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October 25, 2013

A House Divided Cannot Stand: On Social and Economic Conservatism

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The American Principles Project (APP) released an important new report yesterday that marshals data showing a majority of Americans support policies held by social conservatives. The report argues that a unified platform of social and economic conservatism is a winning electoral strategy—though conservatives need to greatly improve their messaging on economic policy and start messaging on social policy.

Most importantly, however, advancing such a unified governing agenda is the principled thing for Americans to do.

The conservative movement exists to uphold the truths of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The right to life is not only for the strong and powerful, the rich and famous. It is for all human beings, including the weak, marginalized and infirm—wanted or unwanted, born or unborn. Redefining who is included in the community of rights-bearing individuals so as to exclude the unborn is not the principled thing to do.

The right to liberty takes on particular importance when addressing the most important—and sacred—things. After all, the first right protected in the Bill of Rights is the free exercise of religion. Citizens, the groups they form and the businesses they run should be free to act in the public square according to their conscientious beliefs.

As Michelle Obama put it, religious faith “isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon and good music and a good meal. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well.” Redefining religious liberty to mere “freedom to worship” is not the principled thing to do.

The right to the pursuit of happiness normally is protected by allowing autonomous adults to act without government interference. But when it comes to non-autonomous children, policy protects their rights to pursue happiness by promoting the truth about marriage—encouraging a man and a woman to commit to each other permanently and exclusively so that any children that their union produces will have access to the love and care of their mother and father.

Marriage, the fundamental institution of civil society, remains the best protector of the rights of children to pursue happiness. Redefining marriage to make it about the desires of adults instead of the needs of children is not the principled thing to do.

Government isn’t in the marriage business because it’s a sucker for romance and cares about the love lives of adults. Rather, it leaves consenting adults free to love whom they choose—and thus pursue their happiness without interference.

But government recognizes marriage because marriage benefits society in a way that no other relationship does. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children. While respecting everyone’s liberty, government rightly recognizes, protects, and promotes marriage as the ideal institution for childbearing and childrearing.

The breakdown of marriage most hurts the least well-off. Whether someone will know poverty or prosperity tends to be related to whether, growing up, he or she knew the love and security of having a married mother and father. In fact, marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent.

As the American experience over the past forty years has shown, limiting the size and scope of government is impossible without a strong civil society and stable marriages. When the family disintegrates, social welfare programs multiply—and as they grow, civil society weakens.

Recognition of marriage serves the ends of limited government more effectively, less intrusively, and at less cost than does picking up the pieces from a shattered marriage culture. Social and fiscal conservatism are, as a Heritage Foundation collection of essays put it, indivisible.

The new APP report shows that this indivisible message is a winning one with the American public. In the 2012 election, for example, in all four states that had marriage on the ballot, traditional marriage vastly outperformed the Republican presidential ticket. In liberal Maryland, Romney got 36 percent of the vote while marriage got 48 percent.

Women, independents, youth, and Latinos all favor moving policy in a pro-life direction, as the APP report explains:

59 percent of men and 57 percent of women say that they believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (producing a pro-life advantage of 22 points for men and 17 points for women).

Meanwhile, young voters are the most pro-life generation ever. The May 2013 Gallup poll showed that Millennials (ages 18-34) support making abortion illegal in all or most cases by a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent, a +16 pro-life advantage. . . . Only 29 percent of Millennials support the Democratic Party’s position on abortion.

Among Independents in the Gallup poll, 59 percent say that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases compared to 38 percent who say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a 21 point pro-life advantage.

As for bills that would protect unborn children from abortion after twenty weeks, APP notes that “Hispanics are more likely to back the restriction than either blacks or whites, by a 39 point margin.” In addition, 24-hour waiting periods, parental-consent requirements and informed-consent laws all garner support from 60 to 70 percent of Americans. This helps explain why governors who are social conservatives—and have signed such bills into law—enjoy such high approval ratings.

One reason that Americans must work to protect life, religious liberty, and marriage is that other Americans are hard at work undermining these values. If there is a culture war in America, conservatives are not the aggressors.

Conservatives cannot exit the policy arena while liberals push for taxpayer-funded coverage of abortions, while liberals force employers and individuals to pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, while liberals push to redefine marriage, shut down Christian adoption agencies and force Christian photographers, florists, bakers, and innkeepers to celebrate same-sex relationships.

Conservatives must not refuse to talk about social policy. If we conservatives fail to articulate a clear and compelling case on these issues, liberals will caricature our positions. Conversely, conservatives should not fail to highlight the extreme views of liberals on social issues—for instance, supporting taxpayer-funded abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy.

Public opinion polls on marriage show challenges with the younger generation, of course. But there is no reason to think conservatives cannot rise to the occasion and meet the challenge. After all, the only way to guarantee a political loss is to sit idly by. We should frame our message, strengthen coalitions, devise strategies, and make the case for marriage. Persistent, winsome witness tends to produce good fruit, as it has in the pro-life cause.

Meanwhile, the APP report suggests that conservatives need to do more to explain how our economic policies will help all Americans, but particularly middle-class and low-income Americans. It is a mistake to think that the 2012 election results were primarily the result of conservative stances on social issues articulated by the candidates. A careful look at polling data suggests that we must find better ways of explaining why our economic policies will better serve the poor and middle class.

So, too, the conservative movement should continue to stand on principle with respect to social issues. We must be prudent, measured, and persistent in making the case for why socially conservative policies will lead to a better America. We should present an “Indivisible” conservative vision while forming new coalitions and expanding support for these fundamental ideas.

As conservatives, we want all our fellow citizens to flourish. And for that reason we stand for life, for religious liberty, for marriage, for economic freedom, for low taxes, for markets in health care, for school choice.

At the end of the day, economic conservatism and social conservatism spring from the same source. They are grounded in the same principles of natural right and natural law that informed our nation’s Founding—principles that the conservative movement exists to protect.

Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and editor of Public Discourse.

Originally appeared in First Things

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