How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Conservatives

Timothy Dalrymple

I happened to look at a sermon I wrote about 7 years ago.  It was during the time I was involved in a new church start.  Reading the sermon, I tend to think it wasn’t my best sermonizing.  The sermon seems a fitting for the current context; it was based on Micah 6:1-8 and focused on same-sex marriage, which is a hot issue here in Minnesota with the upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage.

What I took from the sermon is how much I’ve changed over the last seven years.  No, I still believe in same sex marriage and I think it’s a mistake to place this amendment in our constitution.  What has changed is my opinion of social conservatives.  I still don’t agree with their views, but I tend to understand those views a lot better, which has led me to be more respectful of the views as well.

What has changed is reading some social conservative writers like Timothy Dalrymple, Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.  Listening to the viewpoints, I learn that social conservatives are far more complex than I used to believe.  They aren’t the caritacture I had easily painted them into.  While I don’t think banning same sex marriage is going to solve the concerns they have, I do realize that their concerns about the family in modern America make some sense. Here’s a part of a post by Dalrymple on gay marriage from 2011:

Those who oppose same-sex marriage do not see the fight for same-sex marriage as a continuation of the Civil Rights struggle.  The Civil Rights struggle does not even enter their minds when they consider same-sex marriage, because they do not believe that a person has a civil right to marry a person of the same sex with the imprimatur of the state, or that a person has a civil right to adopt one course of action (marrying a person of the same sex) and have it treated legally the same as another course of action (marrying a person of the opposite sex).  In other words, in this view, there is no civil right to marry whomever you please, and “equal protection” does not enter the equation; people in themselves deserve equal protection before the law, but different courses of actioncan and should be treated differently.

Most social conservatives see the same-sex marriage movement as a continuation not of the Civil Rights fight, but of the sexual revolution.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s established a trajectory of greater freedom of sexual expression, of broadening the field of sexual behaviors that are accepted and celebrated, and of disapproving the judgment of sexual behaviors or identities.  Many social conservatives see the push for same-sex marriage as the next phase in the sexual revolution, the next phase in the deterioration of moral-sexual norms, and the next step toward the dissolution of the basic and God-ordained family structure.  The sexual revolution, they claim, has already done incalculable harm.  They see a direct connection in the past five decades between the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the family, with skyrocketing increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and deadbeat dads — and all the poverty, stagnation and malaise those things bring.

It’s a slippery-slope argument made by people who believe they’re already halfway (if not further) down the slope.  Slippery slope arguments often seem exaggerated, because they invest all the importance of the whole downward path in the very next step.  Every step down a slippery slope only takes us a little way.  But it also creates momentum.  And when you look back, you realize how far you’ve fallen, how much ground you’ve lost.  Nearly 40% of American children are now born to unwed mothers.  And the disintegration of the American family has done the most harm in low-income African-American communities, where there was less stability and social capital to start with.  Over 70% of African-American children are born out of wedlock.  For all the heroic efforts of single mothers, the children of single moms are as a general rule less healthy and less educated, and more likely to enter gangs and engage in criminal activity.

The point is this: American society once built a bulwark around the traditional family structure.  Perhaps in some ways or for some people groups the removal of that bulwark has been liberating, but the conservatives who oppose gay marriage believe that the removal of the bulwark has, on the whole, been absolutely devastating.  The further and further we depart from the family structure God intended, they believe, the more damage we do to our society.

Rod Dreher

Do I agree with everything Dalrymple is saying here? No. But his argument is not one of a loon fortelling doom if two men get hitched.  He is bringing up some important issues: divorce rates, single parent families, the less pleasant effects of the sexual revolution.  What Darlymple along with Dreher and Douthat are talking about is what the see as a breakdown in society, a place where there are atomized individuals instead of communal groups like traditional families.  What social conservatives see is less about some kind of modern-day Sodom than it is the concern of the loss of community and the rise of individualism that is concerned more about personal fulfillment than it is about social cohesion.

No, banning same sex marriage won’t stop what social conservatives see happening.  The changes in society were already under way long before any gay person thought about getting married.  But we do need to ask ourselves how to best shore up families and how to find new ways to knit the frayed fabric of American society. In 2010 journalist Jonathan Rauch, who is gay and supports same-sex marriage, wrote an insightful article about the changing state of families in America and how that has impacted people in “red” and “blue” states.  He explains that some of the opposition is not fueled by homophobia, but something else:

We know that gay marriage is very controversial. But why, exactly?

Well, we know that some people oppose it because they oppose homosexuality, and gay marriage, in their view, would give society’s and the law’s imprimatur to a deviant lifestyle. Those opponents will, on the whole, never change. Fortunately for people like me, their numbers are diminishing with time.

Contrary to what some of my friends in the gay-marriage movement believe, however, homophobia is far from the only reason for opposition. Another group, which I think is at least equally large, feels threatened—less by the normalization of homosexuality than by the abnormalization, so to speak, of the conventionally defined family. “Nothing personal, do what you want,” they tell us, “but leave the definition of family—of marriage—alone!”

I would urge you to read the entire article.  Rauch uses the story of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy in 2008 as an example of the different worldviews regarding sex:

Remember Bristol Palin in 2008? During the presidential campaign, it came out that the Republican vice presidential nominee’s daughter was having a child out of wedlock, but the family announced her betrothal to the father, Levi Johnston.

You might have thought that Bristol’s broken chastity would offend conservatives while evoking support from liberals. In fact, reactions were more the reverse. To Red Americans, Bristol was making her pregnancy okay by marrying the boy. They were kids, to be sure, but they would form a family and grow up, as so many generations before them had done. To Blue Americans, on the other hand, Bristol and Levi had committed a cardinal sin. They had children much too young. This was the height of irresponsibility, and a poor example to set!

Rauch isn’t a social conservative, but he has listened enough to see that their opposition to same sex marriage is not simply because they are mean.  Move beyond the anti-gay marriage talk and you see that there is fear and not necessarily of gays.  What they are afraid of is the disintergration of family units around them as well as the unintended consquences of the sexual revolution that has impacted them harder and harsher because they don’t have the financial resources to weather the storms of cultural change.

Columnist Rod Dreher is another example of the complexity of socons.  He is glad gays aren’t persecuted, but he lays out some fears he has, namely the fear of being forced to go against their beliefs:

Ross Douthat

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I think it’s progress that gay folks aren’t stigmatized as they once were. I don’t want to live in a culture in which they are persecuted. I am pleased that gay people can live openly, even in my small town, without fear — and if I saw someone being persecuted for being gay, I would speak out against it. In my experience, very few conservatives who have actual experience with gay friends and gay folks in general fear and loathe them, as many did in the past. I know I move personally within a pretty narrow group of religious conservatives, but my guess is that most of us share the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality (which is within a context of a broader teaching on what human sexuality is for), but we know and like gay people, and don’t feel the visceral hostility towards gays that some on the Right do. I think this is a generational thing, mostly. This, in my estimation, is what it means to be tolerant.

The problem is tolerance is not the goal here; mandatory affirmation is, to the point where individuals and institutions who won’t affirm are to be marginalized and punished. The other day I saw a tweet in which someone said that Ross Douthat, a Catholic who articulately defends the teachings of his Church on human sexuality, ought to be thought of as suffering from a psychological disorder. This is how religious and political disagreement becomes a matter of pathology — not a moral argument to be grappled with, but a disease to be cured. This is where we’re headed. It would be wise for conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to quit fighting a battle they (we) lost a long time ago, and start figuring out how to defend, constitutionally, our religious and cultural institutions from the coming legal assault. Ironically, if we traditionalists are going to be able to hold our ground, we’re going to have to function as libertarians.

I’ve met good Christians who are some of the nicest and honorable people and have treated me with respect.  The only difference is that they can’t cross that bridge to accept same-sex marriage because they believe their faith says it wrong.  As much as I disagree with them, I don’t want to force them to disavow their belief, either.  But that is their fear.  That leads me to ask questions: how do we treat those who disagree?  How do we handle them with grace and love?  What can we learn from their views on marriage that can be adapted to the new consensus? What authority does Christianity have in regards to sexuality? What are the limits?  What does family mean in this day and age?  How can we help shore up disintergrating families in red states and also in the ghettoes of our inner cities?

This is why in the end I’ve come to respect social conservatives.  Yeah, there are a bunch of folks that are still hateful bigots, but that is not all of them and they do have some valuable things to tell us.  In the spirit of tolerance and love of neighbor, the least I can do is listen.


7 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Conservatives

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  1. Phenomenal post. As one who could be considered a social conservative (or at least leaning that way), this challenges me to listen as well as you have to those I may not agree with. Thank you.

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