Can there be a new ‘moral’ consensus?

How American conservatives should rethink social conservatism

With the Supreme Court’s 5-4 approval of S.B. 8, which bans abortion after six weeks, progressives across the country are wondering if it’s a one-off victory for social conservatives or if it’s the first shot across the bow. Social conservatives have reason to feel triumphant, but it’s far more likely that it’s the last gasp of an exhausted tradition in America. Given the flashy headlines, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual state of the culture wars and ignore the question: Has social conservatism failed?

Nearly 60% of the American public now say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and the proportion of U.S. households consisting of married couples has fallen to a historic 49% low. Moreover, two-thirds of Americans support the recognition of same-sex marriages under the law, and fewer than half of American adults maintain a religious affiliation. Despite the spirited protest of social conservatives, we are losing the moral consensus that values social institutions (e.g. family, marriage and faith).

What does it mean to be a social conservative or, for that matter, a conservative? Etymologically, it comes from the word conservare, which in Latin means to conserve and protect from harm or destruction. The definition is different from preservation. This important distinction which has been lost today is still worth remembering. To preserve something means to maintain it in its original state, whereas to conserve something means to ensure its continued existence. When conserving, whether that something has changed is irrelevant so long as the essence of it remains the same.

Modern conservatism is rooted in the history of the French Revolution. Early conservatives, like Edmund Burke, sought the orderly management of societal change. They stood against the stubborn defenses of reactionaries and the pernicious effects of revolutionary nihilism. Hence, conservatism does not intrinsically oppose societal change. Its objective is to ensure the well-managed progression of society, held together by strong traditions and values amidst continuous change. In his letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, Burke wrote that “We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature and the means perhaps of its conservation.” Therefore, tacking on the goal of preservation to conservatism and, by extension, social conservatism amends both the etymological and historical objectives of conservative political thought.

Social conservatives have lost sight of the difference and become their own worst enemy. Whether the purpose of social conservatism is to conserve or to preserve our social institutions and their place in society, one thing is clear: It is failing on both counts. There will be those who discount what I have to say and argue against change, but what if we can only protect our social institutions by embracing organic social changes and integrating them into the socially conservative family of values? In his letter, Burke went on to argue this by saying that “All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. [Doing so] has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences.”

Thus, social conservatism ought to forge a new approach to the challenges of today by embracing gay marriage, gay adoption and queer spirituality as solutions to our lost moral consensus. How can conservatives ensure strong families, social stability and honorable personal behavior? How best can they help reduce abortions, encourage marriage and empty our orphanages and foster care systems? Only by ending what Tom Rogan, a columnist with the Washington Examiner, called “anachronistic” and “ideological intransigence.” Raising children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) and fostering committed unions ought not to be a withheld and denied privilege if they are to be the basis on which we wish to uphold our society.

In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Barry Goldwater begins by refuting the idea that conservatism is opposed to progress and says, “Have we forgotten that America made its greatest progress when conservative principles were honored.” The truth is that there is already a new moral consensus forming in this country. If social conservatives and conservatives alike wish to have a say on what comes out of it, they must engage in good faith and accept some change. Alexis de Tocqueville said it best: “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on … every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”