Why social conservatives are fighting the culture wars alone

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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My latest column for The Week is titled: “The culture war was never a fair fight.” This is true for a variety of reasons, including the fact that, aside from the gun part of “God, guns, and gays,” social conservatives are fighting the culture wars all by themselves.

Social conservatives represent just a third of the conservative coalition, but they are fighting two-thirds of the culture wars … alone.

Understanding why this is the case requires a bit of history and philosophy.

While social conservatives continue to search for secular arguments against same sex marriage, the truth is that their positions largely hinge on a belief in traditional Judeo-Christian values (for example, they will remind you the family was the building block of society.)

I recently talked with Eric Teetsel — the 29-year-old executive director of the Manhattan Declaration — about the same sex marriage debate (listen to our full conversation here.)

At the end of our conversation, I asked Teetsel if he worries he may later regret taking such a public and controversial stance. “I don’t put my trust and I don’t put my sense of self in what the culture thinks of me,” he told me. “As a Christian man, all I can do is be obedient to my calling…”

This is noble, and it also leaves little doubt that many social conservative positions are buttressed on faith. But they also believe — and this is important, politically — that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue. And part and parcel of this is the assumption that our society is merely a short-term destination on the way to our heavenly home. This, of course, is in strong contrast to Y.O.L.O. (“you only live once”) worldview.

Here’s the problem: Not only do secular liberals reject this philosophy, but so do other elements of the conservative “three-legged-stool.”

As I noted in The Week, there has always been a natural tension between (what liberals and libertarians see as) liberty and (what social conservatives see as) virtue. “Fusionism” between the disparate elements of the conservative coalition once demanded unity, or, at least, silence, but those days (for various reasons, including the internet) seem to have passed.

I’ve explained the true fundamental reason social conservatives see the world as they do. But what about the other players?

The secular liberal weltanschauung is obvious — and probably best summed up in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  (Emphasis mine.)

But what about growing number of conservatives who also reject the notion that government should be in the business of preserving virtue?

Whereas social conservatives look to the Church for guidance, “classical liberals” (the Free Market, limited government ideology that values individuals) probably trace their fundamental beliefs back to Locke.

According to Dr. Benjamin Wiker’s new book, “Worshipping The State,” Locke essentially argued that “government was for no other purpose than the preservation of one’s body and property, and the freedom to do with them as one likes.”

A primary example of this philosophy can be found in a recent tweet sent out by libertarian-leaning Republican Rep. Justin Amash:

Conservatives have long attempted to downplay the deep-seated philosophical differences between the various wings of the movement, choosing instead to stress similarities and areas of agreement.

But when you trace back the ideas to their infancy, you begin to see how radically different these fundamental ideas are. It’s really no surprise that social conservatives are standing alone.

Matt K. Lewis