Social Conservatism vs. Social Liberalism

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the difference between social conservatism and social liberalism. We will highlight the key differences between these views, and we will explore some the issues that have sparked a ''culture war.''

Differences of Opinion

Have you and a friend or family member ever had a disagreement over a social issue? Perhaps it was over a controversial issue, such as abortion, gay rights, religious or civil liberties, healthcare, or something else in which you both had strong but different opinions. Perhaps even after extensive discussion, and a sincere attempt to understand one another's view, fundamental differences of opinion remained. Why is it that two people can evaluate the same situation and facts, and arrive at drastically different views?

At the heart of these issues are two opposite political and philosophical ideologies. One is called social conservatism, the other is social liberalism. In this lesson, we will be exploring the differences between these ideologies. Let's dig in!

Social Conservatism

We'll start with social conservatism. Keep in mind these ideologies are complex and multi-faceted. They are not able to be adequately summed up by a simple definition. That said, we can start by thinking about the word ''conserve'', which means to save or protect. Social conservatism seeks to preserve society through tradition, or the maintaining of the ''status quo''.

Social conservatism is typically opposed to sudden, sweeping social change. They find security in the tradition and values of the past. People who adhere to social conservatism are called social conservatives. Social conservatives are typically aligned with the Republican Party, and opposed to the Democratic Party. In the U.S., Republican President Ronald Reagan has become an icon of modern social conservatism. Social conservatives emphasize family values, the importance of religion, free market capitalism, limited government, and a general individualism. Social conservatism lies on the right side of the political spectrum.

Republican President Ronald Reagan is an icon of social conservatism.
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So, this is still a somewhat ambiguous explanation of social conservatism. Let's understand this term better by exploring specific issues. As we mentioned, religion is typically a pillar of social conservatism. In the U.S., social conservatism is mostly underpinned by Evangelical Christianity. Social conservatives generally oppose abortion, believing it to be the murder of unborn babies. They are also opposed to gay marriage and other LGBTQ positions, believing that only heterosexual marriage is approved by God. Social conservatives often support the death penalty, believing it to be supported in the Bible and a deterrent to crime.

In the United States, social conservatives typically support gun-rights and emphasize the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees ''the right to bear arms''). Speaking of the Constitution, social conservatives typically take a strict interpretation of the Constitution. This means that the government is only entitled to the powers that are specifically expressed in the Constitution. Limited government is typically understood as another pillar of modern social conservatism. That said, in some areas, social conservatism strays from this principle. For example, social conservatives often support a robust military. Then again, this issue, is technically outside the realm of ''social'' conservatism, because it is a foreign policy issue, not a social issue.

Social conservatives typically oppose government regulation of business. They believe businesses (and the economy in general) perform best free from government intervention. They support a laissez-faire approach. This French word literally means ''hands off''. The idea is that the government should take a hands-off approach toward economics. For this reason, social conservatives oppose government-run or subsidized healthcare. They typically believe healthcare is not a right, but a service to be purchased. Social conservatives believe healthcare is best provided by private companies. In general, social conservatives favor privatization over government control. Social conservatives tend to favor low taxes.

Social Liberalism

At this point, it shouldn't be too difficult to understand social liberalism, because it is essentially the opposite of social conservatism. Social liberals typically seek to improve society through change and reform. The concept of ''progress'' is key within social liberalism, so much so that many social liberals refer to themselves as ''progressives''. Inequality is a condition that social liberals often seek to remedy: this could be racial inequality, economic inequality, or it could take other forms.

Social liberalism in the United States is best expressed within the Democratic Party. Opposed to the Republican Party, social liberals fall along the left side of the political spectrum. Social liberalism, as a political ideology, is inclined to emphasize the role of government. Government is typically seen as a tool that can (and should) be used to bring about progress (there is that word again!) and make society better. Social liberalism itself is wide-ranging and can include everything from socialists to traditional Democrats.

Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced social liberalism in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s.
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