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Secret Sins

Andrew Sullivan flirts with, but does not endorse what someone (I think it was Jacob Levy) once described as the "secret sin" theory of politics. People become social conservatives because they worry that without the long arm of the state holding them back, they would instantly turn into degenerates. Or, at least, "red America" is disproportionately interested in state enforcement of traditional sexual norms because these are actually the areas most plagued with sex-related social pathologies. It's an idea that can be turned around. According to the "secret sin" theory, people become liberals because they worry that without the long arm of the state reaching into their pockets, they would instantly turn into selfish bastards who never lift a finger (or spare a dime) for the poor. And, indeed, it's true that the red states are more charitable than the blue ones.

But of course this could work the other way. Red states may be more charitable simply because they have less generous state benefits (more demand for charity) and people take home a higher proportion of their pre-tax income (more supply, relative to income). I don't really know how you could answer that question one way or another.

I think there's a good case to be made against the "secret sin" theory of social conservatism. In a lot of ways, the practices of social conservatives seem to be clearly counterproductive in terms of achieving goals like low rates of divorce, abortion, and out of wedlock birth. Contraceptives don't work perfectly, but they do work pretty damn well, so if you encourage everyone to use contraceptives that would need to produce an awful lot more unmarried sex to result in surplus unmarried pregnancies vis-à-vis red America's strength-through-ignorance policies. So relatively liberal policies could reduce the number of abortions, while the availability of legal abortions reduces the number of out-of-wedlock births. High divorce rates, in turn, are almost certainly related to the practice of getting married young, which, in turn, is related to the practice of trying to tell physically (if perhaps not emotionally) mature people that they can't have sex until they get married.

December 5, 2004 | Permalink


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Ideology trumps all. It doesn't matter if condoms work or not, because their very use is morally wrong.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 5, 2004 1:11:36 PM

My theory is the crime and punishment theory. Liberals want crime to go away and have all this wonkish scheme to make it happen. To conservatives, crime and evil are constant facts of life, and the satisfaction of seeing them punished is the motivator.

Durkheim, in fact, did argue that in order for the borders of acceptable behavior to be known, you need to display criminals being punished.

Conservatives also seem to enjoy dramas of all kinds where there are winners and losers -- economic competition, sports, war, crime and punishment, the Darwinian struggle for life, etc. Liberals don't want there to be losers, and conservatives need losers.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 5, 2004 1:40:00 PM

Read somewhere recently that most of the "reddest" states (Utah excepted) also had the highest divorce rates and the highest abortion rates. And interestingly, that the lowest divorce rate is in Massachusetts, whch is indelibily "blue," and is the only state wherein their Supreme Court have defacto approved gay marriage.

There seems to be a correlation between states voting for so-called "family values" and a longing for more "values" in their own neighborhood.

Perhaps the "secret sin" theory in action?

Posted by: Debi | Dec 5, 2004 2:03:05 PM

Are you sure that the Red states are actually more generous? I am personally only familiar with one study that came up with that result. But the survey allowed the individuals to decide whether they were gave a lot or a little or in between. No questions were asked about income or actual dollar value of donations. Nor were they asked to define "a lot" or "a little" by percentages. Perhaps there are more rigourous studies out there but this one is just meaningless.

Posted by: Sasha Goldberg | Dec 5, 2004 2:05:55 PM

"In a lot of ways, the practices of social conservatives seem to be clearly counterproductive in terms of achieving goals like low rates of divorce, abortion, and out of wedlock birth."

Could we put that a little differently? As in, "clearly counterproductive in the opinion of people who disagree conservatives"? It's hardly to be expected that liberals would find conservative policy recomendations "clearly" productive, any more than conservatives are struck by the obvious wisdom of liberal policies.

Let's take this for instance; "High divorce rates, in turn, are almost certainly related to the practice of getting married young...".

Here's a good summary of conservative views on the subject:


They're not exactly encouraging teen aged boys to club teenaged girls, and drag them to the altar.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 5, 2004 2:12:23 PM

"Could we put that a little differently? As in, "clearly counterproductive in the opinion of people who disagree [with] conservatives"?...Bellmore

"Alaska's lone congressman, Republican Rep. Don Young, went so far as dismissing the major new report on Arctic climate change. He called it ammunition for fearmongers.

...."I don't believe it is our fault. That's an opinion," Young said. "It's as sound as any scientist's."" ....via Kevin Drum

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 5, 2004 2:19:47 PM

I like the "strength-through-ignorance" line. Some people do seem to glean strength from not refuting facts but denying they exist.

Posted by: Laura | Dec 5, 2004 2:28:28 PM


"Could we put that a little differently? As in, "clearly counterproductive in the opinion of people who disagree conservatives"? It's hardly to be expected that liberals would find conservative policy recomendations "clearly" productive, any more than conservatives are struck by the obvious wisdom of liberal policies."

The point, which MY should have put more forcefully without the diffident qualifiers, is that the "socially conservative" states have significantly higher rates of divorce, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births than do the "socially liberal" ones. That's the sense of "counterproductive" here, and it is based on data, not opinion.

Posted by: orin | Dec 5, 2004 2:33:11 PM

Your latter point reflects something that I've felt for some time, that the leadership of the anti-abortion movement is against sex (especially sexual freedom for females) more than it is against abortion. If one really wants to limit abortion, one would promote contraceptive use. The abortion rate has actually gone up under Bush (an issue the Dems should have raised over and over again during the election, but didn't), presumably because his policies have limited access to both contraceptives and contraceptive information. The fact that the pro-life leadership also advocates against contraceptive information being made available shows what their true agenda is. (I say "leadership" because I think many of the foot soldiers in the movement are sincere in their opposition to abortion specifically.) I think the leaders see sexual freedom for females as destabilizing for traditional society (which it is), and so they want females to be afraid of pregnancy, and thus to limit their sexual behavior.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Dec 5, 2004 2:40:07 PM

[red states "are more generous to charities"]

I keep hearing this, and our local UCC church here in
MA keeps bemoaning the fact that MA is 49th in per
capita giving to charity. We are probably also very low
in church membership, and I'm wondering if this is a
sufficient explanation for the "giving gap". How much of
the typical red-stater's charitable contributions are to their
own church?

Not that there's anything wrong with the tax deduction for
giving to your own church. Though you receive services
from it, those services are offered to payers and nonpayers
alike, so it's as legitimately charitable as is public radio. But
it would be interesting to break down the giving, if possible,
into "giving to one's own" and "giving to others"...

MA might do better on such a basis. Or not...

Posted by: Dave MB | Dec 5, 2004 3:08:06 PM

Rebecca- If you notice, ALL conservative evangelical "non-negotiable hot topics and issues" relate to someone else's sexual sin, and conservative's desire to stop that other person from "sinning." Abortion, gay marriage, sex outside of marriage (i.e. chastity...abstinence). It's good old American Puritanism rearing its head under a new name. This has zero to do with respect for life (i.e. sanctity of life). I have written about this several times at my blog. I am a Democratic-voting, liberal evangelical, and attend an evangelical church. I know some of these people.

Posted by: Debi | Dec 5, 2004 3:12:37 PM

I'm not sure where people are getting the idea that abortion rates are higher in red states. According to this page the opposite is true.


The highest rates are for DC (by far), NY, and California. The lowest is ultra-red Utah, and most of the other lowest states are red too. The relationship is quite clear just by eyeballing the numbers.

Posted by: ed | Dec 5, 2004 3:23:48 PM

oops, I was looking at the column for abortions for teenagers, rather than all women. For all women the highest rates are in DC (again by far), NY, and Nevada. Overall the blue states are still much higher than the red.

Posted by: ed | Dec 5, 2004 3:29:33 PM

This idea always made a lot of sense to me. Starr's inquisition for example was politically explicable but psychologically inexplicable without assuming that something like this was going on. And I don't think the outrage of the right was entirely feigned -- ridiculous, yes, but not feigned.

So I think Matt confuses empirical efficacy with psychological efficacy in his counter argument. Hence the practices of social conservatives don't have to actually work to have psychological power. In fact it's better if they don't, because of repetition compulsion, the need to keep acting it out to "try to get it right." The story of sin, fall, punishment, redemption is very powerful in some psychologies (and some religions as well), and it needs to be enacted over and over again.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Dec 5, 2004 4:26:23 PM

Oh yes, I am definitely convinced by statistics that are 6 years old.

Posted by: fortasse | Dec 5, 2004 4:40:57 PM

Combined, the post and the comments are a nice corrective to *both* the original "red states have moral values" meme and the countermeme that "red states are hypocrites because blue states have less divorce, less illegitimacy." In fact, its more complex than either would have it. Divorce is more common in red states at least partly because people marry younger and at a higher rate of the general pop. Illegitimacy is more common at least in part because abortions are much less so. (Mississippi has an abortion rate half that of Massachusetts, and an illegitimacy rate 20 points higher).

Posted by: rd | Dec 5, 2004 4:47:37 PM

DaveMB, that was my thinking about the charity numbers, as well. New England is among the least religious parts of the country.

I don't feel like it's a moral failing if we ar less likely as individuals to give big chunks of money to our own churches to buy new stereo systems, build an addition, send missionaries to Venezuela to spread our version of "the good news," etc. To me, those church donations are the equivalent of dues to a private club.

If someone could show that people in Mississippi (highest rate of charitable giving, I think) are cutting equally large checks to the American Cancer Society, the Red Cross, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and other charitable societies that actually improve people's lives while on Earth and help people that the giver doesn't know, that would carry more weight. I'm unapologetic about it.

Posted by: Brittain33 | Dec 5, 2004 4:52:11 PM

Here a link to what's probably a more accurate abortion rate breakdown based on CDC figures, though its missing California and a few other states. Though the divergence is less sharp than in the study linked to by ed above, the red state/blue state divide is still pretty visible.


Posted by: rd | Dec 5, 2004 5:10:26 PM

And Rebecca is correct, being anti-abortion is about sex, not life. Debi, too.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Dec 5, 2004 5:33:58 PM

I think that Matt's boss Garence Frank-Ruta had the best take on this: areas of high divorce rates are NATURALLY going to be more concerned about preserving marriage. Saying that this is hypocrisy is like saying "Those Ethiopians put food at a higher ranking, in priority, than any other people in the world, yet when you look at how much they eat, their caloric intake ranks near the bottom. Those Ethiopians are such hypocrites!"

Posted by: Julian Elson | Dec 5, 2004 5:49:34 PM


this has been the core of this person's rant...

Posted by: dfg | Dec 5, 2004 6:56:15 PM

Frank-Ruta's explanation, as conveyed by Julian, lacks parsimony. The whole defense of marriage thing is correlated with lots of other sexual / emotional -- well, let's call them what they are -- pathologies, including homophobia, anti-abortion sentiment particularly and anti-feminism generally, antipathy to sex education and/or contraception. I don't think it makes sense to seek separate explanations for all of these, they fit a pattern.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Dec 5, 2004 8:01:55 PM

Funny; I thought being pro-abortion was all about sex; Sex, and not having to deal with it's natural consequences, anyway.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 5, 2004 8:39:24 PM

"being pro-abortion was all about sex; Sex, and not having to deal with it's natural consequences"

Mr. Bellmore does an admirable job of explaining the right's position. It's all about opposing anything that mitgates adverse consequences of sex. Women who have sex must be punished by being forced to bear children.

Posted by: rea | Dec 5, 2004 9:14:16 PM

You're right, Larry: the problems of womens' subjugation, homophobia, anti-contraception, etc, are all deeply related to each other and to things like high divorce and pregnancy rates. I'm not claiming they aren't. I'm just claiming that there's nothing hypocritical about worrying about the state of marriage while there's a lot of divorce going on around you, quite probably involving you. On the contrary, it's what you'd expect. You're talking about the causes of stresses on family relationships -- misogyny, sex-as-reproduction-only, etc -- and I'm talking about the effects -- concern about the state of the family.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Dec 5, 2004 9:46:10 PM

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