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Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Surrendering on "social issues" won't save the Republican soul. 

By From the March 2013 issue

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THE HEAT'S ON my friends. Gotta change that GOP.

Change it how?  You know by now, surely, with all the talk afloat in the land since the last time America voted. Gotta gag, not to mention tie up (and maybe strangle, if no one’s watching too closely) those “social issue” people, the ones who cost Republicans probably the White House and almost certainly the Senate. They just wouldn’t shut up, would they? Had to keep jamming their sermons down our throats: abortion, gay rights, marriage, religion. Religion? Oh, my God! All that stuff that divides instead of uniting people?

Testimony to the above conceits, whose proponents of course perceive them as reality, not mere supposition or opinion, are abundant as the 2012 political postmortems proceed. The anti–social issues trope is fast becoming embedded. Nor am I talking just about the inevitable reproaches from professional strategists accustomed to receiving large fees for their wisdom and insights.

Writers to the New York Times were free, naturally, with the told-you-so’s:

“An an educated person, I find myself alienated by the anti-woman and anti-science sentiments expressed by the GOP.” (Meredith Schultz, Boca Raton, Fla.)

“The tide has turned. The control of a woman’s body remains properly in her hands, and the right of people to love and marry the partner of their choice is affirmed.” (Arthur L. Yeager, Edison, N.J.)

And so on.

Various professed conservatives sang harmony. Typical would be Patricia Cooper-Smith of Carson City, Nev., in a letter to the Wall Street Journal complaining of a GOP platform imbrued in “intolerance toward minorities and women.” Conservatism, Ms. Cooper-Smith declared, “the philosophy of less government and less government intrusion, has no business playing with social issues.”

Some weeks later, an online commenter to the Journal wrote, “One of the primary reasons the GOP fares so badly IMHO is that many of their social policies are at odds with the mainstream average voters.” Such folk as support abortion and tolerate gay marriage? And blame white males for most of the world’s troubles? That could be the inference from censures such as the above. Depend on David Plouffe, who was until recently President Obama’s senior political strategist, to embroider the theme. “Out of the mainstream,” was how he characterized Washington Republicans to CNN. Just “barriers to progress,” poor fellows, contrasted with “Republicans in the country who are seeking compromise, seeking balance.” Light dawns. To get in the “mainstream,” Republicans have to become Obama Democrats. Or something closer to it than now.

TO A POINT, one can see why so much steam builds up in the boilers of the “social issue” critics. The prime culprit in 2012 was Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri, the Republican nominee for a Democratic Senate seat generally regarded as his to lose. He lost it, sure enough, after expressing himself infelicitously on the politically infelicitous topic of what happens when rape victims become pregnant. Akin gave it out that pregnancy rarely happens in cases of “legitimate” rape, and anyway women are blessed with unspecified means of “shutting down” the whole process. And thus fell the curtain on the Akin campaign, though not without leaving the name “Akin” lying around to decorate Democratic speeches, columns, and blog posts dealing with Republican “insensitivity,” “backwardness,” “bigotry,” you name it. This was unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of these reasons being Akin’s much-vouched-for personal character (as contrasted with the spottiness of his gynecological learning). A couple of other Republicans—Senate candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Joe Walsh in Illinois—spoke less obtusely about rape and abortion, but got bracketed with Akin anyway and lost their races.

Meanwhile, the push for gay marriage—a notion from which Republicans generally recoil—rolls merrily along at the state level. Nine states and the District of Columbia permit it, as of the start of the year. I reluctantly quote a hugely gratified New York Times: “A rapid shift in public opinion is bolstering [the cause] as more people grow used to the idea of same-sex marriage and become acquainted with openly gay people and couples.”

What, then, for Republicans? Push aside the social issues? Won’t happen. Half, perhaps, of the party’s conservative base would take serious umbrage. The issues clustered under this admittedly ambiguous heading—aren’t all issues “social” to one degree or another?—are ethically urgent. Abortion involves the deliberate taking of human life in the weeks or months before time comes for the child to move and breathe independently. That such an issue would not concern any respectable body of public servants is a proposition as impossible to credit as an Obama speech devoid of the first person singular.

Similarly important, and no more fun to deal with, is the issue of matrimony, contemplated today in a manner unknown throughout the whole course of history. A marriage, on any honest showing, is an undertaking, civil or ecclesiastical, between people of the opposite sex and for reasons rooted in How Things Are, not in how we might remake them if we closed our eyes and clicked our heels three times. From marriage in the traditional sense flow the family relationships we take for granted: teaching, conveying (less often now, it sadly appears, than formerly) the realities and duties of life, as revealed by the testimony of the centuries. The family is foundational in the way Americans and all other humans live. What you build atop a wholly new foundation cannot resemble in any important sense what sat atop the old one.

Next question for Republicans: Change your tone of voice? It might help. Karl Rove has suggested as much: “Republicans need not jettison their principles.” (I’d have liked “should not jettison” even better, if you’ll pardon my saying so, Mr. Rove. Anyway…) “But they must avoid appearing judgmental and callous on social issues.” That is what we might call Politics 101 counsel: Don’t hack off potential supporters. I agree—without doubting the resolution of the media and the Obama White House to put a splenetic spin on words spoken by Republicans in support of unborn life or traditional marriage, howsoever quietly, howsoever tactfully.

That leaves us where, then? Contemplating, I think, a reality larger than mere electoral politics. That reality is the insufficiency at minimum, the scandal at maximum, of licensing government to oversee matters properly left to private modes and institutions. The social issues of which we speak, to put the matter another way, have no business in the political arena…well, to paraphrase the captain of the Pinafore, hardly any.

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.

Photo courtesy of UPI. 

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.