‘It’s a discouraging time to be a social conservative,” says Jennifer Roback Morse. “We’ve been marginalized everywhere: the media, the academy, the legal system, and now even in politics.”
Many of her brethren know exactly what Morse means. Everywhere they look, it seems, they’re on the defensive. The Supreme Court just overturned abortion restrictions in the states and has mandated gay marriage everywhere. The Republican presidential nominee, usually a conduit for their ideas, rarely addresses their concerns. Their numbers may be shrinking, too: The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as social conservatives has fallen from 42 percent in 2009 to just 31 percent last year. This is the lowest rate the Gallup Poll has ever recorded.
Yet Morse concedes nothing. “The cause of truth is never lost,” she says. “Hope is not a plan or a strategy. It’s a supernatural virtue.”
She might benefit from a bit of divine intervention. As the founder and leader of the Ruth Institute, a small nonprofit organization, Morse has taken up a difficult vocation: “We’re trying to create a social movement that supports people harmed by divorce, the hook-up culture, and other aspects of the sexual revolution,” she says.
People call her “Dr. J” — a reference to her Ph.D. in economics, a background that allows her to bring an uncommon perspective to debates over everything from women in the work force to transgender bathroom access. She writes a weekly column, gives radio interviews, and travels the world; I caught up with her in June, when she had just returned from a ten-day trip to Australia and was getting ready for a couple of speeches in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Morse refuses to speak in code. She mixes her moral sensibility and economics training to produce a bracing candor that listeners tend to find either plucky or abrasive. Here’s how she talks about single motherhood, for example: “There’s no such thing as a single parent. They’ve become dependent on other people in commercial transactions, such as their employers and child-care providers. A single mother may look like she’s doing so much ‘on her own,’ but she has merely commercialized the things the father would have done.”
This style of rhetoric has the power both to attract and to repel potential converts to the cause of social conservatism — and behind these words lies not only an unequivocal voice but also a fascinating story of personal conversion from anything-goes libertarianism to strait-laced conservatism.
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, the 62-year-old Morse attended Oberlin College in the early 1970s and then transferred to Ohio State University, shedding the Catholicism of her youth and discovering the free-market thinking that would form the initial basis of her professional life. “I was attracted to the way it explained the world,” she says. By the time she was a graduate student at the University of Rochester, she had become attached to libertarianism in its most freewheeling forms. “I was deeply committed to all of it, even legalized prostitution,” she says.
She also had an abortion. “I regretted it right away,” she says. “I was in a marriage that I knew was a mistake and I was scared that I wouldn’t be a good mother.” She divorced her husband, earned her Ph.D., and threw herself into the politics of the Libertarian party, even joining its platform committee and cheering the presidential candidacy of Ed Clark in 1980. The abortion continued to haunt her, however. “I had night terrors and anniversary anxiety,” she says. “I went to counseling but none of the counselors said that maybe the abortion had something to do with my troubles.”
As a young woman with a doctorate in economics and a devotion to free-market philosophy, Morse was a rare commodity. “I was often the only girl in the room,” she says. The legendary public-choice economist James Buchanan tried to recruit her to Virginia Tech, where he was then teaching. She turned his offer down in favor of a post at Yale. By 1985, however, Buchanan had moved on to George Mason University in northern Virginia, where he was assembling an impressive faculty of latter-day Adam Smiths (and where he would win the Nobel Prize in 1986). He remembered the impressive young lady from several years before and once again offered her a job. This time, she accepted.
Morse’s academic career looked bright. “She was a sharp colleague and an excellent scholar,” says Walter Williams, a longtime member of GMU’s economics department. She was happily remarried, too. “I had it all planned out,” she says. “I was going to get tenure and have a baby, and we were going to make sure the baby came at the end of one school year so that I could deliver and be ready for the start of the next school year. I thought I was in complete control and that I could choose everything.”
She got tenure but failed to get pregnant, let alone on the precise timetable she had imagined. A year went by and then another. The abortion still disturbed her and she began to wonder if she had missed her one chance at motherhood. “I was panicked,” she says.
Looking for solace, Morse started to attend early-morning Mass at a Catholic church. Then she went to confession, which she had not done in years. “The priest understood right away how the abortion was weighing on me,” she says. “I started to calm down.” She finally made a full return to the faith of her youth. “I realized that I didn’t have to get all of the things that I wanted.” One day, as she walked down the baby-food aisle of a grocery store — “an experience,” she points out, “that can be emotionally hard for childless women” — it occurred to her that she could be a mother without having a baby. She and her husband could adopt.
“Then something unlikely happened,” she says. In 1991, as the couple entered the advanced stages of adoption, she became pregnant. In April, they brought home a boy from Romania. In October, Morse gave birth to a daughter.
With the Romanian adoption, they thought they were not only aiding a child but also doing their part to help a struggling nation realign itself after the fall of Communism. What they didn’t anticipate was a two-year-old with disabilities. “From birth, he had almost never left his crib,” says Morse. “He had serious developmental needs. What he needed most was a mommy. To put him in day care would have been cruel. He didn’t need a mother substitute. I was already that.” They named him Nick. “He convinced me that children require parents. This is the great insight of my life!” she says, laughing. “Somebody’s got to say it.”
So she tried to balance the demands of work and home, teaching courses on microeconomics and researching the economic history of the Civil War while also looking after her kids. “I could have stayed at GMU forever,” she says. Yet her husband wanted to leave. “He didn’t like Washington, D.C. The old me would have said, ‘I’m not going — not unless I get an academic position somewhere.’ But that was no way to live.” So she quit her job.
The family moved to California, first to Silicon Valley and later to San Diego. Without a job, Morse spent more time with her kids, and especially with her son, who required extra attention. They also opened their home to eight foster children. “As this was going on, I was losing my libertarianism — or rather, it was losing me,” says Morse. “Without strong families, you can’t have free markets or limited government. Instead, you get ‘The Life of Julia.’” This is a reference to a slide-show advertisement from President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign that treated a fictitious woman’s cradle-to-grave dependence on government as a triumph of progressivism.
The intellectual dissonance became personal when one of the leading lights of libertarian economics — Morse’s mentor, James Buchanan — publicly disapproved of her decisions. The showdown came in 1997, at the 50th-anniversary meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, a prestigious organization of classical liberals founded by F. A. Hayek. Morse had been asked to deliver remarks at a confab in Switzerland. She didn’t want to take time away from her family, so she wrote a paper. William Campbell of Louisiana State University presented it.
There is no transcript or recording of the session — at least none that I could track down — but several witnesses described what happened. During a discussion period, Buchanan spoke. “I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it had something to do with throwing away a career to do a minor thing like raise a family,” says Edwin J. Feulner, the longtime head of the Heritage Foundation who was at the time also the society’s president. “A few years before he had told me that Jennifer was one of his star protégés.” Father Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute also was there. “Jim didn’t speak for long, but he made clear that he was disappointed in her.” (Buchanan died in 2013.)
Back in the United States, Morse heard about the incident from friends and colleagues. Today, she doesn’t want to say much about Buchanan’s comments — they still sting — but she offers this much: “He was very good to me until he wasn’t.”
During those years, Morse was slowly writing a book. Love & Economics came out in 2001. “My understanding of the human person and society had been deeply influenced by free-market economics and libertarian political theory, which have shaped my entire adult working life,” she wrote. “As I came to realize how much I had overlooked, I concluded that my profession was overlooking much as well.” It had forgotten about the vulnerability of children and the need for families: “Without loving families, no society can long govern itself.”
These words set the stage for the second part of her career. In 2008, as her kids approached adulthood, Morse found herself with more time for travel and activism. She started the Ruth Institute, envisioning it as a way to help her talk to young women. “I wanted to warn them about the careerist trap,” she says. “It’s okay to get married, stay married, and do something later. You don’t have to get on the career bandwagon.”
She spoke on campuses around the country but soon, like so many social conservatives, found herself embroiled in the gay-marriage debate. At first, she tasted success as part of the team that pushed for Proposition 8, the ballot proposal in California to ban gay marriage, which voters approved. Then judges struck it down in what became a series of rapid legal defeats, culminating in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling last year.
“We learned that making a correct argument doesn’t matter to the Supreme Court,” says Morse, who departed California and moved to Louisiana last year. “It’s not listening to reason and evidence. So we need a new strategy, one that focuses on the entire sexual revolution, not just the gay parts. That’s my mission now — to tell the truth about how the sexual revolution oppresses us.”
Divorce is a favorite topic. “Nobody talks about it, but this is an issue of justice for the child,” she says. She ticks off statistics about the children of divorced parents: They’re more likely to fall behind in school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and think about suicide. “This is the number-one lie of the sexual revolution: Kids are resilient. No, they’re not.”
And though she ended her first marriage, Morse won’t shy away from criticizing others who make the same choice. “We didn’t have kids and I got an annulment,” she says. “I’m not a hypocrite. I’m penitent. Divorce has harmed lots of people and those people have harmed lots of people. We have to say this. Modern society tries to make guilt go away by saying nothing is ever wrong — that there’s no right or wrong at all — and that’s not true.”
The most important thing social conservatives can do right now, she says, is persevere. “It’s as if we’ve lost a war and now we live in an occupied country. What did people in Communist Poland do? They resisted.” She brings up the example of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer in the old Soviet Union. “He may have thought he was in a minority of one, but then he started writing and people read him,” she says. “I believe that millions of people agree with us, even Democrats who are sick of a culture that’s saturated in pornography and the sexualization of children — as well as people who have survived the sexual revolution and are willing to tell the whole story. Is it really so hard to say that children are entitled to parents? This is the birthright of every child, not an impossible dream.” She pauses, then concludes: “When nothing is politically possible, you don’t need to trim sails. You can just tell the truth.”