The Problem With Perfectionist Conservatism, Part I of II

Kayla Sue wrote a post a couple months ago talking about “a disturbing movement within the [pro-life] movement that is strongly anti-contraception.”  What she doesn’t get into is how much deeper it goes and why it exists in the first place – there’s a lot going on in the background and below the surface that most visibly manifests this way, and I think it’s worth taking the time to understand where it’s all coming from.

My background, in a nutshell – I was raised a conservative Catholic, I’m still Catholic, and I had a few very messy years in early adulthood.  So I’m fairly familiar with conservative thought and Catholic apologetics, but I’ve had the experience of challenging a lot of my assumptions, sifting through to see what’s bullshit and what holds up.  I’ve worked on seeing what works for me, what works for other people, what doesn’t seem to work for anyone, and occasionally what seems to work for most people.

Now, once you’ve established what’s true and good and beautiful at an individual level, you still have to decide what works for public policy.  And while you have to keep in mind that the way you see the world is not the only way to see the world, I agree with Archbishop Chaput that “A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square – respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies.”  Unfortunately, this means that for many issues there is realistically no such thing as “live and let live.”

Meet the Perfectionist Conservative

When I say “perfectionist conservative” I am referring to the conservative that is shooting for the moon, social policy-wise.  They want no same-sex marriage, no divorce, no birth control, no abortions, no sex outside of marriage, no single parents and NOTHING LESS IS ACCEPTABLE.  They are unable to prioritize; they want it all at once.  In no way does this represent all conservatives, but as Kayla Sue noted, there’s a bunch out there.  So let me take you inside the mind of a perfectionist conservative, beginning with some baseline concepts:

Human nature – Human nature is corrupt.  Without external constraints, humans will descend into ugliness.  But we need people to behave to minimize the negative impact on innocents such as children.  To get people to behave, we need to make the consequences of bad behavior unpleasant so people will not do those things.  We also need to make unfortunate circumstances unpleasant so people will be sufficiently motivated to do something about it.  Everything is seen through this punitive lens.

Feeding into this, I think, is the way many perfectionist conservatives were raised as children.  Many will wax poetic about how their parents were successful at controlling their behavior with the constant threat of a spanking.  For their own good, of course.  So all they can conceive of for social policy is an environment of punitive control that should be put into place for everyone else’s good, too.

Theology of the Body – Shorthand for the grand unified theory of how our bodies relate to our souls, and based on that, how we should treat our bodies.  Based on a series of talks by St. JPII.  Note: It’s actually on my reading / blogging list because I keep getting referred back to this body of work in my struggles to understand and accept Catholic teaching on sex and birth control.  Widely assumed that if everyone everywhere followed the guidance of Theology of the Body, various social issues would go away.  Specifics include:

  • Sex – An acceptable activity only for married couples so that children have a safe place and stable household to grow up in. Leads to a lot of smug attitude from married conservatives, with an undercurrent of “nah nah ni boo boo” whenever they talk about how people shouldn’t be having sex if they’re not married.  Also leads to a lot of hostility in abstinent single men who are being eaten alive with jealousy that other people are having more fun than they are.  Anyone who has sex outside of marriage is a slave to lust and is party to an inherently abusive relationship, both with their own bodies and with the other person.  Even if you have sex with your fiancée a half-hour before your wedding.  Purity culture addendum: Men have sex because they “need” it; women have sex because they are trying to trick men into loving them.  So women need to deny men the satisfaction of their “need” in order to wrest a commitment (i.e. marriage) out of them in order to satisfy their own need for love.  It’s just the way men and women are; no use denying biology.
  • Birth control – Enables people to have sex outside of marriage without the “consequences” of children. Also enables married couples to continue to selfishly use each other for lustful purposes without the consequences of children.  Note: All that being said, I have to think that the long-term effects of all of us dumping hormones into our bodies en masse cannot be benign.  It would be nice if we collectively could maybe not assume that turning our bloodstreams into artificially-created hormone rivers is necessary and normal.  It would also be nice if young women could go to the doctor for things unrelated to reproduction without being pressured into taking a prescription for birth control pills.

Marriage – the basis for the family, the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong marriage … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.  And we need to make it difficult / impossible to divorce, because people only divorce for selfish reasons.  Also, if people do “need” a divorce because of abuse, they need to prove it in court.  Because abusers always leave a neat trail of evidence, and if they don’t then it’s not really abuse anyway.  Also, abuse victims should be able to clearly and logically piece together their stories in a sequential fashion, because trauma isn’t a thing.  If they can’t tell a clear, logical, sequential story in which they reacted to every stimulus like a “reasonable person,” it’s not because of the way trauma messes with your brain; it just means they are lying.  Marriage is also a ticket out of poverty, and we will prove it by trotting out statistics of how middle class and rich people behave and make the logical leap that poor people can become like middle class and rich people by behaving like them, but only in ways that we care about, such as marriage.  Note: No word on whether you can magically lift yourself out of poverty by buying a yacht and a vacation home in the Hamptons.

Family – the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong families … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a nuclear family.

Self-denial – Life is not about what you want and it is childish to use “but I want it” as an argument for anything.  We need to be better than the animals and master self-denial and self-control.  Note: A fair point, but too often used as a crutch.  By itself carries no weight, even though it is often treated like it does.

Right to life – the foundation for every other human right.  Liberty, bodily autonomy, equal protection under the law – none of those have any meaning without the right to life as an inviolable foundation.  Touches a lot of specific issues, but for today we are only roping in:

  • Abortion – This is the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.

Why the inability to prioritize?

You will notice that at the end of a very long section detailing the perfectionist conservative’s opinions on all the things that are wrong with society, there is one small sentence on abortion – the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.  But that’s not good enough for the perfectionist conservative – they want it all.  At once.  Right now.

I mentioned earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the perfectionist conservative is the seeming inability to prioritize one issue over another, and I think I see two reasons for this:

  • Cultural blend – not so long ago, American culture and Christianity were very intertwined. They still are, but not to the extent they used to be.  Even so, this is why you see a lot of people falling back on Christian theology to explain their recommendations for social policy.  They are unable to separate what every Christian optimally ought to practice with what you can reasonably expect people from a variety of backgrounds to conform to.  So you ask the perfectionist conservative what his non-negotiables are for social policy and he says, “All of them.”
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good – the perfectionist conservative believes that ALL of their pet issues need to be addressed RIGHT NOW or any remaining permissiveness will once again rot society to the core. After all, with the very future of Western Civilization™ at stake, one simply cannot negotiate with terrorists. Note: I give them points for realizing that things are connected to causes, but then I take those points back away for refusing to listen to what actual problems and actual causes are.


In Part II we will talk about how the perfectionist conservative sees various social ills, how they want to fix them, where they are wrong, and where they are right.


  1. I know this wasn’t your main point, but your side note about hormonal BC is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, especially as it becomes more accessible and there’s even talk of making it available OTC.

    Is it awesome that contraception, especially a kind that can be controlled by women, is becoming more and more readily available? Absolutely.

    Is it reasonable to think that putting hormones into our bodies that totally covers up any normal hormone patterns and thus makes it impossible to know if there are real issues in our underlying cycles, is normal (not to mention the hormones we’re then peeing into our water source, and the rare but real potential side effects like strokes – a friend’s sister had one fortunately with minimal long-term impact)? Absolutely not! I know it’s a trade-off, but I feel like the potential health ramifications is not something that should become such a “normal” thing. Your birth control shouldn’t be held hostage to make you submit to annual exams that might not even be necessary, but you SHOULD be under the care of a physician generally if you’re messing with your hormones like that!

    1. When I was younger, that’s why I resisted going on birth control for so long – I just felt leery about dumping hormones into me. Besides, I was using condoms every time, which are super reliable when used correctly, right? (sarcasm) In other news, I got pregnant when I was 20, but I’m sure there’s no connection.

      Long story short, I’m using Mirena now, and overall I think it’s the best option for me at the moment. I like that the hormones are lower-dose and more localized, but I would still prefer if I could simultaneously not get pregnant AND be able to chart myself to see what patterns emerge. Back before I actually needed to prevent pregnancy would have been the perfect time to learn how to chart, but I was informed that the information was kept under lock and key “for my own protection,” but that’s a rant for another day.

      Anyway, I wonder what would happen if learning how to chart was just a normal thing that people did for health reasons, and people that didn’t want to use / rely on it for birth control had access to whatever else they needed. I would hope the result would be that fewer people would feel like they needed a steady diet of hormones, and more people would be generally aware of what’s going on with their bodies.

      1. Charting is such amazing information to have! I’ve only been doing it since we started TTC (this fall), but it’s such great information to have. I’d read Taking Charge of Your Fertility a couple years ago, but it somehow seemed like sooo much work to wake up at a specific time and take my temp – it’s so not, and with an app I don’t even have to think about interpreting the chart. I wish I’d started sooner and had more of a baseline, both generally (I’ve had really inconsistent cycles – was I even ovulating in all of them?) and to have more patterns to compare to while TTC. If I have daughters they will be given the info to temp, if they want to, in the same breath as talking about periods in general!

  2. I enjoy what I’ve read so far and look forward to part II. it looks like either your link to Kayla Sue’s post is broken or she removed the post

  3. I don’t know why you been missing your blog lately, But it’s good to catch up.

    I grew up in conservative Mormonism so I get the mindset.

    I think there are a couple of things going on, Based on 1) my own personal experience with these people and 2) my feminist background.

    My personal experience matches yours. I think that many leaders and followers of conservative faiths are doing exactly what you describe above.

    But growing up I would hear feminists say that anti-abortion and anti-birth-control wasn’t about revering life it was about controlling women.

    At first that sounded crazy, Until I noticed a pattern. People who claim to be pro-life typically vote against life-saving policies — looking at the biggest pro-life states for instance. They tend to be against: prenatal care for poor women you can’t afford it (which saves lives), Medicaid calling universal healthcare, food stamps, legislation to stop climate change. And they are against gun regulation.

    The same people are very interested in controlling women: if you care about morals there is no reason why a married couple shouldn’t have access to birth control, And yet many of them are against birth control anyway. When women don’t have birth control they have more children, which leaves them more dependent on men, And less financially independent. Some abusive men hide or destroy their partners birth control for this reason. These conservative religions are also interested in telling women to obey their husbands, be modest, and try to avoid working outside the home, for instance. Put it altogether and it leads to women who are constantly being controlled by others.

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