Do Social Conservatives Really Face an Existential Crisis?

The flawed assumption underlying both sides of the intra-conservative debate kicked off by Sohrab Ahmari

We get your holidays off. Most TV shows have a Christmas episode. I’ve heard about “the spirit of Christmas” more times than I can count. There are churches everywhere. The most-watched news network and some of the most popular websites denounce “happy holidays” while issuing fever dream warnings of Sharia law. Visit Israel or a Muslim country and you’ll see what it looks like when Christianity is culturally weak.

But that’s not the type of power culture warriors and defenders of conservative Christianity are talking about.

To get to the supposed crisis, we have to dismiss a lot of political and cultural power. Even then, examining specific instances of encroaching secular culture shows that “no longer dominant in every area, but still powerful overall” is more accurate than “under immense threat and headed for annihilation.”

The Actual Threat

There are, of course, incidents of religious Americans facing discrimination. There are also incidents of non-religious Americans facing discrimination. The question is not “do religious conservatives face any opposition?,” but whether that opposition is so powerful, and conservative Christians so weak, that the threat is existential.

Consider some of the most prominent cases:

Universities and Free Speech
David French cites a lawsuit in which he defended “a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith.” That’s wrong — it’s religious discrimination — and he won in court. There are many universities where no professors were denied promotion because of their religion, and others, such as Bob Jones in South Carolina, that are allowed to utilize religious criteria.

French also cites the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which he used to lead. I share some of their criticisms regarding campus censorship — see, for example, my article on free speech — but it hardly amounts to social conservatives’ impending annihilation.

As an example of threats to free speech on campus, FIRE maintains a database of disinvitations, in which activists tried to prevent someone they dislike from speaking. From 1998 through 2019, FIRE identifies 427 incidents. Of these, 257 cases involve protests coming from the speaker’s left (not all of which involve religion). That means an average of 11.68 cases per year over 22 years. With about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, about 0.2 percent see a disinvitation attempt prompted by the left in a given year.

That’s not the only illiberal activity on campus — and I think many of them deserve criticism — but an existential threat it is not.

Hobby Lobby
Obamacare required health insurance plans to cover contraception, and the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately-held chain of stores, objected. They’re conservative Christians, and argued that being forced to pay for contraceptives violated their religious freedom.

But they weren’t forced to pay for contraceptives. They compensated their employees with health insurance, and then, if the employee chose to buy contraceptives, the insurance company paid for it. Millions of employees spend their paychecks on things their employers disapprove of, but the employers can’t stop it. There’s no reason non-cash compensation should be different.

What the owners of Hobby Lobby wanted is the type of power Ahmari craves — the ability to impose religious beliefs on others. No one forced them to use contraception. No one even forced them to buy someone else’s contraception. But the possibility that employees might choose to use their health insurance for something the employers didn’t like was too much.

In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. As a result, if you work for a private company, and the owners are religious, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with some of your compensation.

You may be more sympathetic to Hobby Lobby’s position than I am. Either way, no existential threat here.

Gay Wedding Cakes
The 2015, 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. That’s probably the biggest example of social conservatives losing the power to impose their beliefs on others. However, while no church has to perform a gay wedding, and no one has to attend any wedding if they don’t want to, legalization created some situations that impose on religious Americans.

Should religious wedding vendors have to sell to gay couples? It’s a fascinating question, because two fundamental rights come into conflict: equal protection for the couple; freedom of religion for the vendor. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ducked the larger question, deciding 7–2 that the Commission displayed religious animus in its treatment of Masterpiece.

For me, it comes down to what the vendor’s being asked to do. Refusing to sell a standard product — something off the shelf they’d sell to other couples — is blatant “we don’t serve your kind here” discrimination, like banning black people from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. But if it’s a custom product — something not unreasonably called art — then the government making the vendor do it is coerced creative labor. (I tackled this in greater detail here).

Brett Kavanaugh
The 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s conformation to the Supreme Court looms large in social conservative narratives of existential threat. For Ahmari, it’s proof they “face enemies who seek our personal destruction.” Dreher says it “radicalized” him. French agrees that it shows conservative Christians under threat, but argues that Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates why the principles of classical liberalism, such as due process and presumption of innocence, are the best response. (As I said, their debate’s primarily over strategy, not the threat’s existence).

Underlying all of these claims is a staggering presumption of bad faith. Ahmari, Dreher, French and many other conservatives don’t consider the possibility that at least some of the opposition to Kavanaugh might’ve been opposition to Kavanaugh himself, not to American Christians in general.

To get there, you have to assume Christine Blasey Ford was lying, deluded, and/or put up to it, that people who say they believe her allegations of sexual assault are also lying, and that the women who poured their hearts out over their own sexual assaults were crisis actors out of Alex Jones’ imagination, or at least manipulators exaggerating how they feel because of their secret anti-Christian agenda. And you also must dismiss concerns from Americans who think Kavanaugh’s previous experience as a partisan operative isn’t a good fit for the nation’s highest supposed-to-be-impartial body.

Most importantly, you have to ignore the recent Supreme Court confirmations of Neil Gorsuch (conservative and Catholic, like Kavanaugh), Samuel Alito (conservative, Catholic), and John Roberts (conservative, Catholic), none of whom faced accusations of sexual assault. You have to concoct a story where the left wasn’t angry during Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 — even though they were openly furious that the Senate blocked Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland — but developed such fury over the subsequent year that they decided to invent and then pretend to care about accusations of sexual assault.

A lot of people care passionately about the Supreme Court, with many on the left strongly opposed to right-wing positions on abortion, prayer in schools, and other issues involving religion. And there’s no doubt some political operatives oppose every Supreme Court nomination from the other party and will latch onto whatever they can to fight it. But this does not add up to Christians under existential threat.

The Kavanaugh case reveals the fuzziness of the distinction between cultural and political power. According to right-wing culture warriors, winning elections is not a sign of lasting power, because it’s political, not cultural. However, nearly losing — but still winning — a Supreme Court seat is a sign of cultural weakness so menacing that Christians must adapt a crisis mentality.

Chick-fil-A
Social conservatives worrying about cultural annihilation may find all the above examples unconvincing. They all involve institutional power — court rulings, Senate votes — and one of the cultural warriors’ arguments is that conservatives must do anything to hold institutional power as a bulwark against the cultural threat.

Consider, then, the case of Chick-fil-A.

In 2012, the family-owned fast food chain came under fire when the chief operating officer publicly opposed same sex marriage, and it came out that the family’s foundation donated millions to organizations fighting against legalization. In response, LGBT rights activists called for protests and a boycott..

So it went out of business, right? Or if it didn’t, it’s because a court came to the rescue?

Nope. Conservatives rallied to the restaurant’s defense. Sales rose 12% in the aftermath of the controversy, and the chain has continued expanding, growing larger than Burger King or Wendy’s. Activists fought the expansion — here’s one warning of “Chick-fil-A’s creepy infiltration of New York City” — but failed.

It’s Not a Crisis

The Chick-fil-A case encapsulates my argument. Social conservatives face motivated opponents that have some cultural power. But religious conservatives have quite a bit of cultural power too. Plus a lot of judicial and political power. Ahmari’s frame of existential danger is divorced from reality. French’s “immense threat” is overstated.

There’s no question that Christianity is weaker in the United States in the 21st century than it was in the 20th or 19th. Mainstream movies, television, and pop music often portray social conservatives negatively (if at all), and portray things social conservatives disapprove of positively. But what this all adds up to is competing in American society as a large, powerful bloc — not impending annihilation.

The slope isn’t slippery.

Conservative Christians hold the keys to statehouses, House and Senate seats, electoral votes. There’s a friendly majority on the Supreme Court, and friendly judges throughout the system. Christianity has an enduring cultural power, because it’s deeply embedded in American life, and because millions of Americans practice various versions of it every day.

The narrative that religious conservatives face cultural apocalypse is one of the most toxic in American politics. It is one of the biggest causes — not the only cause, but a big one — of zero-sum, no-compromise, fight-over-everything hyper-partisanship. Because after all, if you’re facing extermination, you have no choice.

This logic bears enough resemblance to racist theories of “white genocide” that it should give social conservatives pause.

But it’s also good for political mobilization and media consumption. And a lot of people seem to like thinking of themselves as victims. So I wouldn’t expect it to stop.

How Banning Abortion Will Transform America

Across the United States, Republican-controlled legislatures are outlawing abortion, with the hope of bringing the issue before a sympathetic Supreme Court. If they succeed in revoking women’s reproductive rights, the US will quickly become a different society – one resembling communist-era Romania.

HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA – “It was a horrible time,” recounts one Romanian gynecologist, referring to the period between 1966 and 1990, when abortion and contraception were completely banned under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Women refused to have sexual lives, resulting in family fights and abandonment,” she continued. “For a woman, any sexual contact meant only panic and pain.” As another Romanian who lived through the period put it, “It was impossible to have a normal sexual life because of fear of getting pregnant.” 
If the Republican Party in the United States has its way, millions of American women could soon come to know the same fear. Republican lawmakers in GeorgiaAlabama, and other states have enacted or are proposing outright abortion bans, hoping to bring the issue back before a sympathetic US Supreme Court and overturn or further gut the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In the absence of Roe’s constitutional protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion, America would become a different society, because, as in Ceaușescu-era Romania, the government would police its members’ most personal choices.
It wasn’t only women who suffered from the Ceaușescu regime’s attacks on their bodily integrity. Far from strengthening the family, Romania’s draconian “pro-life” policies
  • poisoned heterosexual intimacy,
  • strained marriages, and
  • weakened social trust.

Monthly gynecological exams brought the state inside women’s uteruses and, by extension, into the bedroom. State surveillance of sexual activity resembled that of a farmer breeding livestock. With provisions prohibiting women from going out of state for an abortion, or from using certain contraceptive methods (such as intrauterine devices), much of the new US legislation, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would expose women to a similar enforcement regime.

After the Ceaușescu regime fell in December 1989, one of the interim Romanian government’s first moves was to decriminalize abortion. While debates about many aspects of the communist legacy soon erupted, few Romanians had any doubt that forcing women to have babies they didn’t want had been disastrous for the country.

Even after three decades under the ban, Romania’s birth rate had not increased. Instead, Romanian women had undergone nearly 7.3 million back-alley abortions – an average of three apiece – between 1967 and 1989. At least 15,000 women died as a result of complications and untreated side effects. Romania’s infant-mortality rate during this period was the highest in Europe, and anywhere from two to 59 times above that of other countries.

Though most Eastern Bloc countries expanded women’s reproductive freedoms after Stalin’s death in 1953, by the late 1960s, communist leaders began to worry that declining birth rates would lead to future labor shortages. But while other East European countries addressed the issue through longer paid maternity leaves and higher child-care benefits, the Romanian government took a different path.

Prior to 1966, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. But, desperate for population growth, Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, essentially nationalizing Romanian women’s wombs. Both abortion and contraception were criminalized for all women age 45 and under who had not borne at least four children (later increased to five). The only exceptions were for rape and incest, high-risk pregnancies, and cases in which the fetus could contract a hereditary disease from either parent. The law was strictly enforced. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, registered suspected pregnancies and kept tabs on women until the birth of the child. It was the kind of natalist authoritarianism that US “pro-life” advocates have long dreamed of.

With challenges to Roe looming on the horizon, and with many US states having already denied access to abortion facilities and reproductive health services through other means, Romania’s experience shows what happens when women suddenly lose the right to control their own bodies. Without reproductive freedom, heterosexual sex turns into a game of “Russian roulette” for women, because they quite literally bear the consequences of any liaison. Indeed, Alabama’s new law goes further than Ceaușescu’s Romania, by eliminating even the exception for rape or incest.

Abortion opponents claim that banning it will

  • promote marriage,
  • strengthen families, and
  • restore traditional gender roles.

But the Romanian case shows that a more likely scenario is a

  • rapid increase in maternal mortality, an
  • explosion of unwanted children and orphans, and
  • a “sex recession,” as wives choose to avoid intimacy with their husbands altogether.

As in Romania, the state’s violent intrusion into the private sphere will upset the lives of men and women alike. Americans can look forward to a future of bad sex and wrecked relationships.

It’s time to face facts. A century of evidence from around the world shows that coercive reproduction policies correlate weakly with actual fertility rates. The fact is that women’s decisions about family size are based on material realities. When basic food supplies are scarce (as in Romania in the 1980s), women will risk their lives having back-alley abortions, for fear of lacking the means to care for a child. Where paid parental leave and childcare are absent or prohibitively expensive, as they are in the US, women will make similar economic choices, regardless of the laws on the books.

After communism, Romania’s people recognized that democratic societies have a responsibility to guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, and to respect the right of all citizens to make their own decisions about whether and when to start or add to a family. It is odd that in the “land of the free,” one of the major parties would emulate a communist dictator.