Words Matter: Conservative social principles sound, rehetorical approach often flawed

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

In the wake of the second wave of substantial Republican losses from President on down to legislative seats, some in the GOP are suggesting it is time for the party to abandon its traditional support of conservative principles, with social issues most often mentioned as an area ripe for change.

Which raises the question: what part of the Republican social issues agenda should be left by the wayside? Should the party cease to support the right to life and embrace a pro-abortion agenda? How about those religious fundamentalists? Who cares that the republic was built upon a strong belief in the almighty? Has God become such a liability He should be replaced by a more secular agenda?

The winning coalition that propelled the Reagan-Gingrich era of GOP control was a three-legged stool that included social conservatives, economic conservatives, and strong national defense advocates. Bound together, these constituencies elected Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to the White House and sized control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in a generation or two.

It can be argued that much of the GOP’s current sorry state is directly attributable to its sell-out on the economic front. After gaining control of both Congress and the Presidency, Republicans abandoned their fiscally conservative principles. The apex (or nadir) of that betrayal came in October when, as the economy went into the tank, polls showed – and the election bore out – that voters now view Democrats as more able stewards of the economy than Republicans. Worse, mismanagement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left Republicans vulnerable on national defense issues as well. Thus, Republicans were left with but one leg on their coalition stool. And even that went wobbly as the party’s standard bearer, John McCain, was viewed with suspicion or even outright contempt by the socially conservative wing of the GOP.

To suggest the GOP "moderate" its stance on social issues betrays a fundamental lack of understanding the components of the Republican electoral coalition. How, for example, would dropping the party’s support for life expand its coalition? The pro-lifers would walk, likely to a third party. Democrats have historically laid claim to the pro-abortion vote, so there is little to be gained there. The result would be a net loss of support for future Republican candidates. The fact is there is no possible scenario for re-building the Republican coalition that does not include overwhelming support from social issues conservatives and the party’s religious base.

However, the growing chorus of calls for the GOP to abandon social conservatives is reason to pause and think about why this is so. I would argue the problem is not with the principles themselves – they are sound. Rather, the disconnect results from the implementation of those principles. Specifically, it flows from the language and from the tone of the debate.
As a social conservative, I am frequently appalled at the negative and angry rhetoric which often characterizes social issues policy discussions. Commentary and arguments tend to be preachy and self-righteous; seeking to demean rather than to uplift. This is a pity because the doctrine of social conservatism is, at its core, positive and fulfilling. Christians especially should keep in mind the approach that Jesus took in his teachings. He did not condemn, instead He sought to redeem. It is a means of conversion worth emulating.

Rather than abandon social issues, Republicans should re-embrace them – but change the rhetoric used to frame the debate to a more positive form. A good example is the pro-life slogan: "Choose Life," which is much more positive and effective than "Stop Abortion." The change must go much further than words. Rather than wave photos of dead fetuses, activists’ time would be better spent volunteering for programs that assist pregnant women.

The socially conservative principles that form the bedrock of the Republican Party are worth preserving, both as an approach to living and as a winning political strategy. The GOP, and the nation, will be better off if those social conservatives who claim the sky is falling every time an issue arises change their approach. Instead, we need to place the emphasis on the positive impact abiding by such principles will have on our individual lives and ultimately upon society as a whole.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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