Citizen-Times, 9/2005

[This is more negative than I’d rite today]

The 19th Amendment, the one that gave women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in June, 1919 and went out to the state legislatures for ratification. Fourteen months later enough states had voted yes, and it became part of the Constitution.

But along the way…Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Maryland and Delaware voted no.  Let me repeat that:  these Southern states voted against giving women the right to vote. (North Carolina and Florida apparently didn’t vote on the amendment in this time period.)

Looking at the ratification map, I understood something that had always puzzled me about my Southern heritage:   social conservatism.  I understood that “social conservatism” isn’t conservatism at all.  It’s been mislabeled.

OK, their denying women the vote is, technically speaking, “conservative” – defined by Webster as “a disposition in politics to preserve what is established.” That’s certainly what was going on at the time, no matter how ignorant and ridiculous it looks with 85 years of hindsight.

The same can be said for social conservative opposition in the past to movies, modern dancing, card-playing, “bobbed” hair, Sunday retail, lipstick, women in “men’s clothes”…and integration of the races.

I know about this stuff. You see, I was raised conservative, but I got over it.   I went away as a missionary, experienced other cultures, and came to see my native culture more objectively.  I left my upbringing behind without understanding what makes it tick.

Now I think I do. I don’t think Southerners in 1919-20 really thought they’d win their fight against women voting.  Liberals were threatening to topple the world as it was supposed to be forever, changing the role of women.  So conservatives dug in.  This is a powerful clue toward understanding today’s social conservatism.

I think the word “conservative” should rightly apply only to political questions – limited government, interpretation of the Constitution, laissez-faire economics, that kind of thing.  There’s virtue here.  These positions are timeless – political conservatives in the 1940’s had the same beliefs that political conservatives have today — and their positions can be debated.

Social conservatism is another matter altogether. The philosophy that I grew up under, that is so visible and vocal today, is not timeless.  Social conservatives change their targets as American society leaves them behind.  They’ve stood, figuratively speaking, in one schoolhouse door after another.  The taboos I listed above (movies, etc.) were all hot conservative issues when I was a boy.

This approach to life should not be called “conservatism.” It should more properly be called “Drag-me-kicking-and-screaming-ism.”

And unlike political conservatism, socially conservative positions aren’t open to debate. They aren’t the product of weighing competing ideas in search of truth.  On the contrary, most social conservatives feel themselves engaged in spiritual warfare.  They anchor their social views in Scripture and fight for absolute right against absolute wrong.

This isn’t new. In the 19th century, Southern preachers found abundant support for slavery in the Bible — Ephesians 6:5, for example, where slaves are told to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ.  (Interestingly, abolitionists argued more from the American principles of liberty and equality than from the Bible.)  Those opposing the vote for women might well have quoted First Timothy 2:11 (“Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.”)   I remember the biblical arguments I heard as a kid in support of segregation.

We must fight evil in the world, yes – but true evil, not cultural disagreements. Actually, the Bible is far more urgent that we resist the evil influences of society on ourselves (Romans 12:1-2) – evils perhaps like the seduction of television and its advertising, excessive ambition and accumulating stuff — and that we influence the world for good (Matthew 5:16).  Correcting society scarcely shows up as a biblical blip.

Yankee Senator Rick Santorum is a Kick-and-scream-ist about working mothers: “…The purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home.”

What will be said 85 years from now about this and other battles that today’s social conservatives are waging – for example, opposition to evolution, homosexuality, stem cell research and the “morning after” pill? I think I know.  Don’t you?

P.S. Stephen Towe’s nostalgic commentary (AC-T, August 14), in which he blames “liberal forces” for changing his boyhood world of the 1970’s, is illustrative. Liberal forces change all societies, constantly.  I remember my mother decrying the “worldliness” of the 1950’s!