Social conservatives face a hard choice. Though often understood in terms of whether to support or oppose Donald Trump, the choice predates and will outlast him. It has been forced on social conservatives not by any candidate or election, but by the transformation of American law and society.
In June, the Supreme Court extended antidiscrimination protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2015, the Court recognised a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. These decisions ratified broader social trends. Since 2009, the number of religious unaffiliated Americans, or “nones,” has increased by 30 million.
Within living memory, socially conservative views on transgenderism, same-sex marriage and more were all but unquestioned in American society. Now these beliefs, which once had wide currency, are as useful as Confederate dollars. They mark whoever holds them as a rebel against progress and decency.
One response to this situation is to downplay the offensive elements of Christian belief. Christians who assent to Christian teaching on life and sexuality can avoid doing so openly. And they can display their loyalty to the elite by deploring the vulgar excesses of Christians who are less reserved. Call this the politics of respectability.
Another response is to form alliances with other despised groups: the theory is that strength in numbers will allow the coalition to challenge the status quo through a class-culture war. Some of these groups will be unsavoury. They are likely to have views that run counter not only to the current consensus, but to unchanging truths proclaimed by Christianity. Call this the politics of deplorability.
Each choice has a cost. Both respectable and deplorable Christians will be tempted to downplay their differences with their allies. We can see it happening already, on both sides. One conservative writer identified with the “Never Trump” movement recently mocked “the Great Conservative Bostock Freakout”. Another described restrictions on abortion signed into law by Alabama governor Kay Ivey as “pretty gross”.
On the other side, evangelicals seem to have reversed their views on the public significance of immorality. In 2011, 30 per cent of white evangelicals in the United States agreed that: “An elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfil their duties in their public and professional life.” On the eve of the 2016 election, 72 per cent agreed.
Can anything beyond naked self-interest explain this change? One need not deny the many real hypocrisies and inconsistencies of social conservatives to answer yes. When socially conservative views no longer shape the wider culture, social conservatives will be forced to make alliances with those who do not model or share their beliefs. Both respectable and deplorable social conservatives have had to adjust to this fact.
Broadly speaking, there are three distinct family forms in America, corresponding to three sociological groups. Progressives live in “blue families,” which put a relatively high stress on spousal companionship and equality and a relatively low stress on childbearing. (Same-sex couples fit well within this model.) Conservatives live in “red families,” which stress spousal complementarity or hierarchy, as well as childbearing.
For all the differences between these two models, they are both evidently capable of producing stable families. Blue families are not notably unstable. Nor are red families notably abusive. They are conflicting but real models of familial functionality.
Many downscale Americans, the type of people whom Trump is said to vindicate, conform to neither model. They prize childbearing but struggle to practise monogamy. They believe in sexual complementarity but fail to form stable households. If socially conservative Christians are to build an electoral coalition with these people, it will require some sort of compromise.
Christian conservatives are no longer a moral majority. Because they no longer define the limits of decency, they must look to allies with whom they do not agree. If those allies are respectable, Christians will face pressure not to offend progressive pieties. If the allies are deplorable, Christians will be tempted to make excuses for things that offend their own pieties.
Neither approach is finally satisfying. Whether Christians oppose or support Trump, they should do so without excusing his vices or scorning his supporters.
Yet even those who take such a path will find it impossible to remain neutral in the class-culture war. The only way to avoid some unsavoury choice is to opt out of politics altogether, and when one’s faith has political implications, quietism is its own compromise.