Some traditions and values should not be held sacred, no matter how long they’ve been practiced. For example, there’s no need for public duels over insults to honor, the burning of heretics at the stake, or hanging bloody sheets outside one’s house after the consummation of a marriage. Fortunately, we’ve outgrown these practices, but it’s worth asking: what are examples of contemporary values and customs that will be spurned by future generations? And who safeguards these soon-to-be-old ways of thinking?
Social conservatives strive to lock in the status quo, and they have littered history with their failures and cruelty. I’m not talking about pious, family-oriented folks who hold their values and customs within their churches and homes where it’s appropriate. I’m talking about reactionary activists who seek to impose dead ways of thinking on everyone else.
Social conservatism is an ideology that supports “traditional” social organization, institutions, and power structures. In this country, this has meant the elevation of men above women, whites above minorities, Christianity above other religions, straight folks above the LGBTQIA+ community, and the United States above other countries. Overall, it seeks to protect a rigid social order rather than embracing change.
While its specific values and objectives have shifted with the times, American social conservatism is always a losing philosophy. The evidence is in the vast progress made in this country since its founding.
Here’s a thought experiment: what would the United States look like if social conservatism had always won the day?
- Women wouldn’t be able to work, vote, or own property because Christianity dictates that we should be raising children and obeying our husbands. Some social conservatives still hold (or recently held) these views. John Gibbs, a Republican running for a House seat in Michigan, founded a “think tank” at Stanford called the Society for the Critique of Feminism. In 2000, he wrote, “Some argue that in a democratic society, it is hypocritical or unjust for women, who are 50% of the population, not to have the vote. This is obviously not true, since the founding fathers, who understood liberty and democracy better than anyone, did not believe so.”
- Slavery would still exist because “traditional” American power structures held that Black folks were inferior and could be considered property. Some are surprised to learn that the Bible was used to justify slavery. It’s also no coincidence that today’s most socially conservative, religious states are those which owned slaves.
- Non-Christians, somewhat ironically, would have to flee American religious persecution. (Apparently, there are still 7 states that bar atheists from holding public office, although a 1961 Supreme Court decision makes these bans impossible to enforce.)
- Gays, lesbians, and trans folks would live in constant fear and be sent to reeducation camps because they are not accepted under God’s “traditional” order. Considering the recent surge of anti-gay legislation and book banning across the country, overcoming these cruel, ignorant beliefs is clearly a work in progress.
The vestiges of this racism, misogyny, and homophobia—the greasy residue of social conservatism—still haunt our institutions and culture. Some of the lasting prejudice is insidious (e.g., Americans tend to dislike female politicians), and some is obvious and legally enshrined (e.g., “Don’t Say Gay” laws in Florida).
That is the legacy of social conservatism.
One of the most egregious recent examples has been the overturning of Roe v Wade, which allows the government to force women to give birth. This happened because Catholic conservatives hijacked the Supreme Court, using a thrice-married vulgarian to nominate three judges vetted by the Federalist Society.
Roe was the white whale of social conservatism because it returns women to the home with forced motherhood. In states such as Texas, rapists can, in effect, choose the mothers of their children—unless women have the resources to leave the state, they must carry their rapists’ babies to term. Some conservative legislators perversely believe rape is actually a blessing by God and an “opportunity” to “help that life be a productive human being.”
Here’s something I don’t understand: how do social conservatives rationalize the abuses and bigotry of their tribe throughout history? Doesn’t Clarance Thomas realize that in his grandfather’s time, he could have been lynched by fellow social conservatives for looking at a white woman, let alone marrying one? Doesn’t Amy Coney Barrett see that in her grandmother’s time, she could have been accused of having a difficult temperament due to her high intelligence and institutionalized for hysteria or some such nonsense?
There’s a throughline from violent racism and misogyny to the Right’s anti-LGBTQIA+ crusade today. It wasn’t the progressives of their day who wanted to maintain slavery or lock up “difficult women”—those abuses were propagated by social conservatives. They are (and continue to be) the guardians of savagery.
But, as with all backlashes to progress, social conservatism is doomed to lose this fight. The Dobbs ruling was deeply unpopular among Americans because our country has outgrown the idea that the state should force women to give birth.
Although reactionary leaders may occasionally get elected or achieve court victories, free democratic societies are never dominated by socially conservative values. This is because power is not inherent in one’s gender, race, or religion—it is constructed and protected by the society in which it occurs.
For example, in a fundamentalist Christian house, the man is assumed to be the head and the wife must obey. But the privileges of being a Christian man are imaginary—they are only made real by the people who uphold those values. To those who don’t adhere to this interpretation of the Bible, this power is unearned, unjust, and antithetical to meritocracy.
Overall, social conservatism is doomed to fail because it runs counter to advancement. Like the forward march of science and technology, human thought and values can’t be locked into their medieval forms.
Imagine that instead of using a modern washing machine, you decided to wash your clothes by boiling water, soaking them, and scrubbing them against rocks with lye or animal tallow. Sure, at one time in history, this was the best way to get our clothes clean, but we’ve evolved. By adhering to old, dead values, social conservatives are still beating their dirty clothes against the rocks.
If a country’s policies and culture fail to adapt to natural changes, those left out of power become restless and the revolution is seeded. Especially these days, knowledge is too widespread for disenfranchised folks to remain powerless forever. This is the story of women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, non-Christians, and the working class. It’s only a matter of time before those unfairly denied social mobility will rebel.