The Future of Social Conservatism

Today I’d like to piggyback on a fascinating conversation that is taking place over at Mere Orthodoxy, one of my favorite blogs. Matthew Lee Anderson is one of my generation’s most promising Christian thinkers, and writes eloquently and persuasively on a variety of topics.

Earlier this year I shared Anderson’s article “Why I Am a Christian Republican” on this blog, but it bears repeating. It’s no secret that I have a strong libertarian bent in my personal politics, but the type of conservatism advocated by Anderson in this article and others like it is probably a closer representation of my views than a strict libertarianism.

This is why I was thrilled to see a week-long reflection on social conservatism on Anderson’s blog. He proposes four theses for advancing the cause of conservatism, with a short article devoted to each. I’ll provide a link and a short summary for each, and then wrap up with a few of my own thoughts at the end.

Thesis #1: To Sow or to Reap? — Anderson asserts that there are seasons of cultural sowing and reaping, and that Conservatives are currently reaping the results of a long-term failure to sow the seeds that will produce a healthy culture. He suggests redirecting some of our attention and resources from seemingly urgent political concerns toward “institutions that will form the backbone of [a] permanent culture“, such as libraries, conservatories, and art studios.

Thesis #2: End the Hostilities Against Elites — Anderson pushes back against the rhetoric that the media and academia will “always” be oriented against conservatism. Anti-intellectualism is a real problem in modern conservatism, and so some of the criticism directed toward conservatives is well-deserved. There is a need for conservative Christians to re-engage in so-called “elite” institutions, and to provide reasoned and well-articulated arguments in favor of social conservatism.

Thesis #3: Recover Intellectual Creativity — Building on the last point, Anderson points out that the reason conservatives are often so hesitant to pursue a rigorous intellectual study of their positions is that that aren’t really that confident in them. They worry that their convictions might not stand up to questioning, so they resort instead to formulaic arguments without fully understanding them. They’ve got it backwards: If what we believe is really true, then it will hold up under scrutiny, and our questioning will only increase our confidence!

Thesis #4: Recovering Our Confidence — Anderson’s final thesis is more practical: If we have confidence in our convictions and the ability to speak intelligently and civilly about them, we stand a chance of actually persuading others… which is theoretically the goal of political discourse, though it almost never actually happens. Unfortunately, the “culture war mentality” undermines our effectiveness. “If the point is defeating our opponents, rather than persuading them to join our side, then why should we work to make our positions sound like good news to them?  Why would we spend the ridiculous amount of energy it [takes] to see our opponent’s positions from the inside so that we can make the appeal more effectively?” Our confidence and persuasiveness depend upon intellectual integrity.

So what’s my take? Other than a hearty “Amen!” to the entire series, I haven’t got too much to add. But I think we’re in an exciting season of transition within conservatism right now. For all its good intentions, the “old guard” of the Republican Party and the “Religious Right” is on the way out, which is as it should be. In its place will rise up a new generation of conservatives with confidence in their convictions and the ability to ask good questions, find real answers, and persuade others of the truth that undergirds their positions. I’m optimistic about the future, though I suspect things will get worse before they get better.

I do want to bring special attention to the first of these theses, however. As the director of a church-based music school, sowing cultural seeds is obviously very important to me! But people often ask the question: Why would a church be interested in teaching music lessons? The answer is that things like politics and morality are downstream from culture. If we truly want to shape the culture of our earthly kingdom, we need to be shaping the next generation of culture makers, not just in the arts, but in literature, aesthetics, theology, ethics, science, and other similar intellectual pursuits. (Which also, by the way, explains my dedication to Highland Rim Academy, an excellent training ground for what J. Gresham Machen called “the higher aspirations of humanity”.)

I’ll close with an excerpt from a book that has had tremendous influence on me, Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (my review):

The arts are often dismissed by Christians as mere entertainment, a leisure activity. Aren’t there more pressing issues calling for our attention — such as what’s happening in the White House?

Secular people know better. Consider a much-quoted line by Todd Gitlin, former president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After the 1960s student protests, Gatlin said, the Left began “marching on the English Department while the Right took the White House.” Today we must ask ourselves: Which was the more effective strategy? The 1960s radicals who avoided the draft with student deferments made their way up through the universities, became professors, and inculcated their radical ideas into the minds of generations of young people — ideas that shape the way they now vote… Those who marched on the English department are now in the White House.

The arts and academic institutions are not inherently secular! In fact, the spread of the “university” followed the spread of Christianity, as it was Christians who once promulgated the idea that “all truth is God’s truth”, and became the intellectual and cultural champions of the Western world. There is no reason why this can’t be the case once again. Once conservative Christians regain the ground we’ve lost in arts and education, we’ll begin to see real change in areas of politics where we’ve been spinning our wheels for decades. What we sow today, our children will reap tomorrow.

One comment on “The Future of Social Conservatism

  1. […] and it’s sort of surprising me, too. But because I really do believe what I said in my last post, I have to be willing to question my convictions and make sure that something as important as my […]

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