Letter to America on the Future of Social Conservatism

 
 

What does the future hold for social conservatives in America? A British professor of philosophy writes to offer the advice of a friendly outsider: Don’t delude yourself into thinking the 2008 election was not a repudiation of the Bush administration, and keep in mind that aligning social conservatism too closely with either political party may prove fatal.

Print Friendly

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you well, though no doubt exhausted from the long period of campaigning and commentating leading up to the recent elections. Most people on this side of the ocean think only of the presidential contest. More than once I have had to explain that in addition to the race for the White House there have been senate, congressional and gubernatorial contests going on, along with a number of state referenda and local elections. Britons can easily forget, if they ever really understood, the federal character of the Union, and when this and the electoral complexity are explained they either respond by saying, “but the presidential election was the one that mattered, wasn’t it?” or else, “so what does that mean?”

Still, some of us are fairly knowledgeable when it comes to American politics, and I’d like to offer an account of how things look from the perspective of one British observer. It is based on a close following of the campaigning and on general knowledge of the United States gathered over 20 years of visiting (some 35 states of the Union) and two periods of residence (in Pennsylvania, and in Virginia). While the political race has sharpened many issues, I am primarily focused on matters of moral and social outlook. Indeed, one point I would like to emphasize is that it looks to have been a mistake to identify these matters too closely with political parties and their presidential tickets.

Some American conservative commentators have been eager to press the idea that rather than the Democrats winning the White House election on the strength of their candidates and policies, the Republicans lost the contest because of the defects of the McCain-Palin campaign. While this view has the comforting advantage of simply requiring a better communicator of unchanged positions in order to win the next election, such an idea is distorted to the point of self-deception. Viewed from afar, and I would think that viewed from nearby through a clear glass in broad daylight, it is apparent that voters chose the Democratic ticket on the basis of preferred policies. Voters were tired of what they regarded as a discredited administration led by a confused and ineffective executive that had drawn them into an unnecessary and costly war while yet neglecting domestic needs.

Even many social conservatives felt let down by the administration’s failure to pursue favourable policies regarding marriage, family, education, and the economy. Some may suggest that plans to implement a positive domestic agenda were derailed by the “war on terror,” but even if true it remains the case that the administration put the invasion of Iraq ahead of securing the status and well-being of home, school, family, and the economy.

It should be remembered at this point that concern about the moral legitimacy of the second Gulf War was felt across the range of political positions. Not everyone who judged that the securing of sanctions, the decision to invade, and the conduct of hostilities involved systematic immoralities was a ‘leftist’ or a ‘liberal’. In 2003 I wrote in opposition to the idea of launching a war against Iraq in the introduction to a reprinting of Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay on the Second World War, “The Justice of the Present War Examined.” It would be presumptuous to say what her verdict on this current conflict might have been. Yet, someone who followed her reasoning, and was informed of the circumstances of going to war in Iraq—and the subsequent conduct of it—would at least be drawn to the conclusion that grave, extensive, and enduring injustice had occurred.

Anscombe’s statements on other matters challenge a conventional notion of political alignments. Many of you share my high regard for her intellectual insight and rigour, as well as her dedication to the discernment and practice of truth. Consider, then, an essay she wrote entitled “Philosophers and Economists: Two Philosophers Objections to Usury,” which is relevant to the recent conduct of American Banks and investment agencies. In her essay, Anscombe explores the practice of earning interest on the mere strength of a loan, in effect securing an income from renting out money or increasing one’s wealth out of the ownership of debts. Near the article’s conclusion she states:

These considerations appear to me to throw some light on the necessity of communism, as I might call it. The capitalistic system—to put it in a nutshell—necessarily leads to things like a housing shortage: that is an epitome of its consequences, which I will leave to your imaginations to expand in accordance with my thesis.

Whatever one thinks of her position, it should be noted that Anscombe was a by-word for Catholic orthodoxy, for the sanctity of life, for exclusive, life-long marriage and for chastity within it, and for various other Christian and traditional moral values, yet she could denounce U.S. (and allied) war policies as murderous and accuse the capitalist system of structural injustice and injury to the common good.

Today we face a danger of oversimplifying the structure of political thought to the point of dividing policies between left and right, and then associating these positions with particular political parties. In truth, one may be a social welfarist or socialist and a moral conservative, or equally a free-marketeer or classical liberal and a moral radical: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and aggressively secular.

The fact is that some voters chose against the Republicans not just for pragmatic reasons, and not because they had bought into a general liberal package, but because they took moral exception to some of the policies pursued by the Bush administration, and I believe that in this their judgment was correct. The Bush years were marked by policy immoralities of omission and commission. Not all of those who voted for Barack Obama did so because they favoured every major element of his policies. Rather, as is generally the case, people made an overall judgement of past performance, of the strength and weaknesses of the candidates, and of likely future performance.

The opponents of John McCain and Sarah Palin did not tend to depict them as bad people, but rather as flawed or ill-equipped politicians. But the critics of Obama often sought to represent him as evil. My judgement is that the American people not only did not share that opinion, but that they drew conclusions about those who pressed it, and in fact came to regard Obama as a generally admirable character.

Here let me suggest a parallel between two examples where Republican critics have represented leading figures as damnable only to have that verdict rebuffed in a way that its rejection injured their own cause. One is that of Obama, as we just witnessed. The other is that of President Clinton. I was in the U.S. for periods during the Lewinsky scandal and when the case was being pressed for impeachment. There were those on the side of that policy who took a sober and dignified view of the matter, saying that by his conduct with a junior employee in the setting of the White House the President had disgraced his political office and should resign. Alongside these, however, were others who simply hated Clinton with feral intensity and who delighted at the thought of heaping public humiliation on him.

What they thought might ensue was less clear. What was evident, however, was that the prosecution of this policy led to the degradation of media news and commentary to the point where it was impossible to listen to radio or television news or read a newspaper in the company of children (I have four and so felt that degradation at every turn).

What began as an effort to unseat a President by exposing and denouncing him without qualification or consideration for collateral effects led to extensive damage being done to standards of public discourse and harm to the reputation of his political critics. I fear that something similar may already have happened to the cause of social conservatism through some of the attacks on Obama, which have also proved ineffective. My advice to those involved in this strategy would be that when you have worked yourself into a hole, stop digging and start thinking about how you might get out of it.

It has been a mistake for moral conservatives to associate their concerns with opposition to one candidate and one party. Not only has the previous administration proved itself unworthy, but the state of the Republican party continues to be divided over values such that, had it won the White House and Congressional elections, it would not have delivered a range of policies that would have addressed moral concerns about the conduct of war, the management of markets, the securing of marriage, or the protection of the unborn.

While it would be wrong to abandon the political parties, it would be equally mistaken to side with one of them. The fact is that elections will always be fought and decided on a range of issues and the balance will sometimes favour one side, then another. Social conservatives who look to politics should be seeking to work within both parties, and in the case of the Democrats, seeking to return them to a historical position that was once more in line with Christian moral values and Catholic social teaching than was that of the Republicans.

There is also a further reason to be wary of confusing moral concerns with the fortunes of a political party. Those within a chosen party whose primary interest is pursuing electoral victory may prove fiercer enemies of one’s moral position than political opponents in other parties.

A sobering example is that of the British Conservative Party as it has re-branded itself in response to electoral defeat. Tony Blair brought Labour to power with the promise of renewing Britain, rendering it a contemporary country for contemporary times. The superficiality and near vacuity of the language belied a definite programme of social reformation initiating civil partnership, gay adoption, publicly funded stem-cell research, and other policies designed to ‘modernise’ the values of British society. Opposition from orthodox Christians was as it should have been, but the Conservative Party responded to defeat by associating itself with the very same policies, seeking to overcome its self-described reputation as ‘the nasty party’ by adapting enthusiastically to the need for ‘changed values’ for a ‘forward-looking society.’ There is reason to believe that the Republican Party will now follow the very same trajectory with the ironic consequence that those who invested their hopes in it as a vehicle for pursuing moral values will be encouraged to stay quiet and perhaps even be denounced.

It is an old saw that when America sneezes the rest of the world catches cold. By the same token, if America holds fast to that which is good and implements it in its public policies, then the rest of the West might be improved. Now we see an administration coming to power that is predicted to promote policies inimical to many of our shared vales. What are you, and we, to do? The answer can only be to go on as we have learned to do already, arguing the case, fighting the battles, seeking to influence policy, but not investing our hopes in political parties that are more like one another than they are like us. Perhaps American social conservatives might reflect on that experience and prepare themselves for what are likely to be very difficult times ahead.

The common need is for a serious and sustained reflection on the content of a conservative social philosophy that can be advanced within all major political parties: Democrat and Republican in the U.S.; Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat here in the U.K.

From the window in my study I have a view across lower college lawn to the 15th-century tower of St. Salvator’s, through which generations of masters and students have passed. One such was John Mair, friend of Erasmus and teacher of Jean Calvin, and Ignatius Loyola when in Paris. Another was James Wilson, who in 1765 set off for North America and subsequently became a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787.

In the course of his academic and judicial career Wilson developed a number of important ideas about the relation between personal morality, public policy and political service, at the core of which lay the idea of integrity or truth to one’s deepest convictions. That has long been celebrated and taught in America, but now it has to be reapplied to the context of current political circumstances. It may be that the conclusion is uncomfortable, suggesting that the existing political alignments offer no easy home for those adhering to traditional morality.

With every good wish, yours faithfully,

John Haldane

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Virginia, and Vice-President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain. He is a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the Editorial Board of Public Discourse.

Print Friendly

 

 

Related Reading


 

Web Briefings


PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button