Back in the 1980s a new force hit the American political scene. It was represented by Jim and Tammi Baker of the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) club, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority, ” and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. Rising preachers like Jimmy Swaggert promised a Christian renewal of American politics and culture. Their support was widely credited with helping Ronald Reagan defy the odds and become President in 1980, and they brought a new energy into the Republican Party.
This led to what some called the “culture wars,” where social conservatives fought to win back the soul of America, to re-assert the dominance of Christianity and so-called “family values” in US culture. The secular left saw this as a threat, the rock band Styx put out a whole album, Kilroy was here on the premise of a moral majority Falwell like take over of the country — one that would ban rock and roll and enforce morality. The focus of the “Christian right” was to stop the spread of the “homosexual agenda,” to end abortion rights in America, and to halt the decaying and to them decadent cultural trends that they argued started in the 60s with the hippy and anti-war movements.
On Saturday, December 18th, the Senate passed a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) meaning that soon openly gay men and women will be able to serve in the armed forces. Recently many states have allowed legal marriage for gays, and opinion polls show that public attitudes on homosexuality have turned around completely in the last thirty years. This is especially the case amongst young people. Abortion rights remain, and in fact the abortion issue has faded in salience in the voting public.
Americans remain far more religious than Europeans, but as a force, social conservatism seems to be down and perhaps out. Moderate John McCain led the fight against repeal of DADT, and even there his argument wasn’t about any kind of ‘homosexual agenda,’ but rather concern this is being done too fast while the country is at war. When President Clinton first tried to remove the restriction from gays serving in the military, he was hit with an immediate political backlash, it was too much for American culture in 1993. DADT was put in place to retreat from that effort. Even Democrats thought it too much. In 2010 six Republicans joined to vote for the repeal, and no one suggests that President Obama will suffer politically — indeed, not passing it would have hurt him more.
While the “tea party” has strong social conservative roots, remaining a force in the GOP, most Republicans lean towards economic libertarianism, with a desire for smaller government. In popular culture as well, the idea that more wholesome values will replace the “decadence” of the post-60s transformation of television, movies and music has faded. The public has rejected social conservatism.
What does this mean? Especially after conservatives and Republicans enjoyed winning back the House, is it fair to say that the culture wars of the 80s and 90s are over? At one level, no. In pockets of the bible belt social conservatism is strong, and clearly it will take time for gay marriage and other cultural changes to become incorporated in the culture. There will be battles to try halt those changes, and the social conservatives will win some. But they’re fighting on the defense, and they are unlikely to turn back changes made, or advance. The days of the big name televangelists are not over, but today’s preachers are more inclusive and tolerant than the Swaggerts, Bakers and Falwells.
Meanwhile, the youngest Americans are increasingly raised without religious training, as church attendance continues to decline. At the same time, many Christian faiths have embraced gay rights, assert pro-choice positions on abortion, and build interfaith dialogues with Muslims and Jews. Christians have shifted from waging a kind of holy war to win back the culture to instead emphasizing Christian values and focusing on love, charity and humility.
Falwell has died, Swaggert was downed by a prostitution scandal, sex and drug scandals destroyed the PTL Club, and although Robertson’s 700 club still exists, he has gone from being a player in the GOP to making the news primarily due to outlandish statements, covered more for their entertainment value. Where once Phyllis Schafly vowed to bring back traditional womanhood, now conservatives embrace Sarah Palin, who hardly represents the kind of traditional view on the role of women espoused by Schafly and others in the 80s.
What does this mean? Basically, social conservatism was the last gasp of the “old guard,” fighting against cultural changes sweeping across the US and the industrialized world. They probably never had a chance, western civilization has been secularizing and humanizing at a steady pace for over 300 years years, that’s not something you stop on a dime, especially when economic and technological growth is expanding.
Yet while we’re not about to go back to conservative social ideals, the victory of a humanist cultural ideal remains Pyrrhic if questions of meaning and value are satisfied through purely material and even consumerist perspectives. What drove social conservatism was a sense that life’s meaning and value went beyond mere material and secular pursuits. They looked back to the values they remembered from the past, and wanted to recapture them. In our progressive, modern culture, that’s not possible. However, there is a role for religion.
What we need is reconciliation between the faithful and the secular, between diverse religions and atheists. We need to find values built on mutual respect and shared principles. Whether embraced out of spiritual faith or a rational sense of what is best for a quality of life, we need to get beyond negative fights (over rights and specific issues) and pursue positive ideals. A lot of Christians are doing this now, and interfaith dialogues are growing. Radical atheists, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, are to rational materialism what Robertson and Falwell were to Christianity — extremists whose inability to respect the other side leads to conflict and misunderstanding.
Most of us think there is more to life than material consumption. It may be a psychological need for self-actualization, a religious connection with God, or a spiritual sense of the transcendent. But if we can agree to disagree about how we see and understand the world, and agree to try to find common values and mutual respect, the culture wars will not only be over, but will have ended with success for both sides. Sure, the extremists will continue to lob rhetorical grenades at one another, driven perhaps by their own psychological needs more than anything else. But Christian love, atheistic rationality, Islamic values and Jewish traditions all point to the superiority of reconciliation and cooperation over anger and fighting.