I begin with a definition: social conservatism is the idea- and political-system that affirms and defends the natural family, understood as the one-flesh marital union of a man and a woman for the purposes of bearing and rearing children, building strong homes, and binding the generations. Grounded in Holy Scripture, social conservatism favors sexual discipline (chastity before wedlock; fidelity after), relatively early marriage, complementary sexual roles (men as fathers, providers, and protectors; women as mothers and nurturers), and large families. It frowns on contraception, condemns abortion, abhors pornography, and laments fornication. This idea system holds that law and public policy should favor these principles as the surest foundation for ordered liberty and human flourishing.
Despite his checkered past and brusque personality, Donald Trump as President surprised observers by the degree to which he affirmed many of these ideas. As examples, he favored a tax policy that expanded the tax credits for families with children, repeatedly sought to defund the pro-abortion activities of Planned Parenthood, placed the United States at the forefront of pro-life activities at the United Nations, and appointed federal judges who seemed sympathetic to many or most social conservative principles.
A President Joe Biden will undo all of this, as quickly and completely as he can. The regulatory acts and executive orders of Mr. Trump will vanish; many on the first day. A President Biden will fill his administration with persons opposed to every component of social conservatism; so too with judicial appointments. At the executive level, at least, the rout will be complete. A Senate still controlled by the Republican Party will apply some brakes on negative legislative acts. Yet this will only mean losing more slowly in Congress.
So, what should social conservatives do? I suggest that we begin by briefly examining the relevant American past, to discover how we arrived at this point.
The United States of America was conceived and born as a socially conservative nation. Familism, not individualism, was the shaping force. The arrival of Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachusetts during the early 17th Century created a distinctly American family model involving early and nearly universal marriage, high fertility, an intense focus on parenting, complementarity (men and women are equal in worth and dignity but different in function), flexible but real intergenerational bonds, the building of strong home economies, and relative stability. In New England, circa 1660, almost every adult married: the women by age 20, the men by age 24. An average of nine children were born per couple, with the vast majority surviving to adulthood.
The same characteristics could be found in 1776 America. Marriage was nearly universal. Indeed, one survey in South Carolina’s hill country found that among 17,000 white adults, there was not a single woman at age 25 who was neither wife nor widow. The first United States Census  found among all inhabitants an average age of 15: a land of teenagers! Meanwhile, religious attitudes and the practical economics of farm life in America “led to children being regarded as a blessing, not a curse” [historian Jim Potter]. Over half of all American children lived in families with nine or more children. Most surprisingly, these same traits were even found among Black slaves in the Chesapeake Valley, where nearly universal marriage and large families had become common.
This American family model gained new energy in the middle decades of the 19th Century. The German traveler and writer Francis J. Grund, visiting the United States in the 1830’s, found a land characterized by “early marriage,” “the sanctity of the marriage vow,” a “rapid increase of population” through high fertility, and “domestic happiness.” The better known French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville found the same traits, reporting that “there is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.”
American law both reflected and reinforced this stunning commitment to family living. As the legal historian Charles Reid has shown, the social teachings of the early Christian Fathers shaped this jurisprudence, especially St. Augustine’s understanding of the threefold “goods” of marriage: procreation; fidelity; and indissolubility. As the influential New York jurist James Kent explained in the 1830s: “The primary and most important of the domestic relations, is that of husband and wife. It has its foundation in nature, and is the only relation by which Providence has permitted the continuance of the human race.”
Public policy followed. Reflecting advances in embryology, the 1860-80 period saw every American state adopt laws banning abortion at all stages of pregnancy. In 1873, the Federal government implemented a new law banning the sale and distribution of both contraceptives and pornography. Most states followed with even stronger measures. Enforcement was rigorous, and remarkably effective; the porn industry (photos, “Cuban” postcards, magazines, and books) was crushed.
And yet, only a few years later, the deconstruction of this system began. Why? At the basic level, complacency set in. The goods and gifts of a strong family system were increasingly taken for granted. Meanwhile, a corrosive form of liberalism spread, at first among the “learned.” In place of duty, inherited wisdom, and Biblical truths, they sought “personal freedom” and “choice.”
The process started with divorce law. Existing statutes made the termination of a marriage difficult and rare; indeed, in most states a special act of the state legislature had until recently been required. However, starting in about 1880, Arkansas, Nevada, and several other states discovered that offering easy divorce could be an effective way to raise revenue. The effects on social order and children were ignored. The next targets were laws banning birth control devices and information. Enforcement of state laws began unravelling in the 1920s. A court decision in the next decade gutted the Federal measure.
However, by then something remarkable was also occurring: the American family model was regaining strength through “marriage” and “baby” booms. Between 1932 and 1970, the marriage rate nearly doubled; by the latter year, 95 percent of American adults again were or had been married. The average age for first marriage reached record lows: 22 for men; 20 for women. The fertility rate soared, also nearly doubling. Large families once more became common. And, after a post-World War II spike, even the divorce rate declined. As in centuries before, Familism was The American Way.
Yet this did not last. Complacency returned; so did a corrosive liberalism, this time with distinct feminist, libertine, and nihilistic strains. All of these targeted the natural family. Hostile federal court decisions proliferated. Decisions in the 1960s and ‘70s stripped away the distinctive tasks and protections afforded to married-couple families, most notably in Eisenstadt v. Baird , which denied the unity of the marital pair. The Court’s Roe and Doe decisions the following year overturned the anti-abortion laws in all fifty states. In Danforth , fathers lost any and all say in abortion decisions. The next year, parents lost all control over the distribution of contraceptives to their minor children. And so the process continued, to the embrace of sodomy , same-sex marriage , and transgenderism . The same amoral reasoning will predictably soon embrace polygamy and polyamory.
Social conservatism as a movement has come in reaction to these assaults on the natural family. The prototype organization was the National Divorce Reform League, founded by the Rev. Samuel Dike in 1881, to combat the loosening of divorce laws. Renamed the National League for Protection of the Family in 1897, this was the first group to use the “natural family” label. A much larger constellation of pro-family organizations emerged in the 1970s, including Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, Family Research Council, and The Rockford Institute. Including state level groups, the number would climb into the many dozens.
An important political change did occur. Prior to 1965 or so, the pro-family party was arguably the Democrats. While the Republican Party had long favored Wall Street, the great banks, the major corporations, feminism [such as it was], agribusiness, and the country clubs, the Democrats were more likely to favor Main Street, cooperatives and credit unions, blue collar workers, small businesses, the mother in the home, “family wages” for fathers, family farms, and the ethnic clubs. The Episcopalian Church was the Republican Party at prayer; Roman Catholics and Southern Evangelicals voted for The Democracy.
This changed, as the Democratic Party—in a process still poorly understood—absorbed all of the liberal corruptions and radicalisms of the late 1960s. By 1980, this was now the party of population control, abortion, pornography, sexual revolution, cohabitation, and faculty radicals in the colleges and universities. [New corporate elites with the same nihilistic mindset and an aggressive LGBTQ movement would come a little later.] Millions of socially conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, small town merchants, and rural dwellers were driven into the political wilderness. Many of these refugees soon found their way into the Republican Party; “Reagan Democrats” they were called. Yet from the start, this was a troubled realignment.
What has social conservatism achieved over the last fifty years? A few things. While free access to abortion remains the law of the land, limits or bans on public funding have been gained. Federal tax policy is more favorable toward families with children than it was, particularly through the new Child Tax Credit and the elimination of some incidental marriage penalties. Particularly at the state level, homeschooling—a highly effective form of family renewal– has won legal recognition and protection. All the same, other political victories—such as the Proposition 8 win in California in favor of true marriage—have routinely fallen victim to Federal court decisions, with Republican judicial appointees often in the lead. Overall, this has been a record of failure.
What then should now be done? Four things.
First, go on the offensive. For decades now, social conservatives have mainly been defending crumbling legal precedents and—more recently—merely seeking religious exemptions from the radical sexual agenda. These are the strategies of losers. For centuries, American social conservatives boldly and successfully worked to write protection and promotion of the natural family and Judeo-Christian sexual ethics into law. They understood these principles to be universal in application, for the good of all, not only for cowering minorities. The current Sexual Left understands this, rejects the liberal concept of “choice” as discredited nonsense, and relentlessly seeks to impose their agenda on everyone. Social conservatives must recover their bearings, and seek to win.
Second, social conservatives must either take effective control of the Republican Party, or abandon it. For about forty years, Republican leaders have welcomed the votes of “Reagan Democrats” and other pro-family folks, but in every other way have consigned them to insignificance: like idiot children in the Party attic. The GOP’s first loves remain the super rich, the giant corporations, and the national security state, even as the new crop of billionaires, Big Tech, and the intelligence agencies have recently shown every sign of favoring the other Party. GOP tax reforms, for example, routinely focus 90 percent of cuts on the wealthy and the Fortune 500; families and the real middle class receive the crumbs. Libertarians, complete with their libertine social ethics, control the Party’s regulatory agenda. And yet, honest polling data suggests that social conservatives now represent a hefty majority of GOP voters. Going forward, they must claim real party leadership and implement true pro-family and pro-life agendas. Failing this, they should look to forming a new party. As during the 1850s, American life is increasingly polarized: then, over slavery; now, over “family values.” Back then, this allowed the “third party” Republicans to replace the faltering Whigs as a counter to the pro-slavery Democrats. The time for such change may be ripe again.
Third, build much improved intellectual and policy cadres. While many pro-family organizations remain, most are “ministries” or lobbying groups with minimal intellectual heft. A handful of research centers linked to major universities do good work; but are mostly timid in public advocacy. A new generation of independent think tanks is needed, with fresh imperatives. They most boldly reject feminism, both the “hard” and “soft” versions, and push for cultural and legal recognition of responsible paternal headship of families and the maternal virtues of women. They must reshape the economy to favor strong marriages, large families, and function-rich homes. They must end “the emasculation of men through feminized education and various forms of soma that sap spiritedness (in particular pornography)” [David Azerrad]. And they must recover that sense of adventure that building a Christian family once entailed [e.g., from Charles Peguy: “There is only one adventurer in the world…: the father of a family. Even the most desperate adventurers are nothing compared with him. Everything in the modern world, even and perhaps most of all contempt, is organized against that fool, that impudent, daring fool.”—1909]
And fourth, build a Socially Conservative Internationale. The World Congress of Families [WCF], launched in 1997, was the first step here. As the Sexual Left sought in the 1990s to secure its control over the United Nations, the European Union, and other transnational bodies, the WCF became a counterforce. It worked to build coalitions of scholars, writers, activists, and politicians who would defend the natural family around the globe. Twelve full Congresses (Prague, Geneva, Mexico City, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Madrid, Sydney, Salt Lake City, Tbilisi, Budapest, Chisinau, and Verona) and another forty or so regional assemblies (ranging from Moscow to Nairobi to Manila) have since been held. These gatherings promote the exchange of ideas, the launch of new initiatives, and a shared confidence and courage. In literally hundreds of reports, articles, and books, the Sexual Left has fulminated in rage over the WCF…. which only testifies to its success. Much more needs to be done. Reliable funding is necessary to counter the many millions of dollars that the George Soros empire has poured into anti-WCF campaigns. While prior Congresses commonly had “youth tracks,” there was far too little follow-up in order to forge a new generation of leaders. Moreover, while a nascent body of pro-family parliamentarians has emerged at WCF gatherings, the staff support necessary for effective continuity has again been inadequate.
In short, we Social Conservatives should stop whining and fretting and move boldly forward. There is a World to win; and the authentic American experience along with—I believe — Providence are on our side!