One of the biggest mistakes conservatives have made in recent years is to assume that government, especially at the federal level, can effectively transmit their values now that the Republicans hold power in Washington, D.C.
As recently as in the 1990s, conservatives presented the federal government as an aggressor against the nuclear family and traditional values. Welfare as we knew it before 1996, semi-pornographic “art” funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, many of the constitutionally dubious expenditures of the Department of Education - all these represented federal activities that were offensive to conservatives, economic and social alike.
Ten years later, social conservatives don’t worry so much about the negative impact of federal programs on family cohesion or basic values. Instead it is taken for granted that a Republican-controlled state apparatus can be conducive to faith, family, morality and conservative culture. Rather than subsidizing Mapplethorpe, the same federal government can finance the much-ballyhooed faith-based initiatives.
Periodically, reality intervenes. So much of what the modern state does cuts only one way: to the left. Ronald Reagan used to argue that as government expands, liberty contracts. It is equally true that the expansion of government forces the retrenchment of Edmund Burke’s little platoons - family, churches, communities, voluntary organizations. Just as surely as government spending crowds out private investment, it crowds out civil society.
Writing in response to the recent federal court ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas argued, “It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs.”
Instead of trying to restore prayer and Bible reading in public schools, Thomas contended that religious conservatives should take charge of their own children’s education. That means removing them from secular government institutions and home-schooling them or placing them in Christian or Jewish schools. He wrote: “Too many parents who would never send their children to a church on Sunday that taught doctrines they believed to be wrong have had no problem placing them in state schools five days a week where they are taught conflicting doctrines and ideas.”
There are many points in Thomas’ column with which one could quibble. There are many fine public schools. Shouldn’t religious parents have equal participation in the public schools their tax dollars finance? Is there anything to intelligent design? Aren’t Christians called to engage the broader culture?
But the overall argument is valid, no matter how much Bush-era social conservatives have preferred to put their trust in political power. Most of what is important in life exists outside the realm of politics or government. There is a limit to what election victories and public-policy debates can accomplish.
The main task of any realistic conservative politics is not to use government to impart traditional values, however good it might be if that were possible. Conservatives should seek to carve out as large a place for normal life and protect it against the intrusions of a hostile culture and government.
That means preserving the ability of parents to instruct children in their own value systems and indoctrinate them in the family’s faith. This means limiting government and maximizing each taxpayer’s income retention. It means that spending on health care, education, transportation should be increased - and that the spender should be the family, not the federal government.
Social conservatives are often wrongly blamed for the right’s big-government drift. Nevertheless, there is some merit to the charge that they too have embraced the swollen state as a solution to society’s ills. But they should take the lead in rejecting big-government conservatism because the family and civil society are far more important to protecting their values than Washington political maneuvers.
Conservatives who forget the primacy of the family and private sector are doomed to repeat the liberals’ mistakes - and to replicate their political failures.