Over the past couple decades, conservatives have increasingly grounded their appeals to individuals on the basis of preserving constitutional freedoms. Such a conservatism is intuitively appealing, as it allows conservatives to avoid debates on hot-button topics, resting behind the solid bulwark of constitutional freedoms. Retaining a veneer of neutrality, they avoid airing their moral stances and state their allegiance solely in terms of freedom to express, exercise, and so on. While this ‘freedom thesis’ for conservatism is alluring, it is doomed to fail.
Progressives have mobilized values voters by conjuring up a powerful moral vision grounded in equity, non-discrimination, and social justice. Conservatives, in contrast, have struggled to present a contrasting positive vision for the culture, society, and government. If conservatives continue to embrace ‘liberty,’ rather than offering their own compelling moral vision, they will conserve nothing.
One arena in which conservatives have applied the ‘freedom-thesis’ has been in fights over religious liberty. In the 1990s, Democrats were strong supporters of religious liberty. Following the near unanimous passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, President Bill Clinton stated “let us fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.” Thus, rather than engaging individuals on the substantive grounds of marriage, family, identity, etc., many conservatives have tended to couch their fights over abortifacients, cake bakers, religious school funding, and more in terms of what seemed unobjectionable, religious liberty.
In exchange for obtaining exemptions and religious-liberty protections for their constituents, conservatives permitted the broader culture to enshrine their religious beliefs as bigotry. As cultural views have changed, organizations, media, and others increasingly paint conservatives as bigoted, and unscientific. Merely making their cases to the public on the basis of religious freedom has left conservatives with limited meaningful response. Many progressives today view religious freedom as a proxy for discrimination, a means to refuse services to LGBT people and to impose one’s views on others. Recent court-packing proposals by Congress and a Biden presidential commission threaten to implode the strategy altogether.
Perhaps because the value of religious freedom is no longer widely accepted, conservatives have pivoted towards defending free speech. Not wanting to voice their actual principles, conservatives simply plead for the right to express their views. Calling out instances of “de-platforming” and increased self-censorship, they now advocate for greater protections and commitments to free speech, pushing for the application of such protections to private firms. This is an easier position to take up. As evidenced by Stanford’s own recent defense of the Hoover Institution, the value is still accepted and defended by administrations and scholars across the spectrum of ideas and politics.
Ironically, when utilized as a means to evade contentious moral and policy issues, the conservative defense of free speech at times appears to be their own self-censorship. Like the freedom of religion, free speech is not the unassailable defense that many conservatives believe it to be. It is becoming rarer and rarer to have conversations where differing opinions - particularly those that are uncomfortable - are encouraged, sought out, and treated with respectful seriousness. Without conservatives’ willingness to exercise their rights of expression and winsomely voice their views, their defense of free speech will atrophy.
A conservatism solely resting upon the protection of certain freedoms will fail because it is an inadequate governing philosophy. Freedom is not itself the political good. Liberty, taken to an extreme, can afflict a society rather than bless it. As Edmund Burke stated, “the effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.” Government must naturally involve the regulation of human liberty for the sake of the common good. Some object and say that government solely has the duty to protect life, liberty, and property, but they say so precisely because they believe these are the assurances government alone can make to benefit the common good.
Rather than retreat to a defense of constitutional freedoms, it is time for conservatives to build, create, and express. Americans are not looking for neutral, armchair actors debating the high theory of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, but a lived-out and compelling moral vision for American society and government. The ideals conservatives once fought to conserve seem to be slipping away. Family and children, religious devotion, respect for local knowledge and community are all statistically on the wane. Yet these are not irreversible trends. Ultimately, people can be persuaded by such causes because they are inherent to our nature. Most Americans want to be happily married, raise a family, have a faith to find solace in, and a community to invest into. If conservatives can shift their focus to the cultivation and creation of social and cultural goods for the common good, they may yet have a future ahead.