The lost ethic of social conservatism

Corie Whalen Stephens Spokesperson, Generation Opportunity
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I’m an advocate of separating church and state, not because I necessarily worry the latter might suppress the former, but because I want to protect the integrity of the church and related institutions in the face of federal encroachment. Unfortunately, the buzz phrase “separation of church and state” has degenerated into a leftist talking point. This is in large part thanks to groups like the ACLU and various Supreme Court decisions — especially Everson v. Board of Education, which mandated a “wall of separation” between all church and government relations (despite prior state-level involvement), policed by the federal government.

Social conservatives have responded by embracing centralization in order to achieve the opposite ends. If the left is for fully separating church and state in a top-down sense, then we must be for entirely conflating the two in that regard! Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — a set of policy initiatives designed to support traditional families — is a good example of this mindset.

Conservatives always lose when we allow the left to define the parameters of political discourse, yet we consistently permit this, often in lieu of crafting our own narratives. This has been an ongoing theme for some time, and has meant that compromise always means finding a way to let the left make government a little bigger, because, well, at least it will be a bit smaller that way than if they got all of what they wanted! Alas, the left gets there incrementally as the right tacitly endorses the same methods that drive us toward inevitable implosion.

Post-Reagan, the right seems to have forgotten that constitutionally inspired small government and social conservatism are not only perfectly compatible but naturally aligned. At its core, social conservatism values the self-determination of families, of churches, and of communities. Government didn’t create those entities; why would it be fit to preserve them? History demonstrates that centralization always destroys society’s natural institutions. Authoritarianism is not, nor ever will be, conservative in any intellectually honest sense.

Growing up, I identified as a social liberal despite having conservative instincts, because I came of age in an era when social conservatism and utilizing government force to push morality were conflated. Only very recently, after studying how neo-conservatism redefined right-wing foreign policy, did I begin to understand how neo-conservatism has impacted social conservatism by tying it to federal interventionism.

Noting all of this, I’ve started to depart from libertarianism in favor of traditional conservatism, because from a moral standpoint, I identify more with the latter philosophy. I’m only a libertarian insofar as I err on the side of being wary of government power and accepting of the fact that centralized force will not change others’ beliefs. Morally, I’m not liberal or even libertarian. Perhaps in some ways I’m more “tolerant” than your run-of-the-mill social conservative, but I certainly believe in a number of absolute moral truths and reject the libertine and nihilistic viewpoints that are commonly found in libertarian circles.

I’ve come to believe that true conservatism is incompatible with centralized, state-approved force. After all, what has government ever done to create — or even encourage — an environment of social morality? I’d contend very little in a positive sense. Government can neither preserve nor push morality — it can only centralize the concept, in turn taking away from the organic establishments that create the traditions worth conserving in the first place.

It’s worth repeating that social conservatives, who believe that government force can combat our social ills, have fallen into the intellectual trap of letting the left define our narrative. It is inherently collectivist and therefore anti-conservative to concede that centralized state power is the engine of society. That Republican majorities’ socially conservative rhetoric and allegedly moral policy initiatives in recent decades came packaged with record government growth should come as no surprise. When we consider that true social conservatism requires self-determination and pro-community decentralization in the tradition of federalism, it becomes obvious that the federal government is inherently incapable of moderating, much less winning, culture wars.

I hope that the current focus on the existential threat posed by the size and scope of government will lead conservatives to re-examine the proper roots of their philosophy. Conservatives should ask themselves if voting for federalized morality has really done more for their worldview, substantively and intellectually, than voting for decentralization and the empowerment of local entities. The facts speak for themselves.

Corie Whalen is 24 years old and writes from Houston, Texas. She works for Young Americans for Liberty and the Republican Liberty Caucus, and also as a freelance writer, editor, and conservative political consultant.