In a revealing article in “Politico,” Republicans admitted that they are dropping their focus on the issue of gay marriage. The article points out that in the 90s this was a bread and butter issue for conservatives. They decried “activist judges” who tried to force acceptance of gay marriage on the country, and could appeal to the emotions of citizens who wanted to maintain the “traditional” definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
Conservatives are quoted noting that there has been a cultural sea change in how Americans think. Only 30% of Republicans actively support gay marriage, but if you went back to the early 90s polls would have probably shown at best 30% of the country supporting it. As with any culture shift, the youth are leading the way. People between 18 and 26 overwhelming support gay marriage rights 70% to 30%. Yet even in the mainstream the shift is becoming very clear — what once was seen as weird or at least exotic is now common place.
Rick Santorum’s quixotic run for the GOP nomination demonstrates the change. His emphasis on contraception, opposition to abortion (even in the case of rape and incest) and rejection of gay marriage have led most Republicans to consider him un-electable. His views are simply too far from the mainstream, even though twenty years ago they would be defining stances in the ‘culture wars’ launched by social conservatives in the eighties.
To groups like Equality Maine, the battle is nowhere near over. They are fighting to pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Maine, and are confident that they can succeed. In 2009 they lost a referendum 53% to 47% in which the voters rejected same sex marriage. Things could be very different this time around.
Not only is it a Presidential election year, meaning a much broader voter turnout, but unlike three years ago the Roman Catholic church is going to sit this one out. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is on the defensive about tactics it employed to try to drive a wedge between blacks and gays, convince hispanics that opposition to same sex marriage was a “badge of Anglo identity” and get children to speak out against gay parents. The fact Romney gave to that group is being used with success against him, as it makes him vulnerable to charges of “right wing extremism.”
In 1992 President Clinton retreated from allowing open service by gays in the military, implementing “don’t ask don’t tell,” which social conservatives still saw as going to far. In 2010 President Obama gained political support and stature by going back to Clinton’s original decision, repealing DADT. The appeal of a Falwell-esque “moral majority” is virtually nil, Pat Robertson has become more a joke than a political force, and Republican sops to social conservatives do them more political harm than good. Within the Republican party the libertarian wing is eclipsing the religious conservative wing of the party.
Yet while that can all be seen in a positive light, there is something missing. Perhaps the biggest distortion in the so-called ‘culture wars’ is the way in which religion and spirituality got defined in terms of very socially conservative world views. Take the recent “reason rally” in Washington — the alternative to religion appears to be a cold, materialist embrace of rational thought. The world has no inherent meaning or value other than that which we create for it, and we should do so using reason and logic.
Back in 1789 the French revolution embraced reason as the key for governance and learned a hard lesson – reason is a tool, it is not a path to truth, especially not in terms of values and ethics. Where reason leads depends on core assumptions made, and those assumptions ultimately are taken on faith — or based on sentiment/emotion. Reason as a tool is meaningless on its own.
Embracing reason alone doesn’t counter consumerism, hyper materialism, and the sense of emptiness many find in day to day routines, especially in a culture where community solidarity has given way to the notion that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness. For all their faults, religions do serve a function of giving people a sense of a deeper meaning and a ethical core that rises above individual self-interest.
So the culture wars may be over, but the need for meaning and a core sense of meaning is still something people yearn for. We live in a society with unprecedented material wealth, yet full of problems ranging from anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders and a general sense of emptiness about life.
This 1979 video from Supertramp captures the dilemma. There is something missing in the purely rational approach to life. So the conservative “culture wars” may be ending, but the challenge to build a positive sense of identity and meaning remains. The economic crisis may have dented the drive of consumerism, but people still look for external fulfillment of internal needs.
The next culture shift needs to address that issue. It’s one thing to combat the fear of those who are different, we also need positive change. Reaching out, understanding both ourselves and others, and overcoming alienation and low self-esteem requires openness to sentiment, emotion and a sense of wonder. It’s not enough to just work against fear, we need to promote love. Not love as romance or abstract emotion, but as a concrete sense of connection to each other and our world.
So after the culture wars, it’s time to build positive cultural peace.