but still believe that women should have access to safe and quality health care that is in accordance with laws that I don’t agree with — and even recognize that Planned Parenthood is the major and sometimes only provider of such health care. Those on the right who wish to reduce the scope of abortion can also recognize that increasing access to education and employment for women is probably the best way to achieve that goal, and can hopefully find common ground with those on the left working to improve women’s opportunities. I hope we can all understand that there are more than two sides to take, and more importantly that there are good people with various positions in this difficult debate.
When it comes to marriage, I am deeply torn, but ultimately believe that the traditional definition of marriage is an extremely important piece of our cultural norms and values that reinforces the social obligation that comes with the creation of a family. I, hopefully like many who share my opinion, feel compassion for those who do not share these beliefs, but ultimately believe the costs of redefining marriage outweigh the benefits and that it is a matter of social value rather than individual choice. Our policies, norms, and culture traditionally valued a particular kind of private relationship — an enduring family commitment of choice between a man and woman — as having social value because it creates the environment that is most beneficial for future generations and reinforces the standard of social obligation that creating a family entails. While various other kinds of private relationships remain and should remain completely outside government influence, we have encouraged and even privileged marriage above other private relationships with various incentives because of its social value. With the redefinition of marriage, we are turning it into an institution of individual choice decoupled from social responsibility and the potential to create life, which is a major symbolic and practical erosion of the values that protect future generations. I know many people will disagree and I expect my opinion to become increasingly unpopular, but once again hope to demonstrate where we can find compromise in policy where our values aren’t aligned. First, those who, like me, believe that traditional marriage is about defining our social values and not a matter of equal treatment, can do more to reduce the stigma associated with homosexuality and fight the unfair treatment and discrimination people in the LGBT community often face in areas such as employment and housing (among many others). We need to decisively end the myth that homosexuality is a choice and clearly disassociate ourselves from those whose motivations lie not in the social welfare of future generations, but in their own bigotry. Those who disagree with my stance can find ways where we can work together to strengthen the family institution and reverse the long trend of its decline rather than associate all efforts to strengthen faith and family with bigotry. (Many conservatives can attest to this common reaction from some on the left that I believe has partially spurred the frustration with ‘political correctness.’ While I recognize that the reaction against being politically correct is sometimes — even often thanks to Trump — just an excuse to spew hateful or bigoted rhetoric, I also lament how difficult it has become to express family and faith-based principles that we believe have social value without immediate attack.)
The last issue I want to discuss is one that is quickly becoming the leading edge of debates on social values — gender identity. I must admit I do not thoroughly understand all the issues at stake in this debate, but as you might expect generally oppose efforts to redefine gender to a matter of choice rather than a genetically determined identity that affects our most important social responsibility of creating life. Those who disagree with my position might agree with my belief that this issue has some roots in unnecessary and sometimes even oppressive socially constructed gender identities and roles, and that we need to put more effort into dismantling some of these stereotypes. While I believe that male and female should be genetically defined, our traditional culture has forced masculine and feminine personality traits, temperaments, sexual orientations, and expected behaviors (among other things) into these definitions. Thus, many people have felt, and had those feelings reinforced by traditional culture, that being male necessitates things like ambition, assertiveness, stoicism, sexual aggression, strength, and independence, and being female necessarily entails dependence, emotion, sensitivity, submissiveness, or other stereotypical traits. While I believe it is possible that biological differences may lead to a higher prevalence of some traits in either sex, I think it is extremely important that we reject these stereotypical definitions. For example, whether or not you believe that women, for some biological, evolutionary, or spiritual reason are more likely to be nurturing, I hope we can agree that being nurturing is not the defining characteristic of being a woman neither does it make someone less of a man. The supporters of traditional culture have sometimes been too hesitant to drop these non-genetic definitions of gender, so we should not be surprised when others seek the normalization of non-genetic based gender identities. I personally believe that the best way forward for our social progress is not to ignore or override the genetic and indisputable classifications of sex (though I acknowledge the ambiguity in the uncommon cases of intersex individuals), but rather to teach our children that gender is a genetic classification related to our anatomy and potential abilities to create life. We must also acknowledge the biological differences that are related to the prevalence of certain traits while making it clear such traits do not determine nor are they determined by gender. In addition, we need to dismantle the socially constructed stereotypes and traditions that cause confusion and sometimes limit opportunities, and most importantly end all forms of discrimination and unfair treatment towards those who do not embody the traits that we tend to associate with genetic definitions of sex.
These issues also highlight a pattern that is often frustrating to social conservatives. In each case, social values are not being defined by public consent of the majority. The important issues of abortion and marriage were partially or ultimately decided by the Supreme Court and what we teach our children about gender is being influenced strongly by executive order without regard to public consent. (I would like to add that though I did not vote for President Obama, I have been extremely pleased with his presidency in most ways, would happily take another eight years of his leadership over any of the present candidates, and this is one of the few actions I have taken great issue with. In addition, I do not think it is helpful or necessary to enact laws that create contention or target LGBT individuals when there is no public interest at stake, which is my view of some of the controversies in North Carolina, Indiana, and other places.) These issues ultimately hinge on questions that cannot be objectively answered with scientific or logical evidence, but must be decided by our collective beliefs about the definitions of life and gender and the purpose and value of marriage. While I support our constitutional system and recognize the essential role both executive and judicial action played in promoting racial justice, these issues are of such importance that we need public consensus to ensure actual progress. I hope those who don’t agree with my positions will recognize that many people like myself will continue to be drawn towards conservative Presidents (did I mention #NeverTrump?) even when we oppose much of their platform when we see public values of such importance to our democracy defined by the opinions of a handful of individuals — often those who are purposefully unaccountable to the public.
So while I fear my last few articles have only alienated people on both sides of the political spectrum, I hope that they have instead helped people see the value in different viewpoints and open debate. If you are an advocate of more liberal social policies I hope you can better understand how someone who shares your passion for social justice cannot support such drastic changes in our traditional values. If you share my conservative positions, I hope you have found ways to seek compromise in policy but not in principle and are committed to defending those principles while carefully considering those who don’t share them. For those who can’t seem to find a home in our political landscape, I hope you might consider the idea that conservative social values can go hand in hand with the pursuit of social justice and more liberal economic programs that make the welfare of future generation our highest priority.
Originally published at The Road Well Traveled.