(Published at The Daily Caller, but edited heavily. This is the original.)
I’m an advocate of separating church and state, not because I necessarily worry the latter might suppress the former – but to protect the integrity of the church and related institutions in the face of federal encroachment. Unfortunately however, the buzz phrase “separation of church and state” has degenerated into a leftist talking point. This is in large part thanks to groups like the ACLU, and various SCOTUS decisions – especially Everson v. Board of Education, which mandated a ‘wall of separation’ between all church and government relations (despite prior, state level involvement), policed by the federal government.
As a result of this shift in perception toward centralization, in a self-defeating manner, contemporary social conservatives have responded by playing the opposite game. If the left is for fully separating church and state in a top down sense, then we must be for entirely conflating the two in that regard! For example, the Bush campaign’s “compassionate conservatism” that advocated policy initiatives in support of traditional families drew voters in 2000. This centralized method of dealing with social issues was apparently acceptable, no matter how much it sabotaged the ultimate goal and bastardized conservative philosophy.
Conservatives always lose when we allow the left to define the parameters of political discourse; yet we consistently permit this; often in lieu of crafting our own narratives. This has been an ongoing theme for some time, and has led to the fact that compromise always means finding a way to let the left make government a little bigger, because, well, at least it will be a bit smaller that way than if they got all of what they wanted! Alas, the left gets there incrementally as the right tacitly endorses the same methods that drive us toward inevitable implosion.
Post-Reagan, the right seems to have forgotten that constitutionally inspired small government and social conservatism are not only perfectly compatible, but naturally aligned in a philosophical sense. At its core, social conservatism values the self-determination of families; of churches; of communities. Government didn’t create those entities; why would it be fit to preserve them? History demonstrates that centralization always destroys society’s natural institutions. Authoritarianism is not, nor ever will be conservative in any intellectually honest sense.
The reason that growing up, despite having conservative instincts, I identified as a social liberal, was because I came of age in an era where social conservatism and utilizing government force to push morality were conflated. Only very recently, after studying in detail how neoconservatism redefined right-wing foreign policy, did I begin to understand how the fruits of the same philosophy impacted social conservatism by tying it to federal interventionism as well.
Noting all of this, I’ve started to depart from libertarianism in favor of traditional conservatism, because from a moral standpoint, I identify more with the latter philosophy. I’m only a libertarian insofar as I err on the side of being wary of government power and accepting of the fact that centralized force will not change other’s beliefs. Morally, I’m not liberal, or even libertarian. Perhaps in some ways, I’m more ‘tolerant’ than your run-of-the-mill social conservative; but I certainly believe in a number of absolute moral truths, in turn rejecting libertine and nihilistic viewpoints that are commonly found in libertarian circles.
Beginning to accept and understand that true conservatism is in reality, incompatible with centralized, state approved force, I’m comfortable noting where I am in fact a social conservative; despite misuse of the term that has been pervasive during the admittedly short 24 years I’ve been on this earth.
After all, what has government ever done to create, or even encourage an environment of social morality? I’d contend very little in a positive sense. The only thing government has done to social conservatism is tie it to state power in such a way as to remove the inherently grassroots and localized nature of social morality from its political philosophy. Any thoughtful and reflective social conservative who was charmed by the rhetorical promises made by Republicans in the past two decades should be capable of recognizing that at this point.
A true conservative; one who is both fiscally and socially so – or, even one who identifies only as the latter, would benefit from understanding that government can neither preserve nor push morality – it can only centralize the concept; in turn, taking away from the organic establishments that create the traditions worth conserving in the first place.
It’s worth repeating that social conservatives, who believe utilizing government to combat our social ills will work, have fallen into the intellectual trap of letting the left define our narrative. It is inherently collectivist and therefore anti-conservative to concede that centralized state power is the engine of society. That Republican majorities’ socially conservative rhetoric and allegedly moral policy initiatives in recent decades also came packaged with record government growth should come as no surprise. When we consider that true social conservatism requires self-determination and pro-community decentralization in the tradition of federalism, it becomes obvious that the federal government is inherently incapable of moderating, much less winning culture wars.
I hope that with current focus on the existential threat posed by the size and scope of government, conservatives will reexamine the proper roots of their philosophy as a whole. Conservatives should ask themselves if voting for federalized morality has really done more for their worldview substantively and intellectually than voting for decentralization and empowerment of localized entities. In that reflection, the facts should speak for themselves.