The Importance of Social Conservatism

by Bobby Marsland ’11

Is conservatism dead? Obviously, it’s not dead yet—otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this—but there is a great fear rising among conservatives that the movement is on its way out, and will be completely lost within a few generations.

This sentiment immediately raises the question of what conservatism is in the first place. A growing number of Republicans are arguing that conservatism need not and should not include the “socially” conservative element. They fear that it will soon be politically impossible for a socially conservative party to win national elections, and many of them think that basic conservative principles require us to abandon social conservatism.

At this time, as the Republican Party enters into a critical period of self-evaluation and rebuilding, it is vitally important that we consider both questions: is social conservatism consistent with conservative principles, and, if it is, is it a politically feasible option in this age?

Social conservatism encompasses many issues, but the most fundamental and divisive are abortion and marriage.

In the context of this discussion, abortion is by far the less problematic of the two. Conservatives think the state exists to allow individuals to flourish through free and responsible activity. The first responsibility of the state, then, should be to guard the lives of its citizens, and especially to support those who are responsible for the lives of the most vulnerable, so that all may have the opportunity to exercise their freedom. Legalized abortion creates a society in which pregnant women in tough situations feel enormous pressure to abort their child, instead of being encouraged and helped to fulfill the great responsibility entrusted to them.

My own experience has convinced me that younger generations are coming to recognize this problem. Of the 200,000 people who descend on Washington, D.C., each year to protest Roe v. Wade, at least half are young people.

A new pro-life group started in February of this year had over a million members by April 4. A 2003

Gallup poll confirms this anecdotal evidence: 45 percent of teens believe that abortion should be illegal in some circumstances, while 33 percent believe that it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Among both young and old, there are many Republicans who view abortion as so grave an evil that they will never vote for a pro-abortion candidate over a pro-life one, and any weakening in the GOP’s pro-life stance would throw all these votes to the wind. Republicans have nothing to fear from outspokenness on abortion; this issue may in fact be the most effective avenue for making the conservative movement relevant to young people.

Same-sex marriage is the more difficult matter, both philosophically and politically. It is clear from polls that young people are losing touch with this aspect of social conservatism, and some young Republicans are beginning to argue that opposition to same-sex marriage is merely an inherited prejudice which conflicts with conservatism’s most basic values. To many people, it seems that restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples institutionalizes hatred and discrimination against homosexual individuals, and thus violates the state’s basic duty of creating a framework for a thriving human society.

Furthermore, for many, a loving and committed marriage is one of the most important aspects of a responsible, fulfilled life. If a conservative government is supposed to encourage human fulfillment through responsible use of liberty, then denying certain people the opportunity to pursue this noble goal stands in direct opposition to the very core of conservatism.

Yet this view stems from a fundamental misreading of the marriage question. The marriage debate is not about whether to deny certain people the opportunity to marry; it is about what marriage is. Marriage has always been intrinsically bound up with the bearing and rearing of children.

None of the qualities we typically associate with marriage make sense otherwise, including the restriction of marriage to two people and its necessarily sexual character. It is impossible for marriage to be “extended” to same-sex couples, no matter how much we might want to do so.

To apply the word marriage to relationships that have nothing to do with reproduction is to destroy the meaning of the word. This destruction has been occurring for a long time now, which is why many have been able to accept same-sex marriage so quickly, and it may not seem worth the effort to resuscitate the institution we used to call marriage.

Nevertheless, the public institution of marriage as a framework for reproduction is in fact demanded by the conservative principles I have outlined, and same-sex marriage has given conservatives an excellent opportunity to explain the reasons why marriage is important and to work to restore it.

In terms of conservative principles, there are two issues at stake here. The first is deeply related to the abortion question. During my discussion of abortion, some readers may have thought that I was being too harsh, since from the point of view of many desperate, unwed expectant mothers, the effort of carrying a child to term seems simply impossible.

In order to create an environment in which a woman is truly free to exercise her responsibility for her child’s life, the state needs to encourage fathers to fulfill their own responsibilities both toward the women they impregnate and toward the children that result. Marriage has always been the institution for accomplishing this goal. The fact that it does not accomplish this goal very well right now does not mean that we should demolish it, but rather that we should work to rebuild it and reawaken our society to a deeper awareness of its purpose.

The second issue is the state’s obligation to provide a setting in which children can be properly reared, so that they in time become free, responsible adults. It is very difficult for an unwed mother to give her child all the love and attention required to bring him to full maturity, and it is impossible for the state to do so directly, however much it tries.

Children raised by an impersonal bureaucracy and indoctrinated by the state will not have the sense of genuine liberty that is conservatism’s primary value. While adoption is a better solution than a state-run orphanage, it is still inferior to a stable marriage, in which a child can look to his own biological parents as examples of responsible freedom in their loving care for him.

Many people point to the high divorce rate as proof that marriage is no longer stable and thus fails to accomplish this goal, but they do not propose any other solution. Again, the best way to ensure that children are raised well is to restore to marriage its power to hold fathers accountable to their wives and children.

If we destroy this inherent aspect of marriage by removing all reference to children or reproduction from our definition of the institution, as the Iowa Supreme Court has explicitly done recently, we will only cause further harm to future generations.

In light of these considerations, we see that a party committed to protecting freedom and promoting its responsible exercise needs to do everything in its power to end abortion and to restore marriage to its original place in society as the institution that encourages parents to take responsibility for their biological children and for one another.

There is little to fear from becoming more outspoken on abortion, and the pro-life cause may be the one factor that can restore the party to youthful vigor. The marriage issue is more risky, and the GOP is in dire need of leaders who know what is at stake and can frame the problem correctly.

The upcoming generation will not be convinced by appeals to instinct or custom, and can only be won over if they see both that marriage is important and that our commitment to reviving marriage is genuine.

It will not be enough to keep same-sex marriage illegal; to stop there would be to make ourselves hypocrites, and the party’s youth will notice this. Rather, Republicans need to take positive steps toward restoring marriage to its original stature.

If we take these steps, both on the political level and in society at large, we will win over enough young people to ensure our continued political viability, and we will have the great privilege of participating in the renewal of the most important institution of a free society.

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