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Will Social Conservatism Survive Trump?

Mike Huckabee, once a favorite of social conservatives, is now on the Trump train (Frontpage / Shutterstock.com)

John McCormack at the Weekly Standard has a good piece asking whether social conservatives will be discredited by the Trump phenomenon. He begins by asking if social conservatives should vote for Trump, despite everything. Princeton’s Robbie George says the only thing that could justify such a vote is the Supreme Court — a huge reason, he says, but it’s not an open-and-shut case. More:

“What really concerns me about social conservatives, especially people like Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson—I’d include Bill Bennett in this—are people who have written books about the importance of character,” says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life and Faith Angle Forum programs at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“Evangelical social conservatives are going to lose any cachet in bringing up character questions in the future about anything,” Cromartie says. “They’re just going to lose all credibility.” Cromartie is holding on to a glimmer of hope for a third-party candidate that he can vote for in good conscience.

Maggie Gallagher, the former president of the National Organization for Marriage who now works at the American Principles Project, is another social conservative leader who has already decided that she can’t vote for Trump in November. “The degradation is certain and the benefit is so uncertain that I could not persuade myself to do it,” says Gallagher. Trump lost Gallagher during a debate in March when “the guy who wants to sit in the White House started voluntarily discussing his genitals on national television.”

Gallagher says that supporting “a guy who says crude, disgusting, hateful-to-women, highly sexualized, racist things that violate American principles” would “establish that we don’t care about any of those things.” She fears that a Trump presidency could do more to hurt the conservative project in the long-run than a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court appointment.

I see what Cromartie and Gallagher are getting at, but I have a couple of skeptical questions.

To Gallagher, whose views on Trump’s character I completely share, I would ask: what is the “conservative project”? I don’t want to see a trade war with China either, but it sounds to me like her assumption is that the old Reagan-era coalition of free marketers + national security conservatives + anti-statist libertarians + social conservatives still stands. It does not. After the Indiana RFRA, I consider Big Business the open enemy of my interests as a Christian conservative. That does not mean trade is something to be desired, but it does make me even more skeptical of anything Big Business wants (and I was skeptical anyway). The “conservative project” is dead.

For Cromartie, to what extent do Evangelicals have any credibility on matters of public policy anymore? I don’t ask it in a hostile way, heaven knows, but it’s not clear to me that Evangelicals, speaking as Evangelicals, have much influence to preserve. Is this a way of saying, “If we support Trump, they will kick us out of the public square?” Sounds like it. But has this not already happened? If social and religious conservatives don’t support Trump, it’s not going to win them any friends on the left.

That’s no reason to support Trump, please understand. It’s only that whether or not an Evangelical leader does so likely matters less to his future influence than he thinks.

An Evangelical friend, a college professor, wrote today to point out that “a society can get to a point where it is so corrupt that constructive engagement is no longer a possibility. This is a central teaching of the whole Western tradition. The question is, in part, a prudential one as to when you have reached that point.”

To that question, my friend Jake Meador, the Evangelical writer and Benedict Optioneer, continues to show why he is one of the most important and visionary Christian voices of his generation.

In this post, reflecting on what monastic stability should mean to Evangelicals, Jake says it could mean to quit thinking about influence in the public square, and to surrender the world’s definition of success. Excerpt:

The greater lesson we should learn from monks is not to pursue stability, important as that is. It is to cultivate the virtue of indifference—indifference to results, indifference to the opinions of the sophisticated masses, indifferent to the trends and norms that shape popular culture. That is the key in my friend’s comments—the monastery says “We do not care about 90% of what the world cares about,” and that is one of the fundamental beliefs that explains and preserves the life of the monks.

This sort of indifference is something largely alien to most evangelicals. One of the lessons that can be learned from many of the memoirs being written currently by millennial evangelicals is that we are piercingly aware of ourselves as individual brands and are deeply concerned with cultivating the right sort of public image. This is, to be fair, something our parents taught us, for one of the consequences of the seeker-sensitive movement of the 1980s is that churches and their members learned to think of themselves as products that must be marketed correctly in order to gain new customers.

As is often the case, despite our protestations to the contrary, the greatest problem with younger evangelicals is not that we are unlike our parents, but that we are like them in many mostly bad ways. We did not reject them so much as we learned the wrong lessons from them. The power we give to the opinions of our peers is one area in which we are eerily and distressingly like the generation that came before us.

To be indifferent is, in the sense we are speaking of today, to be confident in the goodness of a certain way of life. It is to be immune to the appeals of popularity and relevance, committed instead to the work we have been given to do. It is to be convinced enough of your vocation that you don’t need to be bothered by many of the things that consume the attention of your peers. It is to say that you are not concerned with finding your next promotion, accumulating life experiences (which you use to build your brand on social media as well as your CV), looking for your next big house, or seeking out the right school to advance your child’s career prospects. It is to be content with the life you have been given and to work in one’s home place for its improvement rather than seeking a better place somewhere else. It is, to borrow a phrase from Berry, to acquire the joy of sales resistance.

The whole thing is very much worth your while.

In a subsequent post, he reflects on the church’s entanglement with Republican politics, and says if the church is dying, it deserves to. Excerpts:

For years, conservative evangelicals, including writers at this site, have tried to defend the religious right where we could, arguing that what we need is not a repudiation of the religious right but a better religious right. We needed a religious right more understanding of how institutions work. We needed a religious right that understood that fighting a culture war requires actually having a Christian culture. We needed a religious right that paid as much attention to daily rituals as it did to world views. But the religious right’s overall project was basically sound and the men leading it were trustworthy. That’s what we told ourselves. So we defended many of the men who have now proven themselves to be so cowardly and lacking the very thing they said the secularists and liberals were missing—a moral compass.

He says the shameful spectacle of older Religious Right leaders prostituting themselves to Trump is

also a cautionary tale about seeking to acquire power and influence while lacking the sort of Christian practice necessary to sustain virtue in the teeth of success. We chased fame and prestige as it is defined by the world and we had it… for awhile. It’s just too bad it clearly cost us our souls. Now the party we pledged ourselves too and which clearly never saw us as anything more than useful idiots is ready to kick us to the curb. But rather than standing by our principles, the purported moral voices of the old religious right are cravenly throwing themselves after the scraps that a racist, womanizing, vulgar, and laughably insecure rich boy brushes off his table.

Whole thing here. You’ll want to read and ponder the last paragraph.

So: maybe the best social-conservative answer to the question, Will social conservatives survive Trump? is to ask in return, Who cares? Concealed within the original question is the assumption that protecting political power and a place in the public square ought to be something religious and social conservatives are worried about. Maybe that’s wrong.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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