Social conservatism is an ideological perspective on how individuals in free societies ought to respond to matters having to do with moral beliefs or behavior, cultural traditions, religious institutions, or patterns of social interaction generally. It involves the desire to see older norms and assumptions regarding all of these matters to be preserved. Hence, social conservative thinkers either oppose or are cautious about individual innovations in personal habits and preferences, marriage and family arrangements, civic rituals and customs, religious observances, and so forth.
In general, social conservatism reflects the concerns advanced by Edmund Burke, as well as other late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century writers who confronted modern revolutionary or democratic movements and transformations, and warned against or tried to moderate the changes being wrought by them. Their arguments were that society is not a social contract between individuals, but rather an organism, a living culture with a specific history and specific classes and customs that must be acknowledged; that social accomplishments depend on maintaining a foundation of traditions from which the members of society draw their inspiration and connection to the past and the future; and that a healthy society is one with both stability and continuity, which only widely accepted, shared, and promoted public values and practices can provide. These ideological beliefs form the traditional core of most socially conservative movements and parties around the world. However, many social conservatives today, while agreeing with these basic insights, have come to premise their ideological perspective on much more explicitly religious (generally Western Christian) doctrines than was the case with Burke and other “traditional conservatives.” So thorough has been the merging of the cultural concerns felt by many Protestants and Catholics with the language of traditional conservatism in the United States that the label Christian right often has come to be used interchangeably with social conservatism itself.
Social conservatism in this sense is therefore a much stronger force in the United States than in other North American or western European countries, as the United States is by most measures a heavily Christian country, with high rates of religious affiliation and a frequent reliance on and a broad acceptance of religious rhetoric and arguments in political discourse. (The prevalence of this particular Americanized image of social conservatism around the world often leads various parties and movements that otherwise agree with certain principles of traditional conservatism, especially those associated with the ideas conveyed through the mostly secular Counter-Enlightenment tradition of Justus Moser or Joseph de Maistre, to eschew the label social conservative entirely.) This kind of social conservatism has been a growing presence in American politics and policy debates since the early 1970s, with the controversy over abortion rights, which exploded following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 to legalize abortion across the nation, often identified as the real beginning of the contemporary Christian conservative movement. But the ideology of social conservatism has been influential elsewhere as well. Contests over norms and laws regulating or permitting pornography, Sunday commerce restrictions, no-fault divorce, sex education in public schools, access to birth control, state-sponsored gambling, public funding of controversial or arguably offensive works of speech or art, homosexual behavior, and most recently homosexual marriages, have all been arenas in which social conservative thinkers, activists, and voters have been a major influence.
While initially many of these concerns had been seen as the sole and narrow concerns of various evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant sects, through the 1980s and 1990s they became important concerns for many conservative Catholic thinkers and voters as well. The merging of many evangelical and Catholic Christians into one socially conservative cultural and political movement (predominantly but not solely in the United States) had a large impact on not only party allegiances, but also on how the language and ideas of traditional conservatism have been adapted and used to advance various causes. For example, for many years in the United States. both Catholic and “social gospel” Protestant thinkers had seen—in different ways—their moral priorities as requiring an emphasis on progressive or communitarian responses to the problems facing their adherents. In this, American Christians often tended to follow European Christian socialist or democratic patterns (the Catholic church in Europe has long combined socially conservative perspectives on moral and civic matters with a support for social justice in economics). But in recent decades the secularization of American society has, for many believers, pushed those concerns aside in favor of a focus on conserving specific moral or religious norms and practices that often are grounded on common Christian beliefs shared across denominational lines. This synthesis, sometimes called the conservatism, has had some influence on conservative parties and movements elsewhere around the globe, but for the most part this particular mix of concerns under the label of social conservatism remains an American phenomenon.
Social conservatism has had an ambiguous intellectual relationship with the development of neoconservatism in the United States. While some of the “new conservative” thinking that emerged alongside critiques of the social changes and egalitarian policies of the 1960s and 1970s did turn to social conservative ideas to buttress their arguments about the need for cultural standards and stability, not all did, with the result that the neoconservative intellectual camp remains divided between those who are doubtful of the religious tone of much social conservatism and those who embrace populist religious conservatism as a part of the neoconservative project.
- Brown, Ruth. For a Christian America. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2002.
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution of France. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
- Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The De-moralization of Society. New York: Vintage, 1996.
- Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. London: Quartet, 2000.
- Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind. New York: Avon, 1968.
- Muller, Jerry, ed. Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
- Neuhaus, Richard. The Naked Public Square. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986.
- Will, George F. Statecraft as Soulcraft. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.