The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

Culture Wars
Peter Augustine Lawler - 01/31/12

The idea that America is in the midst of a “culture war” was popularized persuasively by the sociologist James Davison Hunter in the early 1990s. Americans are divided rather fundamentally on the meaning and purpose of human life, and on moral and religious issues, and they vote these cultural views more reliably than their economic interests. The 2000 election, for example, divided Americans over culture more than anything else but race. The urban and urbane secular relativists tended to vote for Gore, and the small-town religious moralists voted for Bush. Bush carried an overwhelming amount of the territory of the United States, while Gore won the popular vote because he did so well in the major population centers.

At first glance, the cultural divide reflected in the presidential election presents a confusing picture to cultural conservatives. Conservatives characteristically are in favor of conserving “culture” in the sense of the great artistic and literary achievements of our civilization, and so they have disdain for popular vulgarity or philistinism. We think here of the conservatism of Henry Adams and that of the southern aristocratic poet William Alexander Percy. But conservatives also, quite rightly, think of the intellectuals of our time as less sophisticated than they are nihilistic. Most intellectuals now actively engage in the destruction of our cultural inheritance. And so conservatives today are resigned to allying with ordinary people—who have retained considerable respect for God, their families, and their country—against the dominant faction of intellectuals. Today’s conservatives usually see that the foundation of any decent society is the virtue—the cultural conservatism—of ordinary people.

A longer and deeper view of our cultural divide shows conservatives to be those Americans who take the side of religion and morality against intellectual liberationism.

At the time of the American founding, there were those, such as Jefferson, who wanted to free Americans from the authority of genuine religion. That elitist liberation movement was opposed then and now by those who believe our moral and political life would be damaged beyond repair if separated from Christian culture. The cultural hopes of the most secular of our founders were at least diminished considerably by the influence of the Puritans, the Calvinists, waves of immigrants, and religious revivals in America. Christianity, as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed, has always been America’s genuine counterculture. It is an indispensable antidote to democratic self-obsession and materialism. Aristocracy, too, is strong where democratic liberalism is weak, but Tocqueville was right that all family- or tradition-based aristocracy was destined to fade in America. That is one reason why the Adams family finally dropped off the political and literary map, and why the philosopher- novelist Walker Percy—who was raised by the Stoic aristocrat William Alexander Percy—became a Christian democrat.

To call Christianity our counterculture is not to accuse our dominant or elite culture of public atheism. Tocqueville noted that there is no such atheism in America, and things have not changed all that much since his day. All Americans who want to have public influence speak of God. The real division in American life, as Hunter astutely observed, is between those who view religion in an orthodox and those who view it in a progressive way. Cultural liberals use religion as a vehicle for achieving progressive political goals; God is presented as supporting the latest views on rights and social justice. Cultural conservatives typically really believe in God and that they are bound by his will; his word, the orthodox say, gives us the right way to live. Religion, for them, is a nonnegotiable standard for criticizing contemporary permissiveness and self-righteousness. For the orthodox, the one true human progress is personal—toward sanctity and virtue; those who speak confidently of historical or political progress are usually diverted from the one thing most needful for each one of us.

What is new in our time is the extent to which this progressive-orthodox division creates factions within America’s major religious denominations. Such factionalism has animated American political life from its beginning. The claims of reason and revelation have not, in truth, existed in harmony in America. Our rationalists have too often been dogmatically anti-Christian materialists, and our defenders of faith have too often confused being guided by reason with scientific atheism. How could a country that is so shaped both by modern science and Protestant theology possibly be free from cultural conflict and confusion?

American liberals often hold that the idea of Americans being divided politically by their different views of culture is un-American. The American way is to separate religion from political life, reducing the latter to the adjustment of economic interests. The liberal view posits that when religion enters the political arena the result is usually tyranny and war. Cultural or religious issues are those concerning which we oppress and kill one another. Conservatives respond that the idea of a human life or human education indifferent to religious controversy is an unrealistic abstraction. The idea of what cultural conservatives call a “naked public square” is simply inhuman. Most of our public policies—as our political leaders both liberal and conservative are often unafraid to say—are based on some understanding of God and the human soul.

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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