Moral issues have defined social conservatism and the core of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan. Broadly speaking, these issues have to do with relationships between men and women and the beginning and end of life, which in turn are taken as determining our society's collective respect for human life and its unique dignity.
Bioethics -- questions about morality and our nature as biological creatures -- is the ground on which the future of the Republican Party will be decided: Abortion, assisted death and a package of worries about the future of biology, like stem cell research.
How does a revamped American conservative party reckon with these challenges to its moral values? That is the central problem facing Republican Party leaders.
Since the election, uncompromising adherence to conservative moral principles has been forcefully, repeatedly and sometimes passionately stated by elite conservative policy intellectuals and former officeholders like Mike Huckabee. In the wake of near panic among some at the apparent deterioration of the GOP's position with certain demographic groups, especially younger voters, they have tried to head off any temptation in the party establishment to engage in trimming these moral sails for the sake of votes.
But others have stated clearly that the party needs to adjust to a changing electorate. Calling sexually active women sluts, denying abortion funding in cases of rape and incest, or suggesting that college-age women voted for Obama because they want free birth control (as Mitt Romney did just a couple of days ago), are something less than appealing messages for the millennial generation. While admirable in many ways, the preoccupation with a certain notion of human dignity has helped created a hothouse environment that encourages thoughtless statements by both politicians and talk radio pundits. The paradoxical result is less, rather than more, respect for human dignity, especially that of women, who are reduced to their reproductive capacity. Voters seem to have found these excesses unappealing.
So have officeholders with higher aspirations, like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Meeting in Las Vegas this week, the Republican governors found themselves in the city where fantasy routinely displaces reality, at least temporarily. Protesting that they didn't have enough time to implement their states' Obamacare's health insurance exchanges -- a direct result of their dithering while hoping that they wouldn't have to deal with Barack Obama for another four years -- the Republican governors asked for an extension. (When my students ask for an extension so they can write another professor's paper instead, I can't help but wonder why I should endorse their preference!)
In Las Vegas, the deeper issues dividing the ideological conservatives from the GOP establishment went unmentioned. Instead, smaller government, immigration reform and tax policy dominated the discussion. That's because governors are people who actually have to govern. But as the party undergoes its self-examination over the next few months, its approach to the bioethics of human dignity will be the canary in the coal mine.
To satisfy both the moderates and the radicals, GOP leaders will try to maintain core social conservative moral principles while avoiding hard-core theoconservative candidates like Todd Akin. This effort will need to be fine-tuned to avoid offending core constituencies of the modern Republican Party, like conservative evangelical Christians. Once the immigration issue is set aside, some party strategists see long-term opportunity in Hispanic voters, many of whom could be attracted to a party that espouses traditional values. Much the same could be said of Asian-Americans who belong to conservative Christian congregations.
The history of conservative response to gay marriage provides a clue to a possible way forward. In the 1990s, the whole notion was virtually unthinkable. After all, the pill and in vitro fertilization had already separated sex and reproduction. At least, it seemed, social institutions like marriage could be protected from the utter demolition of any facsimile of traditional courtship. Hence the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
But then some conservative elites have chosen instead to emphasize family as the core value, rather than the definition of marriage as a male-female union. Several states' challenges to the DOMA are now pending before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, it appears that the GOP has largely decided it prefers to put the issue behind it. Candidate Romney exhibited little enthusiasm in his defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.
At one time, gay marriage embodied the conflict for a party that has become deeply identified with a certain understanding of traditional values while at the same time wanting to be a national party in an urbanizing, diversifying county. Instead, the party has found a still more basic principle to defend, that of family itself. That approach might work again and hold the Republicans' moral coalition together.
Yet the pressures on the traditional values message will continue as long as science pushes forward and forces our ethics to adapt. Stem cell research, genetics, neuroscience, nanotechnology and synthetic biology are only a few of the fields that will help create 21st century wealth and shape the society of the next century. These will be among the sources of the entrepreneurial economy that the Republic Party touts as its goal for the country. "Brave New World" anxieties are not enough to shape policy. As a few Republican opinion leaders have noted, the Grand Old Party needs to adapt to the brand new science.