Scott Galupo makes the necessary and ever-pressing point that so-called “social conservatism” is actually not compatible with what currently goes by the name “fiscal conservatism.” Galupo writes:
The problem is simple: a pro-family agenda and the apocalyptic anti-statism are divergent paths.
Sooner rather than later, conservatives interested in winning elections again are going to have to choose.
The TAC writers are a breath of fresh air on this score, as they consistently challenge what it means to be “conservative,” hearkening back to earlier values of local culture, religion, and the natural family, all the while not falling into the stereotypical conservative meme of blaming every ill on “The State.” Galupo is echoing a point also made by Ross Douthat, that conservatism needs families (You can see my own interaction with that point here). The unfortunate fact, however, is that most conservatives still lack the categories to understand the current dilemma, and they are unlikely to be sympathetic to any calls for the government, federal or local, to positively support natural families. Why is this?
For a number of reasons, conservatism in America has lately defined itself, socially and philosophically, by its opposition to the state. This is in large part a fiction, of course, as vulgar libertarianism is the majority mood of both Reaganites and Austrians. Most major political conservatives are also wholly committed to certain foundational components of “big state” economics, notably social security and the military-industrial complex. Still, they have succeeded in creating a public posture and a ground-level set of talking points, all of which are summed up simply as “The State=Bad.”
One important influence on this is the non-Christian Austrianism made popular by some conservative journalists, radio and television talk-shows, and even, ironically, Christian pastors and theologians. Another source is the sort of soft-anabaptist ideology which views the state as at best a necessary evil, doing the job which should rightly be done by “the Church.” This is always the result of the swing of the dialectical pendulum, each of the groups espousing this ideology having lost their respective historical battles. Had they won them, they would have certainly claimed for themselves a sort of clerocratic political authority. As it is, they have settled for retreat so as to preserve some measure of power within their own domains, however limited in scope.
There are, however, some legitimate challenges to any “conservative” attempt to look to the state for support. It isn’t that it is wholly inconceivable for a state to positively support families. It’s just that it is basically inconceivable for this state to do so. President Obama has been radically anti-family in his support of feminism, gay rights, and abortion. Before him the GOP consistently placed the interests of giant corporations over local communities and families, and so the track record has been bad for some time. The current establishment really isn’t trustworthy, and it isn’t at all clear how that trust can be restored.
The replacement of the family with social services has also been disastrous. Wes Anderson’s latest film Moonrise Kingdom made this point in a most effective way, as Tilda Swinton’s character (named simply “Social Services”) struck terror into the hearts of the (actually needy) children and all those near to them. We cannot have the state stepping in for the families. We need the state to actually support natural families, and the principles underlying this as well as the means of doing so would need to be spelled out clearly, preserving proper jurisdictions and true morality.
A similar challenge is that conservatives themselves have proven untrustworthy to minorities and immigrant groups, groups which ought to be, at least on the specific issue of the family, “natural conservatives.” This is largely connected with the corporate sell-out of American conservatives, but also with the semi-pagan notions of nationalism and kinship which often attach themselves to and overshadow the values of the natural family. The natural family need not be, and historically has not been, artificially propped up by racial and national interests. Rather, these latter categories, understood in their most positive senses, have always followed the life and culture of the natural family. Religious leaders will need to clearly articulate the principles at work here, and they will need to carefully navigate their own social and political histories. There is no reason to cover up past sins. But there is also no reason to allow past sins to silence truly righteous commitments today.
And finally, there is the real problem that pro-family ideology is currently a minority group (or at least, it feels like one in the public eye). It will not be easy to affect political change apart from a larger campaign of cultural reform and widespread persuasion, especially among elites, centers of learning, and artistic communities and outlets. This means that conservatives of the pro-family tribe will need to become homiletic before they can hope to be political. This is not an either-or trade, but rather an order or priority. Clear and rational articulation of the principles must effectively change minds. Preaching and persuasion must lead the way, as well as, of course, living by example. Getting married, having children, attending pro-family churches and community groups, starting co-ops, supporting worker-owned businesses, and giving charitably to others must be regular features of the pro-family scene.
Allan Carlson has done great work pointing the way forward in this regard. I reviewed his book on pro-family economics, Third Ways, here, and a very helpful primer on that same topic is available here. Apologies to St. Paul, but “how will they believe unless they hear?” Getting the word out is the job of pastors, teachers, intellectuals, and also of ordinary Christian men. We have to get real with what this plan would look like. Mere talking points and utopian melodramas are not the way forward. And once we’ve drawn this picture, we have to make the case why it is the beautiful, good, and true.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.