The end of the “Culture Wars”?

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.

  1. #1 by plainlyspoken on December 19, 2010 - 01:17

    While some of what you’ve written is valid and I agree with it, make no mistake that other portions I am not in agreement with.

    Interfaith dialogue may be fine, but only so long as it does not call for the capitulation of one’s religious beliefs. Even among one religious group there won’t be solidarity as long as there are conflicts within the faith group.

    For instance many who claim Christianity and yet are capitulating on the faith principles and changing the terms of Christianity to reflect the social concepts acceptable to secular society are at odds with those who maintain the traditional principles of the faith. There is only so much that can come into any compromise without destroying the identity of the – for lack of a better term – minority belief group.

    I may accept some aspects of what is occurring in the world and not fight against them, but that doesn’t mean I’ll embrace them as anything other than an individual choice that is not to be imposed upon another.

    I don’t know if I have stated my thoughts very clearly here, it’s the best I can do at this moment in time. Sorry if it creates any confusion.

  2. #2 by Black Flag on December 19, 2010 - 02:37

    I think you pointed to why it appears the “Moral Right” is in retreat, and it has to do with the betrayal perceived by the People by the likes of Bakers and Swaggerts.

    But America is founded principally on Puritan values. This still runs deep in the veins of the nation. There is a continuing desire of the People to regulate the moral opinions of their fellow men.

  3. #3 by helenl on December 19, 2010 - 03:25

    Thanks for a sensible post. Liberal and ungodly are not synonyms.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on December 19, 2010 - 04:29

    Plainly, I don’t think Puritan values govern America, but I do think that values that are associated with Christianity are prominent, even amongst atheists. I also find, especially among young people, that disagreement about morality is tolerated — people don’t feel a need to control how other people live, as long as harm is not done. One of my best friends is very liberal, very active in his Church, and an extremely devout Christian. He is angered by the intolerance of some on the Right, especially when they use Christianity as their rationale for attacking others. To him, Christian values are love, tolerance, and compassion — and he lives that in his life. He doesn’t sacrifice his values or faith, yet believes in interfaith dialogue. I myself do not adhere to a traditional religion, but have strong spiritual beliefs and have great admiration for Christianity and Christian values. We all can find common ground, even if we have different beliefs about the story of how reality unfolds. I think what we have in common outweighs our differences.

    • #5 by plainlyspoken on December 21, 2010 - 04:45

      Scott, I am also tolerant of how others choose to live their lives, as long as it is legal and brings no harm upon anyone else. I don’t believe a homosexual serving next to a heterosexual is harmful to either as long as they respect the rights and individual beliefs of each other.

      Christians (or any other religious group) voluntarily follow the tenets of their faith. For instance my Christian beliefs are that God does not condone the choice of homosexuality (which puts me at odds with a lot of Christians that don’t see it that way), but my Christian beliefs does not allow me to force anyone to live as I believe (heck some good friends of my are a lesbian couple). It harms me not, nor does it interfere with my relationship with God. We all respect each others rights to difference and judge not because we are different.

      That is what I mean when I speak to the idea that I can compromise as long as I am not asked or required to capitulate in my beliefs. This is how I am able to not have difficulty with a lot of issues that are divisive in our society.

      I don’t believe the culture war is over, though it may take a back seat for a while as more pressing issues are dealt with for the next several years.

  5. #6 by renaissanceguy on December 21, 2010 - 00:35

    Plainly Spoken mostly speaks my mind on the matter.

    Scott, you know that I have written before about speech codes, and you seem to agree with me. Like PS, I do not want to see forced compliance by the side that appears to have won (to be winning?) the culture war.

    For example, now that DADT has been repealed, will homosexuals punish speech by fellow service members who voice disgust toward homosexual behavior or who voice their belief that it is a sin?

    I’ll write more on the subject on my blog. I must give the overarching topic more thought. Are the culture wars over? I must spend a bit of time reflecting on the circumstances and facts.

  6. #7 by Scott Erb on December 21, 2010 - 00:48

    The military is different than normal political life. I think it may be counter productive to unit cohesion for people expressing disgust at another person’s sexual orientation (and that would apply to gays saying things about straights — and I’ve heard that kind of talk before too). I think the military will and should be fair to all, and not privilege either group with rules that only apply to them. I’m not sure how the military deals with claims that something is sinful. Say a soldier visits a prostitute. Is it wrong for a fellow military member to tell him he’s doing something that is a sin? I would think in cases like that it’s best to keep ones’ beliefs to oneself, especially in a military with people from numerous faiths. But maybe somebody with military experience knows how those kinds of issues are dealt with.

    Outside the military, free speech should be respected regardless of the viewpoint.

    • #8 by plainlyspoken on December 21, 2010 - 04:27

      Prostitution is not as great choice as it is – in the majority – illegal, so a service person is breaking a law. The military doesn’t deal with “sins” as we understand them, just violations of laws, rules, and regulations.

      Now, as for someone voicing their personal opinion to other service personnel on their negative views of homosexuality – I would guess they may end up in the same equal opportunity and treatment courses that would come from disparaging minorities or women (I’m reaching back several decades to what would have happened in the USAF).

      Now, if one is asked their opinion, and states it with the proper respect that is to be shown to all I see no reason why anyone should and/or could take offense.

      free speech isn’t prohibited in the military, but is does have restrictions on how that right is exercised. Like everything else in the military it is something one adapts to.

  7. #9 by renaissanceguy on December 21, 2010 - 07:18

    Okay. Let’s say that the military is serving beets in the mess hall. Should somebody get in trouble for saying that beets taste disgusting.

    When I say that a service member might express the view that homosexual behavior is disgusting, that is the kind of thing I am talking about. If people have the right to prefer homosexual acts, then other people have the right to feel the opposite way–to find them disagreeable.

    When I say that a service member might express the view that homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be like saying that lying and stealing are sins. I would hope that nobody would be disciplined for saying such a thing.

    To me the issue is that people are not actually harmed by hearing things that they do not like. It is dangerous to force people to voice only the accepted opinions.

    For years we have heard that the Christian Right has tried to impose their beliefs on others. That hasn’t actually happened, and nobody actually wants it to. However, there is evidence that the Secular Left does want to do that.

    In short, I do not think that anyone should be punished for saying the “wrong” thing. If the culture wars end by forcing everyone to say only what is politically correct, then I would say that we have lost a lot more than just a culture war.

  8. #10 by Scott Erb on December 21, 2010 - 19:36

    One is insulting the core identity of another person — the other is talking about food. I could imagine that the military would think that gays calling ‘straight’ sex disgusting or vice versa would be insulting in a manner they do not want to allow. People can feel however they want, of course. Nobody is imposing beliefs on anyone here, military rules are to maintain readiness and discipline. In the military, you already can be punished for saying the wrong thing. I think the culture is moving towards seeing bias against homosexuals as akin to racial bias. I would think it would be treated the same way in the military — can someone be disciplined for saying racist things? I’m not sure, but I can imagine that insults of other soldiers’ identity could be damaging to the unit. I think it’s best that in terms of one’s beliefs about the practices and identity of others, that’s where a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is appropriate.

    DADT was prejudicial in that loving heterosexual couples and families could be open about their relationship, and gays could not. It ‘s not about the sex (that’s private), it’s about having to hide who one is. Now that isn’t necessary. Also, most Christians I know don’t think it’s a sin. It is rarely talked about in the Bible, and most Christians have already rejected a number of things Paul said that reflect cultural biases at the time (especially involving women). He didn’t say much, and the only other place is in the Old Testament where you can’t touch women during their periods and other very arcane old Jewish laws. I don’t think there is a very strong case to be made that this is truly seen as a sin, but rather it reflects the cultural biases of the past. Again, on issues of slavery, sexism, and the like, Christians have already made that call. And most Christians I know do not see homosexuality as bad, many churches having openly gay pastors and even officials, and perform gay weddings.

  9. #11 by plainlyspoken on December 21, 2010 - 20:11

    Scott, just as many Christians do not agree that homosexuality is not a sin – it is seen as against God’s teachings. Further, there are large numbers of Christians who would not accept a homosexual pastor, nor a woman pastor, nor accept same sex marriages being performed in the church. I am one of these Christians.

    That does not make them (or me) bigots – as many would call them (and I do not mean you sir). It simply means that compromise can only go so far in what they (and I) find acceptable.

    It is acceptable that homosexuals be allowed to openly serve, but that doesn’t mean I accept homosexuality as a lifestyle.

    This, for me, is where the “no harm” rule comes into play. And no, I find no harm in same-sex marriage. Were it to be an acceptable practice in a congregation, then that would be a congregation I would choose not to be a part of because I don’t find it an acceptable marriage standard, but since it harms no one……

  1. The End of the Culture Wars | Significant Pursuit by Renaissance Guy

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