European liberals, American conservatives, and the 'social issues'

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 18, 2012 | In Reviews

Now that the contest for the Republican presidential nomination is effectively over, we can expect the presumptive winner, Mitt Romney, to tack leftward as he prepares for the general election in November. While he was wooing the true believers of his own Republican party, and trying to allay the worries of Tea Party activists, Romney portrayed himself as a “severe” conservative. But now his goal is to capture the undecided voters—the millions of Americans who fancy themselves as free of ideology, occupying the middle of the political spectrum. Severity might not play well with these unattached voters. Romney will be doing his best to persuade them that he really isn’t much more conservative than they are, after all.

So how will the Republican challenger frame his message in the coming months? If Romney follows the advice of most GOP strategists—and the pattern of most Republican candidates in past years—he will avoid speaking on the social issues. From time to time he will pause to reassure his conservative supporters that he really does oppose legal abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. But he will not mention those issues in his presentations to wider audiences; he will not include them in his stump speech. He will have been warned: these issues are “divisive.”

Pat Buchanan took a very different approach in his own campaigns for the presidency, deliberately emphasizing the issues that other candidates shunned. A “divisive” issue is a hot-button issue, an issue that energizes voters, he reasoned. Any successful campaign begins with a solid base of loyal activists, and the “divisive” issues are often the ones that convince people to become involved. Moreover there is nothing inherently wrong with exposing the divisions among voters. Buchanan also enjoyed reminding his campaign audiences in parliamentary language, a “division of the house” is, quite simply, a vote. Someone who “divides” voters, then, is someone who asks the people to make a clear choice.

The title of Jeffrey Bell’s new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, suggests that the author takes Buchanan’s side of this argument over political strategy, and indeed he does. But actually Bell travels a different route to reach a similar conclusion. While Buchanan reveled in his political role as an upsetter of applecarts, Bell argues that effective campaigns based on the social issues would help put the American cart back in apple-pie order. The essential message is the same: a call for restoration of fundamental American principles. But the difference in approach is crucial.

Jeffrey Bell burst on the American political scene in 1978, when he ran as an outsider for a US Senate seat from New Jersey, dethroned an incumbent liberal Republican in a remarkable primary upset, and narrowly lost the general election to a popular Democrat, Bill Bradley. He later served as an economic adviser first to Ronald Reagan, then to Jack Kemp. It is worth noticing that each of these Republican leaders—Reagan, Kemp, and Bell himself—was viewed at times as a “divisive” candidate, insofar as each took strong stands on controversial issues, and each encountered ferocious opposition from liberals in the media. Yet somehow all three avoided being stereotyped as negative campaigners. One might say that Reagan, Kemp, and even Bell exemplify the “sunny side” of American conservatism.

As a political operative, Bell has been best known for his support of supply-side economic arguments: arguments that nicely illustrate his overall approach. Supply-siders are controversial; their views are regularly denounced by liberal pundits. Yet their fundamental insight—that tax cuts can stimulate economic growth—is quite congenial to the American public. Liberal Democrats love to stir up class warfare, and in this year’s presidential campaign we can be sure that Barack Obama will do his utmost to capitalize on envy of the wealthy citizens who profit most from tax cuts (since they pay the most taxes). But Jack Kemp had an important insight into a healthier aspect of human nature: the ordinary wage-earner will not spend much time worrying that economic policies are helping the rich grow richer, as long as they are helping his family grow richer, too. Resentments against the wealthy go only so far, since most Americans hope that they, or at least their children, will be wealthy themselves some day.

The Case for Polarized Politics is not primarily a book about supply-side economics, of course. Bell concentrates mainly on the “social issues,” the issues of sexuality and life and family. But he argues persuasively that the conservative arguments on these issues—the arguments for reviving traditional moral standards—are also popular with voters when they are presented in a positive light. Bell is persuaded that the GOP strategists who instruct their candidates to shy away from the social issues are entirely wrong. An attractive candidate who seizes these issues and makes winsome arguments will prove a winner, Bell believes.

Moreover, he reasons, a conservative approach to the social issues is fully compatible with sound public policies on other matters. Solid intact families are the basis for a solid intact economy; they are the mainspring of society’s economic mechanism. A prudent emphasis on the social issues can be part of an overall vision that recalls America to its political heritage as a society based on freedom, self-sufficiency, and opportunity; on family and on faith. This is a vision that most Americans—and therefore most voters—would willingly embrace.

For roughly 100 pages of the book, Bell bolsters that claim with an interesting analysis of recent American political history. He shows how conservative candidates profited at the polls when they emphasized the social issues, and yet, paradoxically, how Republican leaders were often persuaded to leave those issues behind, and pass up some important opportunities to advance not only their own electoral prospects but also the welfare of American society as a whole.

Then, having completed that review of contemporary American political trends, Bell gives the reader an unexpected bonus. He goes on to make a much more ambitious historical analysis of ideological trends in the Western world over the past several centuries. The second half of his book is devoted to the thesis that American conservatism represents a unique strain in Western political thought: a strain that he calls the “conservative enlightenment.” Here I think Bell could make a significant contribution to the understanding of American Catholic readers who struggle to understand the political outlook of Vatican officials.

In Europe, two stream of thought emerged from the Enlightenment. One favored secularism, the rule of reason, and the rights of commoners; the other supported religion, the natural law, and the established authority of the nobility. That division did not, indeed could not, take place in America, where the colonies did not have the same tradition of an established church and titled nobility. In Europe today, to be “conservative” still implies sympathies for the ancien regime; in the US there is no ancien regime to defend.

Consequently, the terms “liberal” and “conservatives” mean quite different things in Europe and in America. A European “liberal” who supports laissez-faire economic policies would be more comfortable with “conservative economic policies in the US. An American “conservative” of Reaganite stripe cannot be easily classified as either Whig or Tory. Confusion over political labels often interferes with Americans’ understanding of Europe, and Europeans’ understanding of the US. In America, Jeffrey Bell argues, there is a unique strain of political thought that is almost unknown in Europe. The “conservative enlightenment” embraces both religious faith and democratic government, both individual freedom and moral law, both economic liberties and family duties. Rooted in the natural-law reasoning that informs the Declaration of Independence, the defenders of the ‘”conservative enlightenment” (which is to say most Americans, according to Bell’s analysis) are as comfortable with classically conservative arguments on the social issues as they are with classically liberal arguments on economic affairs.

Since the 1960s, Bell argues, American liberalism has jumped the rails of the “conservative enlightenment” tradition and become more closely identifiable with the European Left, militantly secular and socialist. All the more reason for conservatives to maintain the best of a distinctively American political tradition. In the process, American Christians might help their European counterparts to grasp the critical importance of defending life, faith, and family on the political battlegrounds of the 21st century.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Apr. 22, 2017 6:44 AM ET USA

    Kudos to the commenters who recognize His Holiness' perfectly valid approach of pursuing a pastoral approach over a legalistic one. How does one clarify that which has been clarified over and over again? Burke and his co-dissenters (and indeed Phil Lawler!) need to pay attention to the statements of Gerhard Cdl. Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, regarding the continuity of Amoris Laetitia with constant Church teaching. Any "confusion" over it is self-willed.

  • Posted by: Biscjim - Mar. 09, 2017 7:10 PM ET USA

    You are a courageous man. Thank you for speaking what you believe is the truth. We need more people in the Church like you,

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 07, 2017 4:29 PM ET USA

    Pastoral is popular; dismissal of divine decree is delightful to those dispensed of its demands! Ours is a pastoral&delightful pope. However, there are a few kinks to work out. Jesus said obeying the Commandments is necessary for inheriting heaven (Mk 10:17-19) & conscience doesn't dictate morality (those same pesky 10 Commandments - again!). Francis needs to follow Jesus. Otherwise, "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (said God thru Isaiah & Jesus; Mt 15:9).

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Mar. 07, 2017 12:25 PM ET USA

    There was a helpful piece by Fr. Matthew Schneider posted on Crux March 5, "How Pope Francis and his conservative critics may both be right." In light of your concerns, Phil, I suggest it's not that this papacy is a disaster (a bit of journalistic hyperbole) but that Pope Francis is placing more of an emphasis on pastoral issues rather than doctrinal issues.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 06, 2017 6:31 AM ET USA

    Pity the blind man who alleges that his blindness is proof that sight doesn't exist.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 05, 2017 8:43 AM ET USA

    "Moreover they lay the axe... to the very root, that is, to the faith... And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree,... Further, none is more skilful, none more astute than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious arts;... and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error;..." Pius XII, describing the modernists, and the manner in which poison constituting a "danger to the faith" is introduced. Phil is dead on.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 04, 2017 10:26 PM ET USA

    @bkmajer3729's comment, quote: << Maybe all this concern is really fear of being challenged in how the Church exercises pastoral care? >> Cardinal Sarah actually wrote about this two years ago in his book 'God or Nothing': "The idea of putting magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice, which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashion, and passions, is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology."

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 04, 2017 4:04 PM ET USA

    How can Catholics be divided "spiritually"? The perceived division is one of understanding not spirituality. Heresy can be easily refuted...really? I keep asking but no one has shown where the Pope has made statements contrary to Catholic teaching or doctrine. Maybe all this concern is really fear of being challenged in how we accept how the Church exercises pastoral care? All of this concern for how bad things are because of Pope Francis is truly disturbing and disappointing.

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Mar. 04, 2017 8:11 AM ET USA

    Dear Phil, I read the report on Pope Francis's homily. Frankly I don't see what made you "snap." As I see it, our Pope hasn't said or done anything to contradict Church teaching. What he has done is to urge a more pastoral approach rather than a legalistic approach. Does this make him a "disastrous" Pope? I hardly think so. With best wishes, John

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 04, 2017 7:35 AM ET USA

    The real danger to the Church and to the Faith comes not so much from heresy, which can be easily refuted, but from the persistent lack of clarity in matters of grave importance. Lack of clarity is what divides the Church and opens wide roads to heresies. Let this be a valuable lesson for the future Papal conclaves.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 04, 2017 7:20 AM ET USA

    "Maybe my entire argument is wrongheaded. I have been wrong before, and will no doubt be wrong again; one more mistaken view is of no great consequence." Since the early Church, there's been a characteristic of Christianity that is essential. The martyrs manifested Christian confidence to a striking degree. Confidence cannot be removed from Christian life. "First, Catholics can rely on the constant teaching of the Church..." Yes. We can. For too long we've relinquished this confidence.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Mar. 03, 2017 11:12 PM ET USA

    Catholics are now divided spiritually as much as our country is politically. But when 8 th graders are lamenting the state of the Church and the un-Catholic way our Pope speaks, that is a vigorous sign that our future Church's teachings will prevail as they have for two millennia. Thank you Phil for the difficult message and the precise reasoning that our Holy Father's needs must consist of our fervent prayers.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 03, 2017 9:46 PM ET USA

    The Pope is definitely no fluke. The Holy Spirit didn't act by accident! Although, reference to the Antichrist in the comments is a bit ...concerning. Anytime we are challenged or find ourselves frustrated/angry, look inside first before outside for the problem. This is not to suggest Pope Francis is right ...or wrong. But he challenges our ideas of how right & wrong are understood. This is very difficult for all of us but we have to trust the Holy Spirit knows what he is doing. Pray.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Mar. 03, 2017 6:57 PM ET USA

    When Pope Francis first stepped forward on the balcony after his election and silently glared at the faithful in St. Peter's square I remember thinking, Uh-Oh. Then he collected himself and overcame a really awkward first impression. Lately, I'm back to Uh-Oh. Thank you, Phil, for validating my current impression. I pray for our pope.

  • Posted by: Erusmas - Mar. 03, 2017 5:52 PM ET USA

    "In the worldwide family that is the Catholic Church, the best means of intervention is always prayer." Yes, we must turn directly to God. We must trust in His Providence. We cannot know why He permits the troubles that afflict us. We have long known that the last days would be a terrible time, worse than any the world had ever known before. This is perhaps a good time to read The Antichrist (1981) by Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, a fine Jesuit scholar.

  • Posted by: Travelling - Mar. 03, 2017 5:11 PM ET USA

    Was it not the case that the " bad Popes" showed disdain for the Church's teaching by their i oral personal lives. In that regard at least they were consistent! I can't hope thinking of Alice von Hildebrand in all this and her search for refinement. Pope Francis lacks refinement. I think this is a common state now for most people who are products of the Western/ affluent/ pop "culture". It is rather a lack of culture. We must get it back and quickly!

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Mar. 03, 2017 5:04 PM ET USA

    Well said.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Mar. 03, 2017 10:49 AM ET USA

    It is amazing that the Papacy could be so degraded in such a short time. Popes who were gifted teachers and saintly men are all I have known in my lifetime. Now, it feels as though the father has left the house. It was a bad idea for Benedict to resign. It is true that he is not the “real” Pontiff, but the fact that he is alive forced you to address the possibility. It also tempts us. If he hadn't resigned, we would have avoided Francis and enjoyed additional years of orthodox guidance.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Mar. 03, 2017 10:48 AM ET USA

    Those accusing the current Pope of causing schism are wrong; he is only revealing what has been there since the birth of the Modernist heresy and exacerbated by Vatican II. There are a *lot* of self-identified Catholics who agree with everything Pope Francis says and does. Why is that? How can this be? Because we have had two "churches" for decades now. (Obviously there's only One Church but you get the point.)

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Mar. 03, 2017 2:48 AM ET USA

    You are not wrong. I think we would have to go back to Leo X who was so worried about Florentine politics and his Medici family that he utterly botched Luther's challenge. Francis is not a corrupt libertine, but he has shown extraordinary interest in accommodating the secular world at the expense of the Church and appears willing to risk schism to please Euro bishops and secular progressives in the West. He is succeeding and displaying frightening hubris.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 02, 2017 3:21 PM ET USA

    Dear Mr. Lawler, I believe you are 100% right. Pope Francis is doing great damage to the Church. I also hope that I am wrong, but I believe he is a wolf in sheep's clothing. May God have mercy on his Church!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 02, 2017 2:03 PM ET USA

    The shcism that Pope Paul VI so feared is rearing its (very) ugly head.

  • Posted by: chady - Mar. 02, 2017 11:28 AM ET USA

    It seems that Pope Francis has caused some soul searching among UK Evangelical Christians. A copy of Evangelical Times-Dec16 describes how some homilies and impromptu announcements by Pope Francis are starting to undermine traditional Protestant theological thinking. I get the feeling it not cracking up rather they are asking fundamental questions about what it is that separates us. Saying that the Catholic Church is more than one Pontiff - perhaps he has come to open a few doors? We will see!

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Mar. 02, 2017 10:01 AM ET USA

    I know that this essay was painful to write, and I have felt such pain in writing comments to complain about the deep problems presented by our current Pope. But to deny that those problems exist, and that they are exceedingly serious, is to become an accomplice. Please do not lose your courage or cool perspective on this, for the words I find here and with others of your colleagues does give a certain relief at not feeling alone. And, as you said, PRAY!

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Mar. 02, 2017 7:48 AM ET USA

    I am definitely one of those who feel "oddly reassured" when I read that Phil Lawler considers this papacy a disaster. At the same time, I feel a sense of sadness and bewilderment that such a disaster is possible. I deal with that feeling mainly by praying that God will give me the continuing certainty that He is protecting the Church as He promised to do, protecting it from people like Bergoglio and his enablers.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 02, 2017 4:08 AM ET USA

    Some say AL changes nothing. But I can't square Jesus' answer to the rich man's question re inheriting heaven with AL's thesis that some irregular unions are "not culpable, or fully such." Jesus says adultery (Mk 10:11-12) absent repentance precludes heaven (Mk 10:17-19). St. Paul is equally unyielding (1 Cor 6:9). Sadly, it seems what's next is overturning infallible teaching of a previous pope. Will Francis ignore JPII's infallible Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by opening the diaconate HO to women?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 02, 2017 3:36 AM ET USA

    Amen. When I walk into the classroom on Sunday morning and find my 8th-grade students discussing weighty matters of faith and morals (no kidding), often they are lamenting the current state of the Church and the un-Catholic way the pope can speak. I let them talk and I sometimes ask questions to find out if they are as fully informed as they seem to be. They usually are. From time to time, when the opportunity arises, we may even spend a couple of minutes of class time discussing their concerns.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 01, 2017 8:54 PM ET USA

    Most points are well-taken. Most are intellectually honest and reflect reality; if they sound harsh so be it. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls, and we baptized must be invested in each other's spiritual welfare. Unfortunately, it must be honestly admitted that Pope Francis cannot-and he should not- be made a scapegoat. He is a "next step", he is a catalyst, he's part of a decades' long process. But he's not alone. Pope Francis is problematic, but he is no fluke.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2012 5:19 PM ET USA

    Great column from Phil. Maybe in his next one, he'll take note of the invoking of the Catholic principle of SUBSIDIARITY by Cong. Paul Ryan and the fact that this principle seems to be unknown at the USCCB.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2012 1:31 PM ET USA

    The trick here is that you have to be very tactful and diplomatic in your strength and clarity. Although Santorum was strong and clear, he lacked the necessary tact and diplomacy to avoid damaging sound-bites and went from leading polls with double-digit leads to losing within a matter of weeks because he chose to use his new-found fame as a soapbox for important but contextually irrelevant issues. As evil as our media can be, you can't avoid the new requirement of being media savvy.