Social conservatism is exhausted, but it is exhausted because it was not ambitious enough. Conservatives have been right to emphasize the importance of defending marriage and protecting the unborn, but they were wrong to focus so narrowly on these two issues when their values speak to many issues, including ones that speak strongly to the generation of Rachel Getting Married and Sufjan Stevens.
Would-be uniters like David Frum and Christie Todd Whitman have suggested that conservatives should lay down the issues of gay marriage and abortion and focus on a (Teddy) Rooseveltian program of good government and environmental protection. Some social conservatives and pastors have expressed their desire to move beyond gay marriage by taking up the issue of global warming and environmental protection. They have pointed out, correctly, that the Bible exhorts us to be good stewards of God’s creation. But is this really social conservatism?
No matter how firm the biblical basis for environmentalism is, the environment is unlikely to become a concern of red-state voters. This may surprise some who think that a large swath of America takes its marching orders from the bible. In fact, biblical Christianity is not the prime motivating force for social conservative voters, rather it is the American idea of the traditional family. While the two are surely related, there is a crucial difference in a political movement centered on one idea shaped by the Bible and a political movement that will champion whatever the Bible proposes.
Of course, family values are supported by the Bible, but things like opposition to abortion receive much more support from secular moral reasoning, natural law, and our culture’s idea of motherhood than they do from holy writ. Seeking to convince red-state voters that the environment should be protected because the Bible says so is not going to be effective. This is why the project of Sojourners is, however noble in some respects, not likely to have any impact.
This might lead some to conclude that the language of social conservatism can speak powerfully to a few issues but is otherwise exhausted. What I propose—what I think we have all been working toward on this blog—is a doubling down on the old time religion of family values. The idea of the family is a fertile, flexible political concept that can be used not only to articulate why we should protect the unborn in law but also why we should build “family-friendly communities” where people live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. This is a vision for protecting the “nuclear family” by reintegrating it into its proper context of community and extended family. If anything the problem with social conservatism is that it was not ambitious enough. We only claimed two issues as our own when our belief in the family speaks to a much wider range of concerns, including all of the moral, political, legal, and technological factors that go into creating vibrant, livable communities.