Social conservatism was ushered in to American politics with the so-called Reagan Revolution in 1981, and renewed its strength in 1994, with the Republican takeover of US Congress. The movement slowly grew in prominence and political power until hitting a plateau and stagnating in the first decade of the twenty-first century under President George W. Bush.
Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000, which appealed to a large bloc of conservative voters, and began to act on his platform with the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 changed the tone of the Bush administration, which took a turn toward hawkishness and Christian fundamentalism. The new foreign policy of “pre-emptive war” created a rift between traditional conservatives and conservatives aligned with the Bush administration. Due to his original campaign platform, conservatives became associated with the “new” Bush administration and an anti-conservative sentiment has nearly destroyed the movement.
In most areas of the country, Republicans align themselves with the Christian right refer to themselves as “conservatives” since fundamental Christianity and social conservatism have many tenets in common.
The phrase “political conservative” is most associated with the ideologies of social conservatism. Indeed, most of today’s conservatives see themselves as social conservatives, although there are other types. The following list contains common beliefs with which most social conservatives identify. They include:
- Advancing pro-life and anti-abortion stances on unwanted or unplanned pregnancies
- Advocating for pro-family legislation and a ban on gay marriage
- Eliminating federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and finding alternative methods of research
- Protecting the Second Amendment right to bear arms
- Maintaining a strong national defense
- Protecting US economic interests against foreign threats and eliminating the need for trade unions
- Opposing illegal immigration
- Limiting welfare spending by creating economic opportunities for America’s needy
- Lifting the ban on school prayer
- Implementing high tariffs on countries that do not uphold human rights
Because the preceding issues are so black and white, there is a considerable amount of criticism from not only liberals, but also other conservatives. Not all types of conservatives agree whole-heartedly with these ideologies, and sometimes denounce the vigilance with which hard-line social conservatives choose to advocate their positions.
The radical right has also placed a large stake in the social conservative movement and has used it in many cases as a way to promote Christianity or to proselytize. In these cases, the entire movement is sometimes censured by mass media and liberal ideologues.
Each of the tenets mentioned above has a corresponding group or groups which oppose it, making social conservatism a highly criticized political belief system. Consequently, it is the most popular and most scrutinized of the conservative “types.”
Of the different types of conservatism, social conservatism is by far the most politically relevant. Social conservatives have dominated Republican politics and even other political parties such as the Constitution Party. Many of the key planks in the social conservative agenda are high on the Republican Party’s “to-do” list.
In recent years, social conservatism has taken repeated hits thanks in large part to the presidency of George W. Bush, but its network is still strong. Basic ideological affirmations, such as those espoused by the pro-life, pro-gun and pro-family movements will make sure social conservatives have a strong political presence in Washington DC for many years to come.