Social Conservatism and Limited Government

Creating a Consistent Message for Future Elections

by Prof. Patrick Garry

Social conservatives have come under much criticism lately.  In the aftermath of the 2012 election, social conservatives have been cast as a significant handicap to political conservatism in general and the Republican Party in particular.  With the country moving more leftward in its social and cultural views, any influential role of social conservatives in the broader conservative movement is seen as self-defeating.

We Can Do BetterBut a denial of social conservatism is both misleading and impossible.  All conservatives, in a sense, are social and cultural conservatives.  Indeed, by its very definition, conservatism is deeply concerned with the sustenance and protection of those social values and institutions that have prevailed throughout the American experience.   These values and institutions have defined and guided America throughout its historical journey; they have, in fact, defined America more than the actions and make-up of its government have.

The political arena and the government it produces is just a subset of the larger American culture and society.  All conservatives recognize this.  They recognize, as do social conservatives in particular, that these historic cultural values and institutions provide a valuable guide and foundation to the nation’s political system.

Even many libertarians believe in the value of traditional social values.  But the question is how to pursue this social conservatism in the current  political environment.   Given their inherent social and cultural conservatism, how should conservatives define and pursue their political conservatism?  What political values should they emphasize in pursuit of their larger conservative cause?

Answering these questions require a recognition of several other political principles and realities.  First,  the trend in popular opinion is moving away from the views of social conservatives, who are increasingly finding themselves in the position of counter-cultural rebels.  Consequently, it may not be the wisest course of action to pursue their cause in the majoritarian political process.

Second, given the changes in public opinion and the types of threats currently being made against traditional cultural values and institutions, it may be best to wage a more defensive campaign against government interference, rather than an offensive one aimed at using government to actively promote certain social values.  A good example of such threats can be found in the Obamacare contraceptive mandate that directly intrudes on the beliefs of religious institutions.  This represents the most severe threat to the values and concerns of social conservatives – the threat caused by an oppositional, all-powerful federal government.  And it illustrates that opposing a powerful government, intent on undermining the ability of religious institutions to carry out their social justice mission, should be the more crucial focus than the attempt to solicit that powerful government’s affirmative support of one’s cause.

Third, the principle of limited government is experiencing a revival not seen since the 1930s.  This revival is a most welcome one for conservatives and will be an invaluable tool in addressing the unprecedented growth of government spending and budget deficits that threaten both our economy and our democracy.  Consequently, conservatives must wholeheartedly embrace the principle of limited government.  But to be credible, they cannot elsewhere, in the area of social values, advocate an activist government approach.  To make their advocacy of limited government in the economic sphere as powerful as possible, conservatives need to be consistent and unified in their embrace of that principle.  Any political agenda or strategy that incorporates an inconsistent approach in such an important area as limited government will be an internally conflicted agenda or strategy that can never command  a majority following.

To social conservatives, limited government is not just a principle that should be embraced out of logical necessity.  It is also a principle that can lead to desirable results.  To conservatives, it is more important to diminish the sphere of government, to allow greater room for private social associations (including religion) to thrive, than to try to use the often heavy hand of government in some affirmative way.  The conservative advocacy of school vouchers, for instance, reflect a political means through which private society can be given more space and opportunity to function in a sphere that government might otherwise try to monopolize.

There is much about the affirmative use of government to achieve certain cultural or social values that contradicts the conservative mindset.  Values are not something that should be compelled, and using government to implement such values detracts from the individual voluntary assumption of those values, shifting instead to a reliance on political muscle.

Using the political arena to “legalize” certain moral issues can also have a corrupting influence on those private institutions that seek to use the political arena in that way.  It can result, for instance, in a kind of corrupting connection between religion and government, whereby religious organizations  focus less on their religious and moral callings to concentrate more on the compromise-laden, power-brokering  process of politics.  This was the fatal mistake made by religion in Europe.  By relying on state establishment and aid, those religions compromised their spiritual identities and independence; and in doing so, became weak and malleable dependents on the public dole.

A hallmark trait of conservatism is that it looks to culture and history to define America, not to government or politics.  Indeed, it is the Left that tends to equate society with government.   To conservatives, society and culture guides government.  Consequently, social and cultural values should operate and be rooted first and foremost within society and culture.  Therefore, a consistent limited government political strategy may help remind conservatives that their primary focus, when advocating moral and cultural values, should be on society and social relations, not on the dictates of government.

The coming battle against America’s exploding and debilitating debt will need a conservatism that is strong, united and credible.  Only conservatism, with its history of belief in limited government, is able to wage this battle.  But this credibility can only be maintained with a consistent approach to limited government.

In taking this approach, social conservatism can be strengthened.  It can focus its attentions on the arena where those attentions are most relevant and constructive.  It can avoid a corrupting dependence on political power.  And it can avoid the temptation often indulged in by the Left – that of putting every issue in the hands of government.


Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.

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