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Can Science Vanquish the Small-Mindedness and Bigotry of Social Conservatism?

Social conservatives are fighting a losing battle — not against a global secular humanist conspiracy, but against the pill, the car, and the Internet.
 
 
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Growing public support for gay rights, including gay marriage, is the latest example of the moral liberalism that has transformed advanced industrial societies in the last few generations. The social traditionalists who claimed to be a “moral majority” in the United States in the 1980s are acting like an embattled, declining minority in the second decade of the 21st century. A few years ago the conservative activist Paul Weyrich declared that the right had lost “the culture war” and called on social conservatives to withdraw from mainstream society into their own traditionalist enclaves.

Many paranoid social conservatives blame the triumph of moral liberalism on a conspiracy of sinister secular humanists, using the media and the public schools to indoctrinate their children and grandchildren in a godless morality. But the truth is that social conservatism has been undermined by technological progress, which has increased the opportunities for freedom in matters of sex and censorship while raising the costs of enforcing traditional norms.

The pill did more to undermine traditional sexual morality than an imaginary secular humanist conspiracy could have done. Advances in contraception, far more than liberalization of abortion laws, not only reduced the costs of premarital sex but allowed married couples greater opportunities to plan their fertility. One result has been below-replacement fertility for most natives of advanced industrial societies, as a result of choice rather than coercion. Given the opportunity, most Americans, like most people in other advanced industrial nations, prefer fewer or no children to the large families of yesteryear. Participation in the modern workforce by the majority of mothers as well as unmarried women would have been impossible, if not for the pill.

By turning parenthood into a choice, rather than the nearly inevitable result of sex within marriage, the pill turned marriage into a relationship between two adults, with or without children, rather than a child-centered institution. This redefinition of marriage, along with social acceptance of growing numbers of heterosexuals who never marry or cohabit without marriage, inevitably undermined opposition to toleration or approval of gay and lesbian unions. Once most Americans stopped listening to priests, preachers and rabbis who seek to prescribe what married couples do in bed, it was only a matter of time before they stopped paying attention to clerical rules about what anyone does in bed.

In addition to the pill, the automobile is another technology associated with sexual liberation. In the premodern village or urban tenement neighborhood or sex-segregated campus, people were under the constant surveillance of family and neighbors. After World War II, access by young people to cars gave rise to institutions like road trips, “parking” in farmers’ fields and the one-hour hotel stay. And automobile-based suburbanization has enabled moral liberalism by creating communities in which people know few if any of their neighbors. Few progressives who long for a return of pedestrian villages want a revival of village surveillance and moral conformity.

If contraceptive technology has already let the horse of moral liberalism out of the barn of traditionalism, communications technology has burned down the barn. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, Protestant and Catholic pressure groups were able to impose wide-ranging censorship on American television and radio and schools and public libraries. The church lady who insisted on the removal of “dirty books” from the library and organized boycotts of television shows and movies was a powerful figure in American life. Now pornography and graphic scenes of violence can be downloaded on a PC or a phone. Censorship was easy when there were choke points like TV and radio networks and the U.S. Postal Service. But technology has radically altered the cost-benefit calculation. Re-creating something like the older regime of media censorship would require not only North Korean or Iranian-style repression but also a vice squad with a bigger budget than the Pentagon.

 
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