Why Social Conservatives Should Become Cultural Conservatives

By Deal W. Hudson

March 7th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) – At the annual Paul Weyrich Awards Dinner this week, Foster Friess, a well-known philanthropist and leader among conservatives, made a simple suggestion: Social conservatives should become, and refer to themselves as, cultural conservatives.
When I heard him say it, I thought to myself, “Friess is exactly right!” Then wondered, given the purpose of this series of columns, why didn’t I think of that?
The examples given by Friess, of the difference between a social and cultural conservative, were primarily those of human suffering that social conservatives are regularly accused of not caring about.  For example, the plight of low income single-mothers and their children and the percentage of African-Americans incarcerated on drug charges (Friess stated they’re being tried and convicted at a rate far exceeding other races).  These examples, of course, could be multiplied and should be.
This is why I think his suggestion should be taken: the phrase “social conservative” has become a political codeword for a small number of specific issues: abortion, marriage, traditional values, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, and abortifacient contraception. From a Catholic perspective, a social conservative is someone who stands on the right side of the non-negotiable, or settled, moral teachings of the Church as they apply to political participation.
Until now, calling someone, or yourself, a social conservative has had a useful purpose.  But like all buzz words and brand names its usefulness has come to an end. In our zealousness to protect innocent life and marriage, social conservatives have allowed themselves to be perceived as uncaring about other forms of human want and suffering.
I know most of this nation’s social conservatives and can attest to the fact that they do not lack concern or compassion for the poor, single mothers, and the unfairly incarcerated. But as long as they are described, or describe themselves, as social conservatives the misperception will stick.
Let me add, however, that social conservatives do need a reminder that they care about more than a handful of issues, even though those issues are the most important moral problems in our culture.  We cannot let, to borrow an analogy, our opposition to abortion become the enemy of our compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, and the suffering.
In upcoming columns, I will be drafting a list of proposals for those who would become cultural conservatives.  This is not to say that I am declaring myself the leader of such a movement, but Foster Friess put into words the full significance of a new direction I have taken in my own life, after many years of being seen as a Catholic social conservative in politics.
When I initiated this series of columns on January 1, it was called, “Culture: Its Delights and Diversions.” This is the 40th column in that series, and only at this moment have I realized how this turn toward culture would impact my politics.
Though much that can be said about a cultural conservative is a matter of common sense, the one thing that must be said at the start is this: to believe in the protection of human life, to be pro-life, means that you care about all of life, all of human existence, from beginning to end, encompassing the life of an individual in a society.
Thus, a cultural conservative will address the kinds of social prejudices, lack of opportunities, lack of justice and compassion, and the presumptive sense of entitlement that obstruct persons in their quest for human happiness.
Most of all, A cultural conservative will preserve the hierarchy of moral concerns as they pertain to political participation, but at the same time will invite those who have been perceived as the opposition to think and work together to alleviate what we can of needless suffering and lack of opportunity in this nation and around the world.
© Deal W. Hudson
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson’s new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network. Thanks for permission to publish this essay on Quiner’s Diner.