As I was reading the comments (I know, never do that) of my recent article in The American Conservative, It’s Not Your Father’s GOP, several commenters opined that a socially conservative political movement will never play with the Millennial and Gen Z crowd. In essence, their argument was that young people are, and always will be, far more socially liberal than their parents, and nothing conservatives say or do can change this reality. In other words, the arc of humanity is socially progressive—abortion, marriage, and religion are out of the cards if conservatives wish to galvanize the young.
I think that this cynicism towards reaching the younger generations is probably a widely shared viewpoint among progressives and conservatives alike and is thus worth addressing from a decidedly Catholic perspective. Despite the wave of relativism that has left millions of young people with increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and factually wrong views about history (and not just this country’s), I don’t think we are helplessly destined to accept the empty promises of modernity. I think that young people, just like everyone else, crave meaning—Truth—amidst the chaos of life. Truth that only traditional Catholicism can deliver. If we wish to reclaim the culture, we can never waver on the Truth.
I was not always a social conservative. I became one only after my own search for capital “T” Truth led me home to the Catholic Church.
I spent the bulk of my undergraduate years as a proud Democrat, only claiming my cultural Catholic upbringing when it aligned with my political views (much like the most recent Democratic presidential candidate); “Oh no, I’m not that kind of Catholic,” I would tell people, “I’m much more open-minded.” As an enlightened social progressive, I frequently made fun of “bigoted and narrow-minded” conservatives and Christians on a regular basis. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could be so stupid. Do these people not see all the progress we humans have made? I was confident to the brim that I held the most reasonable and the most “tolerant” positions imaginable—my own claims to Truth.
My shift from social liberalism to social conservatism was gradual. First, I took a few economics classes, and I accepted many conservative economic claims as true. But I still rejected any and all attempts to legislate in the social realm. So I became a “bleeding heart libertarian.” I’m not kidding, I tagged a sticker with this very phrase on my laptop. I believed in free markets and free love (not to mention foreign isolationism and other good libertarian points). What I ultimately came to realize, aside from the fact that I would never see a libertarian elected to major public office, was that economic, and even political, theories are not ideological frameworks for the good life. While these theories and their underlying principles can help foster human flourishing, they are not in themselves sufficient roadmaps for individual improvement. So began my real search for meaning.
After I had run the gamut of pop psychology and self-help books, I met an on-fire and sharply intelligent Southern Baptist missionary and started reading C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and other Christian apologists. It was not long after that that I accepted the Truth claims of Christianity, although I was still on the rocks with the core teachings on human sexuality and other social issues like abortion. At the time, I thought I could separate my desire to grow in my fledgling faith from my disdain for these “regressive” social teachings that many conservative Christians propagated.
It wasn’t until after I returned to the Catholic Church and encountered the richness of the Catechism and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that I began to understand and, ultimately, accept the wisdom and genius of traditionalism, firmly rooted in the natural law and a deep understanding of the complexities of the human person. I also realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong about what social conservatives believed. Their cries against sexual liberation were not acts of repression but acts of love. When they defended traditional marriage or lamented the culture of death, they were not defending their own identities or lamenting the expansion of freedoms; rather, they were courageously sticking up for Truth itself. I’m eternally grateful that they did, because Truth, not some skewed version it, is what I ultimately craved. And it is what I believe traditionalism alone can deliver.
I share my own experience not as a basis for empirical argument of social conservatism’s current popularity among Millennials and Gen Z. (I don’t think my original article made that claim, either, or at least that wasn’t my intent.) Instead, I hope my own experience shows that Truth in itself is ultimately the greatest attracter; it need not be watered down or made more palatable. I decry the notion that conservatives should attempt to skimp on the Truth for the sake of winning voters. Once one accepts, as orthodox Catholics have, that there are objective truths in the world and that we cannot simply conjure up our own moral and cultural reality, the implication is clear: it’s impossible to be lukewarm on cultural and social issues. What is True must be defended, for lies are the greatest destroyer of free and virtuous societies. This desire to preserve and protect what is true and good is, and always should be, at the heart of traditional Catholicism.
My experience getting to know many fellow young conservatives in recent years further assures me of the need to defend Truth without compromise. Many of these people, like myself, became members of traditional Christian denominations, and certainly this is a major part of their transition from embracing social liberalism to a steadfast belief in traditionalism. Contrary to what might be expected, however, many young conservatives are not overtly religious themselves but nonetheless have deep understandings of history, the human condition, and the need for strong families and a virtuous citizenry. Many of them came to social conservatism because of Jordan Peterson and other non-religious conservative thinkers who have presented unadulterated Truth without the “agenda” of religion that many Truth-seekers might find unattractive at first. For whatever reason they come, they come because of Truth. Not because someone has made Truth more palatable for them. Not because someone has tried to assuage their anxieties with half-truths and pseudo-psychology.
The young people of today are no different at their core than the young people of the past; they are seeking meaning in a chaotic and sinful world. It is their parents’ failure to form them in moral and historical realities that separates them from prior generations. It is this failure that has led them to find meaning outside of traditional faith settings. Whether meaning is found in secular social activist movements or within the confines of a church, it will be found. Our human condition demands it.
Unlike the commenters who prompted this response, I believe that the way to reach young people is by speaking (and defending) Truth with clarity and with conviction—not to water down the good, the true, and the beautiful as many current secular sociopolitical movements artfully, albeit connivingly, do. Young people are not, I contend, helplessly doomed to reject Truth, even those who currently cling to social liberalism’s ever-increasing attack on objective reality as I once did. In the end, only a return to our traditionalist roots can deliver the Truth we all crave.
Ben Hachten is a lawyer in Louisville, KY and the President of the Louisville Catholic Bar Association. He is passionate about evangelization and leading people home to the Catholic Church.