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Conversation Changes for Social ConservativesConversation Changes for Social Conservatives

Conversation Changes for Social Conservatives

Ray Pennings
4 minute read

"The terms of our surrender" is how Ross Douthat describes what's left for Americans who hold a traditional definition of marriage.  As with abortion and other hot-button moral issues that preceded it, social conservatives have lost the cultural and political argument regarding same-sex marriage.  The question that remains is whether they retreat to their conclaves or adopt guerrilla strategies.   The mainstream isn't about to let them in so will they condemn the culture from the safety of retreat—or resist with kamikaze cultural expeditions?  Such skirmishes, while unlikely to realize success, may provide a nuisance factor that translates into more favourable terms, but it won't solve the uncomfortable coexistence.

Many disagree but it seems to me that Douthat's diagnosis is mostly correct.  Social conservatives have lost the cultural argument.  Since politics follows culture, substantial political progress in such circumstances is unrealistic.

Acquiescing to this reality is not an abandonment of principle. The cultural majority now understands sexuality, like race, as a basic matter of meaning, and opposing same-sex marriage as akin to racism. For many on the traditional marriage side of the argument, the idea of marriage as between a man and woman is a core theological conviction that precedes the state. To acquiesce is to adopt a heresy.   When all we are left with are labels such as bigot, racist, and heretic, there isn't much conversation left to be had. So perhaps the conversations need to shift toward topics such as work, where there is more common interest to be found.

Undoubtedly political gadflies will continue to provoke through initiatives that the mainstream will find irritating.  Depending on how skillfully this is done, it may keep the issue percolating on the public radar, but it won't change many minds. More likely Clapham Circle strategies  will quietly emerge as the inevitable consequences of the decadent mindset that contributed to our present circumstance become obvious.   At some point, the opportunity for conversation will re-emerge.  That, however, will follow a journey likely measured by decades; to expect a shorter route than the original anti-slavery Clapham road is unrealistic. 

So in the meantime, what happens with social conservative engagement in politics?  Is the unlikelihood of success on issues that matter deeply a justification for abandoning political engagement?  Can faithful compromise be found while in surrender mode?

A few years back, reflecting on a necessary framework for a public theology that would be relevant for post-Christian times, I suggested that

... such a theology would need to be rooted in orthodox doctrine, have a worldview robust enough to answer the questions our neighbours are asking, be applied with an ethic of integrity, and be lived out of a pilgrimage spirit, seeing that we are not called to build a lasting city, but that we seek one to come.

A fine example of rooting our theology in orthodox doctrine in a pluralistic situation came last week when Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler addressed  Brigham Young University.  While articulating the theological roots of human rights and dignity, Mohler acknowledged the deep theological differences dividing Southern Baptists and Mormons. Their respect was evidently a two-way street—this was Mohler's second BYU invitation in four months.  The nature of this tolerant but honest dialogue was captured in his acknowledgment that "although we may not go to heaven together, we might well go to jail together." Orthodox doctrine will find ways to respectfully express itself, also in multi-faith settings.  

In the political sphere, credibility will be earned by a willingness to engage the questions our neighbours are asking.  And although work is usually thought of in economic rather than social conservative categories, it provides a huge opportunity here for social conservatives to reshape the conversation.   While society struggles with how one can find meaning in a context where work is either unavailable, unrewarded, or drudgery for so many, a deeper conception of work as vocation and service is, I suggest, a key to providing answers to many of current problems.   Social conservatives do have answers to their neighbour's questions—the challenge is whether they are ready to provide them.

If they do, they may find themselves in a conversation with a culture whose newfound understanding of tolerance isn't always a place where grace and respect dominates. The question is whether social conservatives can resist their anger, "turn the other cheek" towards their cultural conquerors, and embody a culture of forgiveness and grace in a context where these are in such short supply.  If they do, it will provide a plausibility for social structures that cultivate such virtues (including that of traditional marriage). Marriage isn't whatever we want it to be but the way to make the case when others aren't prepared to listen to your words is to show through your own marriage what fidelity and forgiveness look like and how the structure contributes to the wellbeing of children and society.

Such posture requires a perspective that doesn't define success in the short term.  It will take a bit of time for the consequences of current decisions to become evident (just as the fruits of a divorce culture are only now being realized) and it will take gracious insight to gently observe and winsomely learn from these results. 

A Gospel perspective realizes that although our cultural times seem dark (as the times have many times before), what is being negotiated isn't really surrender but rather the credibility of basic truths about life, its purpose, and how its brokenness can be overcome.  Telling the truth, answering the questions that our neighbours are asking, living with graciousness and a forgiving spirit, and keeping our eye on the long game is how surrender translates into victory.

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