You know we couldn't say this, they'd hang me, but one of the things wrong about Social Security is we broke up the three-generation family ... we went too far, and we allowed older people to live on their own...." So said Ronald Reagan once during a White House meeting that Peggy Noonan describes in her book What I Saw at the Revolution.
Most social conservatives aren't ready to accept the Gipper's line of reasoning. When they talk about "culture wars," they have in mind only fights over divorce, premarital sex, and nihilism. While they will say that they're against big government, they flinch at the difficult, unpopular task of cutting specific federal programs. It's better to spend precious political capital in other areas, they reason.
But some conservatives argue that their brethren on the right have it all wrong. They believe that the size of the federal government isn't just a matter of economics, but that big, popular federal programs undermine the family. In their view, fights over federal spending are fights over divorce, premarital sex, and nihilism. "Cultural conservatism is like happiness," argues conservative writer David Frum in his book Dead Right. "You can win it only indirectly, as the by-product of something else." That something else, they believe, is small, limited government.
Here's the essence of their argument: Before Uncle Sam erected the enormous middle-class welfare state, a man tempted to leave his wife and children faced a harrowing array of questions: Who will take care of him if he cannot work in old age? Who will take care of his children when the time comes that his wife has to find work outside the home? Will he be able to find or keep a job once he has been ostracized for deserting his family?
Today, with Social Security, Medicare, student aid, federal day care, and all of the other welfare programs for the middle class, those questions aren't nearly so daunting. Federal programs will take care of him in old age and his children when mom is at work. And facing ostracism isn't likely, since society today is more apt to ostracize a man for not recycling than for moving out on his wife and children. Extended families and communities used to have to deal with the direct costs that premarital sex and divorce cause, so they developed powerful social stigmas against both practices. But now that Big Daddy Fed picks up the tab, those stigmas have faded.
Love and affection may keep some families together, these conservatives acknowledge, but they aren't enough to make a lot of people put in the hard work necessary to build a successful marriage. Take away the economic functions of the family, and many people will take a pass. The result: Many families do break up; many children are raised without fathers at home; and the social pathologies once thought to be exclusive to the underclass are making their way into the suburbs.
This argument should be persuasive to Christians. After all, the Bible offers no sentimental illusions about human nature. In humanity's natural, fallen state, people selfishly will look for ways to get around God's law. That's a given. Big federal programs make that search far too easy. Just as welfare for the poor helped break up poor families (a widely accepted argument today), the vastly larger middle-class welfare state undermines middle-class families.
This is not to say that cultural conservatives should stop doing the things they're doing. Even the most ardent atheist has a conscience, so appeals to conscience are important. And since constant exposure to sin can weaken consciences, Christian involvement in the arts-in creating an excellent and wholesome culture-is also important. But a crucial third element of cultural renewal is to create an environment in which it's in the interest of sinners to do the right thing. Big government pollutes and even destroys that environment.
It's not encouraging that Ronald Reagan, the most conservative American president since Calvin Coolidge, wasn't willing to tackle middle-class welfare-even though he understood its anti-family nature. He knew what congressional Republicans bitterly learned when they tried to slow the growth of federal spending in 1995: Voters are covetous. They want the government to give them other people's money, and they will not long abide politicians who show insufficient enthusiasm for that cause.
Perhaps for the near term it's politically impossible to cut federal spending. But if so, then the outlook for cultural renewal is bleak. Outside a genuine, widespread Christian revival (in which the Holy Spirit would start changing people's inner motivations) it will also be impossible to bring back traditional family values.