Social conservatives talk about real problems but offer irrelevant solutions. They act like the man who searched for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there.
Social conservatives tend to talk about issues like abortion and gay rights, stem-cell research and the role of religion "in the public square": "Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage and religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) at the Values Voter Summit.
But what is the case for social conservatism that they've been making at the summit and in recent interviews?
- Mike Huckabee: "We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy.... The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure."
- Jim DeMint: "It’s impossible to be a fiscal conservative unless you’re a social conservative because of the high cost of a dysfunctional society."
- Rick Santorum: "We can have no economic freedom unless we have good, virtuous moral people inspired by their faith."
Those are reasonable concerns, but they have little or no relationship to abortion or gay marriage. Abortion may be a moral crime, but it isn't the cause of high government spending or intergenerational poverty. And gay people making the emotional and financial commitments of marriage is not the cause of family breakdown or welfare spending.
When Huckabee says that "a breakdown of the basic family structure" is causing poverty -- and thus a demand for higher government spending -- he knows that he's really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers, and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime. Those also make up the "high cost of a dysfunctional society" that worries DeMint.
But take a look at the key issues of the chief social-conservative group, the Family Research Council -- 7 papers on abortion and stem cells, 5 on gays and gay marriage, 1 on divorce. Nothing much has changed since 1994, when I wrote in the New York Times:
The Family Research Council, the leading "family values" group, is similarly obsessed. In the most recent index of its publications, the two categories with the most listing are "Homosexual" and "Homosexual in the Military" -- a total of 34 items (plus four on AIDS). The organization has shown some interest in parenthood -- nine items on family structure, 13 on parenthood and six on teen pregnancy -- yet there are more items on homosexuality than on all of those issues combined. There was no listing for divorce. (Would it be unfair to point out that there are two items on "Parents' Rights" and none on "Parents' Responsibilities"?)
Back then, conservatives still defended sodomy laws, as Santorum continued to do as late as 2003. These days, after the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down such laws, most have moved on (though not the Montana and Texas Republican parties). Now they just campaign against gays in the military, gays adopting children, and gays getting married.
Why all the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the problems of "breakdown of the basic family structure" and "the high cost of a dysfunctional society"? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn't go over very well with even the social-conservative constituency. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs.
But you won't find your keys on Main Street if you dropped them on Green Street, and you won't reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and not letting them adopt orphans.