Family Values

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The debate over the role of social conservatives in the Republican Party of the Future proceeds apace. Today brings Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, writing USA Today‘s Monday “On Religion” column, to the effect that the GOP cannot do without ’em. Dreher takes as his text to oppose Jeffrey Hart’s anti-evangelical screed in The Beast, wherein the old conservative lion calls for jettisoning the connection with evangelical Protestantism that has characterized the party since the 1980 election. Here’s the Hart gauntlet:

The lethal problem for Republicans is that while religion of a particular kind is central to their party today, it is also toxic to moderate, independent, suburban, young and, more inclusively, educated voters.

To the contrary, saith Dreher:

John McCain didn’t get his clock cleaned because of his ardent advocacy for unborn life or his stout defense of traditional marriage — neither of which played anything but a bit part in the tragicomic McCain-Palin campaign.
No, McCain lost because the economy is collapsing on the watch of an unpopular Republican president, and he had no idea what to say about it. McCain lost because his party is incompetent. McCain lost because his choice of Sarah the Unready cast doubt about his judgment. And McCain lost because Barack Obama ran a great campaign.
Where is Jesus in any of that?

This is an empirical question that is actually not so easy to answer. Ask voters why they voted the way they did, and they cite the economy and Bush and things other than the GOP’s prevailing religiosity. But there are also reasons to suppose that Hart knows something that such empirical evidence does not disclose. Such as that Americans generally, and the old heartland suburban Republicans he’s talking about in particular, don’t share evangelical views on abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, etc. And that the public now wants less rather than more influence of religion in public life. Rather than argue the point, however, I’d ask the Drehers of the world to assume for the sake of argument that Hart is right. What recommendations would they have then?
My guess is that they wouldn’t have any. For at bottom, their interest is not in answering the empirical question but in making a case for grounding the future of Republicanism in religious values–call it social conservatism if you like. The argument is that once you’ve got the little world of the family set in order, the big world of economic and foreign policy will be just fine. A somewhat rococo version of it can be found on the First Things blog, wherein R.R. Reno claims that the Obama coalition voted out of insecurity–economic and international–and that the way to allay the anxiety is to establish stability among the Lares and Penates. (“Divorce and serial cohabitation bring fluidity and change into the most ancient touchstone of permanence: home and hearth….We can endure the inevitable risks of marketplace and battlefield—but only if we have some confidence about the stability of the deeper, more fundamental things of life.”)
This is the “gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage” argument writ large, and no more convincing for being so. Journey with me, for a moment, back to those happy, stable 1930s, when divorce was difficult, serial cohabitation rare, abortion forbidden, and gay marriage undreamed-of. God might have been in his heaven but all was not right with the world. Was it stable domesticity that made economic collapse and world war endurable? Nope. It was addressing marketplace and battlefield “risks” directly that made domestic bliss possible.