Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

No more “social conservatives”

With the presidential election cycle getting up to speed, it’s time for reporters and yakkers like me to stop writing about “social conservatives” as if they were an identifiable segment of the voting population. I say this as someone who has happily been using the term since late 2008, when it looked like the religious right was at least organizationally in eclipse, and that the GOP was engaged in a struggle to balance the competing interests of three types of conservatives: social, economic, and foreign policy.

But, as we’ve learned from survey data on Tea Party adherence, social conservatism is thoroughly enmeshed with economic conservatism. Even libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Paul’s heterodoxy is in the foreign policy realm. American conservatives as a whole are way closer to neocon exceptionalism than to Pauline isolationism.


The point is that these days, virtually all self-described conservatives are social conservatives–and any GOP presidential candidate who wants to be viable has to present himself or herself as one too. The relevant lines of differentiation remain religious. It’s white evangelicals, not “social conservatives,” who looked to Mike Huckabee as their paladin. Social conservatives who happen to be Mormon disliked Huckabee and have Mitt Romney to cleave to. As for frequent Mass-attending white Catholics, they strongly preferred McCain over Huckabee last time around, and need to be carefully differentiated this time around.

Relying on “social conservatives” to analyze the race for the GOP presidential nomination conveniently secularizes our political discourse. For even as religion has always served as a marker of their voting patterns, Americans have always felt uncomfortable about owning up to it. But the term obscures the real divisions in the Republican electorate. Let’s drop it.


Update: Another way to make the point is by noting that the GOP has simply become the (increasing isolated) political home of social conservatism. Thus, according to the latest Gallup Survey showing that most Americans now support same-sex marriage, support among Democrats and Independents has shot up remarkably over the past year, while support among Republicans has not shifted at all.

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posted May 21, 2011 at 7:58 am

As a New Englander, I am naturally not a social conservative, but I would consider myself an economical conservative. In a previous generation I would have been a natural fit for the Rockefeller Republican wing of the party. But while I have voted Republican, there’s no way I could join their party. Who wants to join a group that calls people who think like you a RINO?

Polling data shows there’s been a steady growth of Americans who aren’t affiliated with either party. You have to wonder if this will eventually lead to some sort of political realignment.

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Grumpy Old Person

posted May 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Mr. Silk,

Speaking of faux “social conservatives”, Mitch Daniels got a lot of ink for suggesting a “truce on social issues”. And then, he turned around and withdrew funding for Planned Parenthood.

How come so many Republicans can get away with such blatant duplicity? Saying one thing and doing another belies their public claims, no?

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Elliot Stamler

posted August 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Social conservatism is social fascism, period. It is the political expression of sexual prudery raised to the level of obsession. It is the narrowest possible definition of “morality” in that it solely defines morality in terms of other people’s sexual and reproductive lives. It is utterly indifferent if not actively hostile to all of the definitions of complete morality imaginable. It is championed by the worst, most bigoted, intolerant, narrow-minded and ignorant people in this country.

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