The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Culture Wars
Peter Augustine Lawler - 01/31/12

The phrase “culture war,” of course, is, for Americans, not literal. There is no real civil war going on, and our country, to its great credit, has avoided wars of religion. Many reasons might be given for this example of American exceptionalism, but one is that most Americans have found themselves somewhere in between rigid religious orthodoxy and secular humanist libera-tionism. Moral issues that cannot be compromised in principle have often been compromised in fact. These issues have usually been resolved at the state and local level without being raised to high constitutional principle; that resolution has also typically been influenced by the people’s Christian inheritance. (The one moral issue on which compromise proved impossible over the long term—slavery—did provoke a war more bloody than almost all wars of religion.)

In our time, cultural division is more intense because secular elites have become more aggressive in employing the media, public bureaucracies, and especially the courts in advancing their agenda. The permissive views of the allegedly countercultural sixties have become those of our establishment intellectuals, and the size of that class has grown steadily throughout the “information age.” The notorious Roe v. Wade (1973), for example, made real compromise on the contentious issue of abortion impossible. That decision emboldened “pro-choice” cultural liberals and energized “pro-life” (and pro-family) cultural conservatives. The resulting emergence of a clearly pro-Roe Democratic Party and a clearly anti-Roe Republican Party sparked a political realignment along cultural lines. Because other cultural issues—such as patriotism—were involved in that realignment, it is hard to tell which party benefited more from this sharpening of American disagreement on human life and the family. Cultural liberals complain that inappropriate moralizing has allowed the Republicans to become the nation’s dominant party through populist demagoguery; cultural conservatives complain, with more justice, that their tenuous and surely temporary dominance has done their cause almost no good. Orthodox religious leaders complain with increasing frequency that public policy in America has become hostile to the ways of life they hope to conserve.

Today, many cultural conservatives, despite the result of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, seem to be, if not exactly surrendering, at least withdrawing from political combat. They are focused on building small-scale alternative institutions and schooling their children at home. But the challenge of biotechnology will probably return them to action. Our political division into culturally liberal and culturally conservative camps will become clearer. The “new” Democratic Party founded by Bill Clinton is rather consistently libertarian, embracing both personal permissiveness and the free market. The Republican Party, meanwhile, may well become more concerned with using the power of government to protect human culture and community against the “designer” future promised us through genetic therapy and regenerative biology. American cultural conservatives will have to become more self-conscious, although there is no reason to believe they will prevail over cultural liberals in the immediate future. Many sociologists, including Hunter, have observed that Americans are becoming more libertarian, and the Republicans may well suffer as they become more “culturally” and less “economically” conservative. Because the biotechnological issues will soon involve the very future of all that is good about being human, we can expect the culture war to become progressively more warlike.

Further Reading
  • Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. One Nation, Two Cultures. New York: Knopf, 1999.
  • Lawler, Peter Augustine. Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002.
  • George, Robert P. The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2001.
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