Of all the mischaracterizations of social conservatives, none is more stubborn and pernicious than the notion (promulgated by liberals and eagerly snatched up by credulous media voices) that groups and politicians that espouse a "values" philosophy seek to impose a draconian moral code on a dissenting populace. This notion not only demonstrates a lack of understanding of conservatism and its self-imposed limits, but it also betrays a refusal to face the fact that nanny-state preoccupations are the province of the American left.
Conservatives have labored for decades to counter this mischaracterization of social conservatism, but elements of the Republican Party persist in buying into it, going so far now as to promote the idea of a "truce" (operationally a complete capitulation by conservatives) between the contending sides on issues such as abortion and the definition of marriage.
True conservatives understand and respect the role of tradition, and fealty to historical reality. They treasure the moral and political principles formed over centuries. They know the difficulty of creating, and the greater difficulty of sustaining, a healthy, prosperous and well-functioning society. They would rather learn from previous generations' trials and errors than recycle the same social convulsions and reckless revolutions.
Conservatives work from a first principle of coherence. As a result, we see the links among the three strands of conservative philosophy — social institutions, economic liberty and national security. We turn to this philosophy when addressing such seemingly disparate issues as monetary policy, foreign affairs and religious liberty.
The pursuit of lower taxes and sound money is not, for example, simply a good in itself that serves individual interests, but a lived lesson in the making of prosperity that benefits ordinary people, strengthens families and safeguards the nation. The defense of the family unit and the protection of religious freedom are likewise not merely valuable goods in themselves but essential elements of personal thriving that prepare the next generation for economic success and the defense of the homeland.
But the "fiscal conservatism only" crowd would pluck away one mere strand of this philosophy and treat it, chillingly, as the whole of the social fabric. Its members behave as if there is nothing more to the protection of future generations than ensuring the safety of their wallets. The folly of that enterprise is on grand display in the nations of Europe, with their soaring sovereign debt, multiplying transfer payments and plummeting marriage and birthrates.
Overcoming the obstacles to recovery in these nations will include not only reducing spending and the debt burden they are imposing on the next generation, but actually having, raising and protecting that next generation. Country after country that has squandered the wealth of family life and destroyed millions of the unborn are testing whether the rejuvenation of the West is even possible.
The United States has lingered for decades on the threshold of following this deadly path. There is a struggle over what could be called the Reagan Doctrine — an abiding belief in the unity of conservative principles across the disciplines of economic freedom, national defense and civil society. That doctrine is now under unexpected challenge from a flock of tunnel-vision conservatives. These aspiring heirs to the Reagan legacy reject one or more of its core tenets. In their narrow focus they see only Homo economicus. They offer a "truce" on social issues intended to curry the favor of the left-leaning glitterati in the mainstream media, oblivious to how short-lived their romance with the liberal lens will be.
The funny thing is how well socially conservative thinking tracks with the "leave us alone" philosophy that underlies conservative economic thought. Social conservatives vigorously oppose judicial activism and massive government programs that impose uniform "solutions" and undermine self-rule. We seek the freedom to worship without government intrusion, to educate our children without having our values undermined by sex education mandates, to keep more of what we earn and to persuade our fellow citizens to join us in defending marriage and life in the womb.
The last of these freedoms — championing the right to life and traditional marriage — is front and center in the national discourse because elite and unrepresentative institutions have attacked it. Those who call for a truce on these topics are denying the value of mass movements that have arisen to preserve life and marriage, ideas that conservatives — but never conservatives alone — have long embraced.
The only truce that makes sense between the night watchman and the thief is for the latter to find an honest occupation. Politics too can be an honest occupation, but it must begin with accepting that a moral code is always at stake in political decisions — it is only a matter of determining which code belongs to the thief.
Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project.