Here's the situation: Social conservatism is on the defensive. The Republican Party, wracked with doubt, is bewildered and afraid. The only hope for the GOP's survival is to cast out its zealots, appease young voters on social issues and abandon the culture war. Then, perhaps, Republicans might have a chance of reclaiming a political majority. Perhaps.
That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. The conventional wisdom lies.
To abandon principle in the face of what looks for the moment like an inexorable shift in public opinion is the path to oblivion. If all the Republicans have to talk about henceforth is entitlement reform and tax cuts, pack it in. It's over.
Of course, popular opinion is shifting. Popular opinion always shifts. It may well be the case, say, that gay marriage will become the norm in the next few years. There will be brutal fights in state legislatures and in the courts over the scope and reach of our brave new marriage laws. First Amendment jurisprudence certainly will change. But nobody can possibly know how those battles will play out.
The U.S. Supreme Court might settle the issue once and for all in the next few months. Most court observers think that's unlikely. But it's possible that five judges could undo California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act and lay the question to rest much as the high court had the very last word on abortion 40 years ago.
Except that didn't happen, did it? The court in Roe v. Wade and in a series of successive cases tried mightily to remove abortion from the realm of politics. But public opinion remained stubbornly divided, and instead of driving those pesky pro-life conservatives to the margins of the American mainstream, the controversy remained front and center.
Today, while many Americans today call themselves "pro-choice," very few believe in unfettered abortion on demand. Pro-lifers kept asking inconvenient questions that abortion's staunchest allies simply could not ignore. For example, if you say life doesn't begin at conception, then when does it begin? And if you insist that abortion isn't infanticide, then why not extend the law's protection to babies who survive abortions?
Public opinion shifted again. Congress in 2002 passed the Born Alive Protection Act by unanimous consent. Several states passed similar laws soon thereafter. Only a fringe few a fringe that just happens to include the sitting president of the United States argued that protecting children who survive abortions puts an impermissible burden on women's rights.
Today we might ask abortion's defenders: If that's true, how do you explain Kermit Gosnell?
Gosnell is on trial this month in Philadelphia. He's charged with nearly 350 crimes, including murder, infanticide, conspiracy, sundry drug and informed-consent violations, as well as five counts of "abuse of corpse" all carried out for years in the name of women's "reproductive health."
A grand jury report that led to the indictments last year of Gosnell and eight of his employees described his Women's Medical Society as a "charnel house." Witnesses at his trial have described a gory scene of bloodstained walls and urine-soaked floors. He beheaded babies with scissors and kept their severed feet in jars.
Gosnell's case surely qualifies as national news, yet readers might be only dimly aware of it. The Bee, for example, carried a 150-word Associated Press brief on Page A4 of the March 18 edition, as the trial was about to get under way. That item described Gosnell as a "pioneering physician." Two stories have appeared since on the website, both detailing the macabre testimony in the case.
Why such scant coverage here and elsewhere before now? Perhaps because Gosnell isn't merely a monster he's an embarrassment. This "pioneering physician," whose practice catered largely to low-income and minority women, puts a savage face on the "right to choose."
Even people who describe themselves as pro-choice cannot justify Gosnell's alleged crimes. All they can do is make lame excuses. One writer covering the trial for Philadelphia Magazine's "The Philly Post" made a valiant effort the other day. "The moral to be drawn from the Gosnell trial is not that current abortion laws are screwed up," wrote Simon van Zuylen-Wood. "Indeed, Gosnell broke them, which is why he's on trial."
Abortion laws most certainly are "screwed up." But how quickly Zuylen-Wood and his ilk forget the pitched battles over the partial-birth abortion ban that Gosnell so flagrantly transgressed. Remember, when Obama was an Illinois state senator, he twice voted against that state's born-alive law on the grounds that it would violate Roe v. Wade. Had Obama's view prevailed in Pennsylvania, odds are Gosnell wouldn't be on trial for his life today.
We're in a harrowing moment. Republicans may find it expedient to jettison social conservatives. If so, they would no longer be the party that stood against slavery and polygamy as "the twin relics of barbarism." Somebody always has to fight the barbarians. That's why our culture war will never end.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at email@example.com.