Kathleen Parker’s column has stirred up a lot of debate about what exactly is so “oogedy-boogedy” about the “Christian Right.” (Jonah Goldberg thinks not much; Kevin Drum disagrees). It’s true that many liberals and secularish conservatives are a bit freaked out by that particular wing of the party – but why exactly?
It’s certainly not because of religion alone. And it’s not simply because liberals strongly disagree with social conservatives’ political views. I mean, I happen to think that strong versions of economic libertarianism are pretty silly – if not downright pernicious (though I do consider myself a hard core social libertarian). But I don’t have the visceral loathing toward economic libertarians that I have toward, say, James Dobson or Sarah Palin. Why is that?
Personally, I think the oogedy-boogedyness stems from fear – on some level, liberals are simply afraid of social conservatives. Fairly or no, liberals perceive them as a direct and credible threat to their own personal liberties.
Interestingly, this same fear is precisely why social conservatives loathe liberals – on some level, they are afraid of us. Orin Kerr had a very insightful post on this issue a few months back. His question was simple – why do conservatives care so much about the courts? In particular, why do average conservatives obsess about courts more than average liberals do?
His answer was that conservatives tend to perceive courts as direct threats to their personal lives. He writes:
For conservatives — especially social conservatives, and especially religious conservatives — the question has been whether the courts will allow their views, not whether the courts will mandate them.
For liberals, by contrast, the question has merely been whether the court will mandate their preferred views on “hot button” cultural issues such as abortion and school prayer. I’d quibble with parts of his post, but I think he’s right at least in terms of perceptions. Conservatives hate courts because they view them as direct and tangible attacks on their liberties. That’s the same reason why social conservatives hate liberals.
I think a similar dynamic, however, exists with liberal perceptions of social conservatives.
Social conservatives aren’t merely a group with which liberals disagree – they’re a group perceived to threaten our lives in tangible ways. Outside of the Christian Right, gay rights isn’t some abstract morality play. It’s a direct assault upon some of our closest friends and family. That’s what’s so radicalizing about Prop 8 – it wasn’t merely a political debate. These out-of-state groups decided to reach into the lives of complete strangers and rip an already-established right to wed out of their arms. What social conservatives viewed as promoting God’s will, others viewed as a direct and cruel assault on thousands of loving families.
This perceived sense of attack is especially strong on sexual privacy issues. It’s not so much the substantive disagreement that is driving liberals’ loathing. It’s the perception that the Christian Right would intrude on – and dictate – the most intimate decisions of people’s lives. For many women (and men), the idea of forced pregnancy and contraception bans aren’t abstract arguments – they’re pretty terrifying.
Same deal with Terri Schiavo. Again, what was so oogedy about l’affaire Schiavo is not the abstract philosophical debate about “life.” It was that a group of frenzied social conservatives decided to intrude on the Schiavos' privacy, publicizing and overruling a private and wrenching family decision. Even worse, they actually convinced Congress – in the midst of two wars – to intervene.
Other issues – such as stem cells and creationism – aren’t quite as scary, but they’re still perceived as intrusions on our lives. The restrictions on stem cell research have surely set several cures back many years – costing God knows how many lives. And as a fairly new parent, the idea of social conservatives seizing a state or county school board is suddenly a lot scarier.
Anyway, the larger point is that there actually are substantive explanations for people’s hostility to social conservatives. It’s not that people are snobs or bigots. It’s that they see the social conservative agenda as a direct threat to some of their most cherished and intimate rights.
That said, I’m not saying that social conservatives are acting in bad faith. This is what they believe -- and they too view the world as attacking their cherished beliefs. And to be fair, social conservatives are anything but a monolithic bloc. Indeed, many prefer an agenda of private persuasion rather than public legislation (personally, I think the pro-life movement could reduce far more abortions by going this route).
But until liberals stop thinking that social conservatives are trying to intrude on the most private aspects of their lives, they’re going to remain extremely hostile.