Not so long ago, the bond between social conservatives and foreign-policy interventionists seemed unbreakable. Their collaboration defined the George W. Bush years, when those who sought to spread democracy abroad linked arms with those who hoped to spread virtue at home. Joseph Bottum, then an editor at First Things, observed in 2005 that “pro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives” were “increasingly voting together, meeting together, and thinking together.”
Today, this union lies shattered. Leading interventionists denounce the socially conservative causes they once supported. Social conservatives, in turn, offer stinging critiques of interventionist foreign policy.
Signs of the breach are everywhere. The neoconservative grandee William Kristol, who once served on the executive committee of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, recently warned his followers that the GOP harbors such radical beliefs as that “unborn babies are babies” and “abortion takes a human life.”
Kristol has undergone a similar conversion on gay rights. In the 1990s, he argued that discrimination against homosexuality was “perfectly reasonable,” if it amounted to teaching “our kids what most of human history has thought was a desirable lifestyle.” In 2022, he tweets against Florida’s so-called don’t-say-gay bill, which stipulates that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three.”
Jonathan Last, editor of the interventionist redoubt The Bulwark, was once regarded as a staunch social conservative. In 2019, he assured readers that The Bulwark was “unlikely to publish any criticism of the pro-life movement.” By 2021, Last was saying that “it’s hard to see the pro-life movement as concerned with anything more than control and power.” Last has “opted out of the abortion wars.” But he has not given up on all wars: Today, he calls for regime change in Russia.
David French, once a leading evangelical social conservative, now numbers Drag Queen Story Hour among “the blessings of liberty.” He has described churches as hotbeds of insurrection, presenting the age-old anti-elitism of revivalist Christianity as a new and dangerous threat to political stability. French has retreated from the front lines of the culture war. But he remains adamant in support of the Iraq War.
Meanwhile, an equal and opposite shift has occurred. As David Frum recently noted, “a highly visible coterie of socially conservative intellectuals”—ranging from Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher to Compact contributors Adrian Vermeule and Patrick Deneen—militates against escalation in Ukraine. Their opposition reflects a broader change in thinking. Just as the figures most interested in interventionism have dropped or downplayed their socially conservative beliefs, those whose first commitments are to socially conservative causes have begun to sour on interventionist foreign policy.
The rift between interventionists and social conservatives is most visible among intellectuals, but it is beginning to be felt in politics. J.D. Vance, a Catholic convert and social conservative running for the Senate in Ohio, has endured bitter criticism for his refusal to follow the interventionist line on Ukraine.
Some intellectuals still seek to uphold the union of social conservatism and interventionism. They are no doubt sincere, but their views are increasingly at odds with reality. Changes in domestic politics and geopolitics mean that the marriage was bound to break up.
One turning point came in 2015. With the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, gay marriage became the law of the land. Social-conservative views—already routed from the heights of the culture—now lost what little legal support they enjoyed. To be a member in good standing of the American ruling class henceforth meant supporting gay rights.
Around this time, members of the ruling class—including the foreign-policy establishment—became more absolute in their opposition to social conservatives, who were increasingly viewed as threats to “democracy.” Democracy, on this account, had less to do with rule of the majority than with the supremacy of liberal values, including gay rights.
Not surprisingly, social conservatives became alienated from the American establishment. Suspicion of the security state, which once found a home only on the antiwar left and the libertarian right, spread among abortion opponents and dissenters from LGBT orthodoxy. Social conservatives instinctively rally to the flag, faith, and family. But they began to wonder what flag, what faith, and what kind of family they were now fighting for.
Along with these domestic developments came important changes in the foreign scene. First in the Cold War and then in the War on Terror, America was seen by some as defending the principles of Christianity. Whittaker Chambers described the Cold War as “a struggle between the force of two irreconcilable faiths—Communism and Christianity.” Bernard Lewis, in his famous essay on “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” described the Jeffersonian separation of church and state as stemming from “Christian, not universal, principles,” and contrasted this tradition with that of Islam. Whether America really did stand for Christianity against “godless Communism” and “Islamic terrorism” remains open to question, but the identities of its opponents encouraged this view.
That is no longer the case. In 2013, just as America was moving to a full embrace of gay rights, Russia enacted a “gay-propaganda” law that restricted public discussion of homosexuality. Ever since, leading interventionists have rallied to the rainbow banner as the symbol of Western values. Last month, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Richard Moore, the head of British foreign intelligence, stated that “we should remember the values and hard-won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights.”
Socially conservative beliefs are increasingly associated with America’s rivals. In September, China’s National Radio and Television Administration instructed broadcasters not to depict niangpao, a term that roughly translates to “sissy men.” This followed an August announcement that children under 18 would no longer be able to play online games on weekdays and would be permitted only three hours of play every weekend. The Communist Party has reversed its infamous one-child policy and declared its intention to reduce “medically unnecessary” abortions.
Important as these ideological shifts are, an excessive focus on them risks obscuring underlying realities. When liberals, right and left, speak of Russia and China, they sometimes seem to suggest that America’s stance toward those countries should be determined by the character of their regimes. Such a view, characteristic of liberalism, shorts material national interests while exaggerating the importance of ideology.
This was well understood by Charles de Gaulle, who resisted characterizing the USSR as fundamentally an ideological enterprise; he saw it instead as a nation with certain legitimate strategic aims that might align with those of France. As one of his biographers observed, “where others saw the ‘Soviet Union’ de Gaulle saw ‘Russia,’ where others read the world through the lenses of ideology, de Gaulle read it through the lens of geography.” As early as 1919, de Gaulle had written, “Bolshevism will not last eternally in Russia. A day will come, it is inevitable, when order will be restored and Russia, reconstituting her forces, will start to look around her again.”
Now that America’s foreign-policy establishment has turned on social conservatives, social conservatives are well-positioned to become less ideological and more realistic about foreign policy. They can see the danger in calls to spread a dubious idea of liberty. They can understand why other countries reject the American ruling class’s orthodoxies. They can hope that their nation, no less than Russia, will one day cast off the ideology to which it has become captive.