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Welcome to the Conservative Porn Wars

The Right is divided over the proper role of government and whether it should be used to pursue the common good.

Before Christmas, four Republican congressmen—the most prominent being Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, an important figure inside the Freedom Caucus—sent a letter reminding Attorney General Bill Barr that President Donald Trump had made a campaign promise to enforce obscenity laws against certain hardcore pornographers. Trump had signed a pledge circulated by Donna Rice Hughes’s anti-pornography group Enough Is Enough; it was uncontroversial enough that Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent a supportive letter, despite declining to sign on, citing a no-pledges policy.

“The Internet and other evolving technologies are fueling the explosion of obscene pornography by making it more accessible and visceral,” the four GOP lawmakers wrote. “This explosion in pornography coincides with an increase in violence towards women and an increase in the volume of human trafficking as well as child pornography.” They urged Barr to prosecute cases where porn purveyors met the legal standard for obscenity, especially when children are involved. “The United States has nearly 50% of all commercialized child pornography websites,” Representative Jim Banks told National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in a statement. “Pornography is ubiquitous in our culture and our children are being exposed at younger ages.”

The letter might have been largely ignored—Barr’s office was involved at the time in other matters more central to the news cycle, such as impeachment and investigations into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe—if conservative blogger Matt Walsh hadn’t ignited a Twitter firestorm over its contents. “This is a great move and conservatives who act perplexed at the suggestion that government might have a role in restricting hardcore porn obviously do not understand their own ideology,” he tweeted provocatively (or at least people professed to be provoked). “This is, at the very least, an idea worth discussing.” 

A Festivus-like airing of grievances has gripped the Right ever since Trump declared his improbable presidential candidacy going on five years ago. Still, it was surprising to watch conservatives spend the Christmas season debating pornography. Sohrab Ahmari, the pugnacious writer at the center of much of this ferment, naturally got in on the action. Writing in the New York Post, Ahmari chided the “dismaying reaction” to the letter the congressmen sent Barr “from many on the right, where access to porn has bizarrely emerged as a touchstone of ‘conservative’ orthodoxy.”

“Online porn isn’t that bad, the Twitter libertarians insist,” Ahmari continued. “Plus, there is no way to restrict access to online porn, and even if there were, such regulation would sound the death knell for our ancient liberties.” The Federalist’s Ben Domenech lambasted fellow social conservatives’ “apparent impression that porn is a relatively monolithic American industry that can be easily regulated” and asked, “Are the conservatives who think they can ban porn online purposefully ignoring the massive expansion of government this would require, or are they too stupid to realize it?” (This brings to mind an old joke in which one man asks another, “Are you ignorant or merely apathetic?” The second man replies, “I don’t know and I don’t care!”) 

“While there certainly are reasonable concerns over pornography and other vices, social conservatives should be careful what they wish for,” Young Voices’ Casey Given warned in the Washington Examiner. “Giving the government the power to impose blanket bans on things you don’t like will almost inevitably backfire when the other party takes power.” Banning pornography, he argued, “is a policy proposal straight out of the 1980s.” If a memo has gone out saying that policy proposals straight out of the 1980s are suddenly a bad thing within the modern American conservative movement, I have certainly missed it. (For whatever it is worth, the recipient of the GOP anti-pornography letter, Attorney General Barr, is for good or ill certainly a creature of the 1980s Right.)

I claim no special insights into pornography or what an ideal regulatory regime for it would look like, though I strongly suspect it would lie somewhere between a total ban and the right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Luckily, the intraconservative debate on this issue is only secondarily about the availability of porn. It is fundamentally about the proper role of government. “At some point conservatives decided that government should not be used to advance the common good,” the Daily Wire’s Walsh argued in his opening Twitter salvos against his libertarian brethren. “And at that point conservatism became limp, shallow, and ineffectual. It also divorced itself from its own intellectual history. And that in a nutshell is why the Left always wins.”

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Of all the debates roiling the Right at present—pro-Trump versus anti-Trump, higher immigration rates versus lower, more hawkish on foreign policy or less, nationalist or not, libertarians against everybody else—this renegotiation of the social conservatives’ place in the GOP coalition and broader conservative movement is among the most important. This is true even though this dispute is frequently conflated with the others: the new, more ambitious social conservatism is associated with Trump, the libertine defender of religious liberties; anyone on the Right who pushes back against the notion that conservatism, even in an American context, is wholly synonymous with classical liberalism is necessarily seen as a nationalist.

There is considerable overlap, of course. What the religious conservatives rebelling against former National Review senior editor Frank Meyer’s fusionism (which in effect defines conservatism as an attempt to reconcile economic libertarianism with social traditionalism) have in common with national conservatives and MAGA economic populists is a willingness to use the government to protect and advance their interests. All political coalitions do this, of course, even those which claim to be motivated entirely by abstract ideological principles. But these factions, ascendant under Trump (whose view of government is closer to Richard Nixon’s than Ronald Reagan’s, deregulation, tax cuts and episodic criminal justice reform notwithstanding), feel especially constrained by and vulnerable under the standard Republican playbook. They would at a minimum like to add some new chapters, at a maximum rewrite it entirely.

But social conservatives have always been an important part of the Republican electoral coalition, even before that term or the “Religious Right” were in use. They formed a large part of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and George W. Bush’s “values voters,” virtually the whole of Reagan’s “Moral Majority,” the actual name of the elder Jerry Falwell’s now defunct political organization. White evangelicals alone supply at least a third of the votes accruing to Republican presidential candidates. Add traditionalist Catholics and other culturally conservative fellow travelers and it is difficult mathematically to envision how Republicans can win many elections without them.

Social conservatives have long been viewed—and have generally viewed themselves—as junior partners to economic conservatives inside the Republican Party. They get their voters to the polls to protest abortion and gay marriage. The elected Republicans then promptly cut taxes while Supreme Court precedents declaring abortion a constitutional right remain inviolate and new ones similarly enshrining gay marriage are added, even as conservative judges proliferate. The marriage issue was thought to be central to Bush’s reelection in 2004. By 2016, a slightly higher percentage of evangelicals ended up casting their ballots for Trump, who supports—or at least does not oppose—gay marriage. It is almost universally seen as a settled issue—and not settled in the social conservatives’ favor. 

Similarly, however much fusionism in theory was supposed to be equally committed to tradition and free markets, liberty and virtue, in practice it was seen primarily as a defense of free markets and constitutionally limited government. A manifesto published by First Things in March entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” (signed by TAC senior editor Rod Dreher and contributing editor Patrick Deneen, among others) laid out the charges. “Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values,” the signatories wrote. “But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.”

The definition of liberty embraced by the “dead consensus” isn’t minimal government per se, but a “public philosophy [that] now puts great stock in ‘the right to define one’s own concept of . . . the mystery of human life,’ as Justice Anthony Kennedy, the libertarian conservative par excellence, wrote while upholding the constitutional ‘right’ to abortion,” the old-school fusionism skeptics wrote. This goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much conservative criticism of libertarianism even as libertarians themselves don’t see any evidence of their own influence over bipartisan gargantuan government or frequently cite Planned Parenthood v. Casey as an influential text alongside The Road to Serfdom. Responding to a conservative critic of the manifesto, Ben Sixsmith dismissed the “liberalism of John Stuart Mill refracted through the conservatism of Frank Meyer, in a compromise that made sense in 1960 but is unworkable today.”

After the heady years of the Reagan boom, economic conservatism morphed from a source of middle-class tax relief—one of the reasons “tax cuts for the rich” was a less effective political charge then than now—into something not libertarian enough for actual libertarians and too libertarian for everyone else. If Paul Ryan’s ascension to the House speakership seemed to be the culmination of this strain of Republicanism, Trump appeared to augur its reversal: despite, or perhaps because of, his checkered past and unlikely pedigree, he was more orthodox on social issues than economic ones. Even the exceptions proved the rule. Where the Bush 2004 campaign relied on state defense-of-marriage ballot initiatives only to spend “political capital” on a failed bid to create “personal accounts” for Social Security once safely reelected, Trump abandoned even the pretense of opposing same-sex marriage—and also any Ryan-style entitlement reforms.

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It’s a standard trope of anti-Trump polemics on the Right as well as the Left that evangelicals hypocritically discarded their values in pursuit of political power by handing a thrice-married, twice-divorced, often profane reality TV star the presidency. The reality is more complicated, however. The organized Religious Right initially supported Ted Cruz over Trump. Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and other candidates also had strong pockets of social conservative support. In Iowa, Cruz beat Trump 34 percent to 22 percent among evangelicals. Rubio took another 21 percent, Carson 12 percent.

Trump had to identify and raise the profiles of his own religious boosters, in much the same way cable news networks had to find new pro-Trump pundits when a high percentage of their usual Republican stable turned out to be Never Trump. Robert Jeffries was no Ralph Reed; Jerry Falwell Jr. lacked his father’s political influence and did not succeed him as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church (though his perch at Liberty University would prove important). In the primaries, Trump’s evangelical vote share tended to decline as those voters’ church attendance increased. His initial coalition included relative social liberals and self-described born-again Christians who went to church less frequently than some of the more conservative candidates’ supporters. Mormons never warmed to Trump.

As Trump careened toward the Republican nomination, he cultivated the constituencies that commanded votes. This included evangelicals and conservative Catholics as well as gun owners (the National Rifle Association, unlike some Religious Right groups, was actually an early adopter on Trump). Trump made promises to social conservatives on abortion, religious liberty, judicial appointments, and other issues of importance to them. He has largely kept those commitments. His general election opponent was Hillary Clinton, bête noire of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” for at least a quarter century. When social conservatives tried in the 1990s to make the argument that personal character mattered even more than policy, the voters resolved that question against them and in favor of Hillary’s husband three times—twice in national elections, once more in the fight over impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Bill and Hillary Clinton never shared much of the religious conservatives’ policy agenda either, of course, though the former did sign into law the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act back when that was the popular position. Post-“Me Too,” some feminists now regret accepting the former president’s personal transgressions for the sake of policy goals and thwarting political opponents. Perhaps social conservatives will later harbor similar regrets about Trump, especially since many of them believe effects on the faith have eternal consequences beyond this life. The politicization of American evangelicalism, which certainly predated Trump, is driving some young believers away.

Yet the stakes for religious conservatives in these political battles is higher than who gets to be an assistant secretary in the Department of Education. The Democratic Party is drifting toward an understanding of religious liberty that protects private thoughts and personal worship practices—and little else. As former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well.” It is nevertheless increasingly difficult for religious hospitals and charities to help the wider community and interact with the government while remaining faithful to their beliefs. If you don’t wish to pay for contraception, participate in abortions, or promote alternatives to the traditional family, you may as well go out of business.

The groups ensnared by this newly crimped understanding of religious liberty are not overtly political organizations. They included Catholic Charities, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Salvation Army. The three largest denominations in the United States—the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church—do not recognize same-sex marriage. During his short-lived presidential candidacy, former representative Beto O’Rourke suggested such churches be stripped of their tax-exempt status. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” O’Rourke said. “And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

O’Rourke is an also-ran, but few top-tier Democratic presidential candidates could resist the logic of his position, even if they may ultimately still flinch from it for electoral reasons. The intersection of sexual orientation and antidiscrimination law raises difficult questions for religious liberty. If opposing same-sex marriage is morally or legally akin to racial discrimination, then it is hard to see how religious schools, charities, and other institutions can indefinitely avoid legal sanction. And gay marriage long ago ceased to be the most radical concept the sexual revolution asked traditional religious believers to publicly embrace. Even Chick-fil-A, a successful fast food chain that largely prevailed in the marketplace over the slew of liberal elected officials who have tried to keep its restaurants out of their cities, crumbled under pressure. What hope then is there for religious bakers and wedding photographers? There is also steady liberal resistance to affording orthodox Christians the same Religious Freedom Restoration Act-type protections they have long endorsed for religious and cultural minorities.

The ability to raise your child according to your faith and to live out what you believe your religion calls you to do is not a small thing, and it too has eternal implications. “If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.”

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The intentions of the Religious Right in America have long varied. Some have simply wanted to defend faith, home, and family from the encroachments of the state. Grover Norquist has described conservative Christians as essentially a “parents rights” movement that is part of the “Leave Us Alone” coalition. But others have wanted to defend their version of public morality or even uphold a general Christian consensus in the United States, with varying degrees of tolerance for other faiths and nonbelievers.

As the Christian Coalition gained a foothold in state Republican organizations throughout the 1990s, the more libertarian conception of the Religious Right gradually won out. This trend was accelerated by a series of political defeats that left them with few other options. “Today’s talk of tolerance and acceptance of gay marriage will soon give way to intolerance and rejection of those who hold a traditional view of marriage,” Tim Carney wrote in the Washington Examiner back in 2013, before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision was even handed down. “The next offensive in this culture war will involve wielding government to force individuals to accept the new definition of marriage, falsely invoking analogies to civil rights.”

Many LGBT Americans who only recently saw conservative Christians resisting the legal recognition of their unions are, perhaps understandably, unmoved by these new pleas for tolerance. When states like Indiana under Mike Pence’s governorship moved to pass laws granting protections to businesses whose owners adhere to the old definition of marriage, corporate boycotts ensued. The legislation and other policies like it were widely regarded as license for mass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, essentially a Jim Crow policy that would bar gay people from pizza parlors and public acommodations. Pence crumbled under pressure and Republicans have subsequently struggled to find their footing on this issue.

Episodes such as this have not only convinced many social conservatives that the free market is an unreliable ally and that big business is often a culture war adversary. These incidents have also caused many traditionalists to see the limits of a libertarian strategy for defending their rights and their place in the public square. Ultimately, viewpoint neutrality—and the occasional successful lawsuit by a Christian florist or baker—only goes so far. Without some affirmative defense of Christian beliefs and their historic role in American culture, secularizing elites will eventually succeed in marginalizing social conservatism.

That is not to say that the new social conservatism is entirely about living out some theological mandate. Many of them are still motivated by worldly problems: the decline of the family, an epidemic of opioid deaths, rising social alienation and unhappiness. They have shifted from attempting to block cultural innovations like gay marriage (though many remain quietly opposed) to making it easier for people who so desire to have families and children. Steve Sailer urged in these pages that Republicans pursue a policy agenda of “affordable family formation” all the way back in Bush’s second term. Some Republicans, including ambitious ones like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, are starting to take up this mantle.

“A state that encourages marriage, for example, and insists that husbands and wives must have good reasons to seek divorce, need not be an austere, totalitarian one,” writes Ben Sixsmith. “This is, in fact, how the United States governed such matters through the 1950s. And in the hyper-commodified twenty-first century, a state that fails to encourage marriage is misgoverning.” Yet today even many conservatives in effect see the United States of the 1950s as a theocracy or, as one put it, “a Christian version of Saudi Arabia.” This too convinces many traditionalists that the old fusionism has failed and its early conservative critics like L. Brent Bozell may have had a point.

In the same essay, Sixsmith argued Meyer’s fusionism “made only superficial sense” and it was time for something else. “In the twenty-first-century West, we are afflicted with a mediocre libertinism, which is as unstable as it is unsatisfactory,” he continued. “We need a new conservative fusion, one that prioritizes social connection instead of atomization.”

Conservatives have contemplated a new fusionism before. Writing in the older, differently motivated First Things, Joseph Bottum argued for a union between social conservatism and foreign-policy activism with “Islamofascism” replacing communism as an ideological opponent. “The opponents of abortion and euthanasia insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in domestic politics,” he wrote. “The opponents of Islamofascism and rule by terror insist there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics.” In 1991, Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming called for a new fusionism between libertarians and traditionalists that essentially excised the hawks following the end of the Cold War, bringing together the likes of TAC founding editor Patrick Buchanan and radical free-market economist Murray Rothbard.

What would a fusionism in which social conservatives ceased to be the junior partner look like? The pornography debate is instructive. One set of conservatives argued that anti-porn crusaders wanted the government to replace parents, and some traditionalists promptly fell into this trap. But what if the community, or even the government, can do something at the margins to make it easier for parents to keep their kids off Pornhub? A more liberatarian fusionism might reject it out of hand; a more traditionalist fusionism would not.

It won’t be an easy balance to achieve, especially since some traditionalists seem poised to go too far in the opposite, statist direction. State power can be wielded effectively to uphold a moral consensus against a dissenting minority. It is less clear it can effectively recreate that consensus in the face of a dissenting majority. Both libertarians and social conservatives may find that some of what the GOP has left undone on their policy fronts is simply politically unattainable. But politics, as this new intraconservative debate proves, isn’t static. Even conservatives change.  

W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.

about the author

W. James Antle III, editor, comes to TAC after managing a stable of reporters as Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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