In Defense of Social Conservatives

Mark Hillman
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Posted: Dec 08, 2008 4:20 PM
In Defense of Social Conservatives

Today's Republican Party seeks to advance freedom through limited government, strong national security, personal responsibility and traditional family values.

Although many Republicans generally adhere to all four of those elements, some do not; yet they remain allied because they are so strongly committed to one, two or three of those principles. Despite inner-party squabbles, most Republicans rationally accept that we must work together to form an electoral majority.

Recently, some have grumbled that social conservatives - pro-lifers, opponents of same-sex marriage and the so-called "Religious Right" - are to blame for the party's recent set backs and should be muzzled. If the goal is winning elections, rather than purging membership rolls at the country club, throwing social conservatives under the bus is a catastrophic idea.

The Republican Party is roughly two-thirds pro-life and one-third pro-choice. However, overwhelming majorities in both camps weigh additional factors before casting their vote. According to Gallup, rigidly single-issue voters constitute just 22% of pro-life Republicans and 8% of pro-choicers.

Just four years ago, pollsters credited "values voters" with re-electing President Bush and expanding GOP majorities. This year, moderate "maverick" John McCain enjoyed 72% support from evangelicals (of all parties) on Election Day, despite ranking as the least favorite primary candidate of pro-life Republicans.

Social conservatives rallied behind McCain and against Barack Obama, but prominent moderates like Colin Powell, William Weld and Lincoln Chaffee endorsed the Democrat. Bob Schaffer experienced similar defections from social moderates who would have disdained defectors had the shoe been on the other foot.

So why do some vocal social moderates and libertarians find it so difficult to coexist with social conservatives?

Some believe social issues are a loser at ballot box, pointing to the 3-to-1 defeat of this year's "personhood" amendment. That's a poor example because Amendment 48 split the pro-life community between those who hope to end abortion in one fell swoop and those who think an incremental approach is more practical.

Gallop says the public "is split nearly down the middle" on abortion, but other measures, like a ban on late-term abortion, enjoy overwhelming support.

The other galvanizing social issue, codifying the traditional definition of marriage, is the most successful citizen initiative since term limits and enjoys even stronger support among blacks and Hispanics than among whites.

Another reason social issues sometimes divide the party is that many in both camps are very principled in their beliefs. Moderates and libertarians truly believe that abortion and marriage fall beyond the bounds of limited government. Social conservatives reason that life is the foremost of our inalienable rights and that laws traditional marriage laws merely preserve a definition that governments have codified for centuries.

Most social conservatives don't care what goes on in someone else's bedroom, but when those matters move to a public hospital or a courthouse they take to the ramparts. In most cases, conservatives didn't seek out these battles until liberal activists and judges ignited the fuse.

On the other hand, pro-life leaders sometimes treat each tangent like a slippery slope. Battles over stem cell research and Terri Schiavo aren't as clearly defined as the mission of saving millions of unborn children.

Social moderates who say they just want government to "stay out of it" will soon be tested. Will they vociferously oppose restrictions on religious speech, taxpayer funding of abortion, and federal legislation to pre-empt state laws on abortion and marriage?

Standing on principle is commendable, but beating each other over the head with our differences is a fool's sport. The Republican Party is strong enough to stand on principle and broad enough to accept that sometimes more than one road may lead to that destination.

In the coming months, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will remind us all too clearly that the principles which unite us are far greater than those that divide us.

We need that reminder because, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "We must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately."