Surrendering on “social issues” won’t save the Republican soul.
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No one with two eyes, or even one, doubts that government in some degree touches all of life by making and enforcing general rules for social cooperation. The degree to which it does so has furnished contention since time out of mind. Constantine vs. Nero, Milton Friedman vs. Paul Krugman: it’s all about where values are set, and who sets them. Do they come from above, politically speaking, or from below?
The American scheme of government answers the question decisively: from below. From the culture, not from Congresses, come values, norms, truths, understandings as to how we must live, and what we must accordingly do. Government’s task is more modest: namely, finding what the people value, then protecting or promoting it.
In America—the nation with the soul of a church, as G.K. Chesterton called it—that once meant the Bible and the pulpit wielded primary and often dramatic influence. Government went along with that dispensation, often because government was peopled with leaders who came to government laden with the same ideas. Institutions and associations and webs of private connection set the tone of American life. Thus Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America: “Nothing, in my opinion is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly, because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must, however, be acknowledged that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so.”
Edmund Burke, in a different context, understood and affirmed the principle: In love of the “little platoons” to which humans belonged could be found “the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”
Compare moral teaching bred in a Tocquevillian association or a Burkean platoon to a Supreme Court decision or an act of Congress. The latter two can hardly be called illegitimate by nature. Problems arise, nonetheless, from the tendency among politicians to overleap the findings and deliberations of the various associations and platoons in order to impose a general notion that might be partly or wholly out of order.
It is so with abortion. It is so with gay marriage. That anyone could wonder at the consternation wrought by Roe v. Wade, 40 years ago, in affirming a constitutional right to abortion, against the considered judgment of the several states, is itself a matter for wonder. Justice Byron White, writing in dissent, protested the court’s announcement of “a new constitutional right for pregnant women…” The historian James Hitchcock would write years later in Human Life Review, “The ultimate aim of this moral iconoclasm is the establishment of a morality which is wholly a human creation…an exercise of the sovereign human will.” The government (without assistance from Todd Akin’s hecklers) had smashed to smithereens the prevailing convictions of the so-called sovereign people, saying, in effect, “Whatcha gonna do about it, huh?”
What millions have sought to do over the ensuing decades is palliate the effects of Roe, through public explanation and compassionate aid to women doubtful of their ability bring a pregnancy to full term. Another angle of the strategy involves working politically to narrow the scope and applicability of Roe. I know, I know—politics: dirty and divisive. That’s only because a matter that shouldn’t have been political, at least at the federal level, was made political. Pro-life folk didn’t start this particular fight. They entered it only when set upon by the we-know-better-than-you gang.
As with abortion, so with gay marriage, and less visual episodes in the quest to fob off “gay rights” as just another chapter in the endless struggle for justice. To defend the normative understanding of marriage—one man, one woman—is to speak up for the received wisdom of the human race, grounded in natural law. Theoretically, of course, the human race could be wrong, but apostles of gay marriage aren’t interested in seminar debate; they want what they want, and if you object, you’re likely a “homophobe,” whatever that term of abuse is supposed to mean.
It needs to be noted that the campaign for gay marriage is visible mostly at the state level. State legislatures are prodded by the state’s people, or some of them anyway, to change their thinking. Aren’t the states mediating points between the little platoons of Grover’s Corners, N.H., and the imperial armies of Washington, D.C.? That’s right. Better that such consequential matters be hammered out by entities close to the people
If only the matter, in practice, were so clearly cut! The nationalization of the gay marriage question stems from desire for a fast track to general recognition of this newly vetted right. In taking the oath of office for a second term, President Obama proclaimed his newly acquired support for the movement. The New York Times rarely misses a chance to hiss the old order and brag on the new one. Now that we know how great gay marriage is, can’t we all just board the bandwagon and commence humming “Lohengrin”?
IT MAY NOT BE be the fault of the Times or the president that the little platoons—the people of Grover’s Corners, for instance, whose state government authorized gay marriage in 2010—find it hard to keep step with the authors of the old moral consensus, from St. Paul and St. Augustine forward. As the government at the top of the power ladder has swelled, the institutions far below—churches, schools, clubs, societies of one kind or another, and (most of all) families—have lost ground. Charles Murray has meanwhile related the grim story (Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010) of the unraveling of America’s civic culture—a culture that encompassed “shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work, and religiosity.” We know as well from daily experience that the push to conformity can be persuasive. When everybody’s doing it, resistance comes hard.
One could say we are currently in a funk. Does a funk give leaders with, likely, no greater understanding than anyone else (and maybe less) the license to impose on those below a new way of living, thinking, and believing? The social issues—in case my readers think I have lost the thread of the conversation—have urgency and reality outside the narrow scope of electoral politics. It is no more possible to lay them aside than it is to play a harp with a baseball bat, or to turn lead into precious metals with murmured incantations. There are, of course, as Karl Rove suggests, ways of talking about the issues, ways of explaining, ways of surprising opponents with civility and understanding. That is probably as far as things can go.
To lose an election for the right reasons, having done one’s duty, having said that which needed saying, and said it in full voice, is one thing. To lose an election for the wrong reasons, having dissembled or stammered or handed off the question to a press aide, is to await, with trembling, the crowing of the cock.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?