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FIRST-PERSON: A page in our history can be turned

NASHVILLE (BP) — The Supreme Court’s reign of social progressivism is hopefully coming to an end. Anyone in defense of the Permanent Things — life, marriage, religious liberty — should welcome the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

A page in our history can be turned.

Roe, Casey, Windsor, Obergefell — these are just a few of the Supreme Court cases that have shaped America’s moral conscience for decades.

In each instance, it was the Supreme Court, not the legislature, that was responsible for overseeing a legal regime that allows for unborn children to die by a doctor’s hand and for marriage as a legal entity to be redefined. For decades, the dignity of life and the integrity of the natural family have been chipped away at by the Supreme Court, taking questions of deep moral concern from the hands of citizens and putting such deliberations into their own.

This has come to no small cost to America and Americans, as the instability of the American family lies at the center of what ails us culturally and economically. When the Supreme Court upholds the right of a woman to end a pregnancy, it sends the broader picture that unborn innocent life is of far less value than the Faustian ideal of human autonomy. When the Supreme Court undermines socially norming institutions such as the family, we ought not to be surprised by pathologies linked to family decline.

Not all of America’s problems can be laid at the feet of the Supreme Court. To monocausally link all our nation’s social ills to nine individuals is to give too much credit and too much moral agency to government. Still, the norms that communicate what America values have been mediated through, and reflected by the Supreme Court.

With an ostensibly conservative pick in Judge Brett Kavanaugh, social conservatives who are often treated as embarrassing cousins within the conservative family should view the current moment as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to reverse historic wrongs and injustices overseen by Supreme Court justices who acted as Philosopher-Kings instead of dispassionate interpreters of the Constitution. It is an opportunity to install a justice who understands the Constitution for what it is, not what he wants it to be.

And it means that social conservatives need to reevaluate our sense of place within the conservative movement and see it as a profound opportunity to shape American morality.

The topic of social conservatism has long been one of discomfort within traditionally conservative or Republican circles. On ideological matters, social conservatives and libertarians in their alliance against an encroaching state often are at odds about what the moral milieu of society ought to look like. The tension remains constant, for example, between legalizing recreational marijuana versus the damage done to society’s values when drugs are legalized in the name of expanded liberty.

Poll after poll tells of generational defection from social conservative principles. The narrative is that social conservatism’s decline is inevitable because it is not reproducing itself in America’s young. As a political matter, because social conservatism is often viewed as an extension of pre-existing religious commitments, those in conservative circles who wish to shed the image of the GOP being the party at prayer, or trapped by Bible Belt moral do-goodism, want liberated from the constraints of what they see as an electoral loser. If opposition to abortion and gay marriage costs someone social capital with their peers or even an election, the remedy is supposedly simple: Pay less attention to the crazy religious folk who insist that abortion is evil or that law should reflect certain truths about human nature, namely that only one man and one man can form a marriage. If conservatives wish to mimic the values of cosmopolitan elites, social conservatism will never be the pathway to achieve such a goal.

But to achieve a conservatism void of a cultural soul is a trade-off that no conservative should be willing to make.

Here’s the truth: Social conservatives should not be embarrassed or reluctant about the values we hold. On any metric backed by social science or sound philosophy, social conservatism is a vehicle for humane culture, economic mobility, family centrality, human dignity — and a bulwark against the heavy-handedness of government. This is true because social conservatism premises itself on the idea that its pillars precede government authority. The dignity of the individual, the structure of the natural family — each of these are pre-political realities that do not default to Philosopher-Kings for their existence.

We shouldn’t assume that a conservative-leaning Supreme Court will ameliorate all of America’s great ills. To do so would violate the vision for limited government and ascribe far too much power to a government entity to affect our lives. But the possibility of a return to a Supreme Court that does not attempt to engineer social policy provides the opportunity for social conservatives to go about their task more confident that legislatures acting through reason and debate can solve complex policy matters without defaulting to black-robed Philosopher-Kings.

More importantly, though, social conservatives ought to know that they are not the weird ones for the ideals we uphold. Social conservatism is a philosophy of the natural order. It insists that life is a miracle to be protected; that marriage and family life are enduring goods that individuals in society are bound by; and that the nature and identity of male and female are universal, objective and intelligible — in the same way that truth itself is. Any conservatism that would propose to go against the natural order of things is a conservatism that should be jettisoned.

And now, with a Supreme Court that is less inclined to see rights written with invisible ink in the Constitution that upends the natural truths of our social order, we can be hopeful that social conservatism can once again be given the platform it deserves to see every American flourish.
Andrew T. Walker is director of policy studies at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of God and the Transgender Debate.

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  • Andrew T. Walker