Commentary Magazine

The Election and the Culture Wars

A funny thing happened on the way to the presidential nominations this year. We discovered not only that the candidates were not quite what we thought them to be (this happens in all electoral campaigns; it is why we have them). We also discovered, with the dramatic emergence of religious conservatives in the Republican campaign, that America is not quite what many of us had persuaded ourselves it had become.

America today is undoubtedly, as pollsters and analysts assure us, a prosperous, contented, and optimistic place. Employment is at an all-time high, crime and welfare, if not at all-time lows, are considerably lower than they have been for years, and wondrous feats are being performed by science in curing disease and prolonging life (with still more wondrous feats promised for the future). If other social indices—out-of-wedlock births, the rapidly rising rate of cohabitation, violence and vulgarity on TV, pornography and sexual perversion on the Internet—are not quite so favorable, they pale in significance. This is partly because we have become inured to them, and partly because they have been overshadowed by two momentous developments.

The first is the new Gilded Age that has been ushered in by the information economy. This Gilded Age is more gilded, more affluent, than its prototype at the end of the 19th century—wealth today is measured in billions rather than millions. It is also more democratic, because its blessings are accessible to many more people, most dramatically young people. And it is all the more fortunate because it is accompanied by a new Era of Good Feelings, marked not so much by the alleviation of political strife (which gave that label to the administration of President James Monroe) as by the diminution of social strife.

Or so, at least, we have been given to understand by a good many commentators and sociologists. As they see it, the spirit of divisiveness and contentiousness brought into our national life by the upheavals of the 1960’s is today but a dim memory; some even look back on that decade nostalgically as a time of adolescent high-spiritedness. And with the 60’s presumed to be behind us, so, too, are the culture wars, the long-drawn-out struggle for the soul of America between traditionalists on the one hand and the apostles of liberation on the other—what Lionel Trilling called the adversary culture.

From this perspective, the culture wars are as obsolete as the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the culture wars have undergone the same kind of historical revisionism as the cold war. Just as the United States is held responsible for the cold war, so the culture wars are said to be the invention of intellectuals, a battle in which the American people themselves have had no part. The only commitment of Americans, we are told, is to the principle of tolerance; this is the first and only commandment in our national Decalogue.

This view of the culture wars was sorely tried by the primary campaign, when Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition, launched a moral and religious crusade against Senator John McCain. On February 19, McCain went down to resounding defeat in South Carolina, provoking him to an equally passionate denunciation of the “forces of evil” among his opponents, including Robertson. By the time the dust settled on Super Tuesday, McCain was out of the race, and we had all received a vivid reminder that America is a more complicated, diverse, and morally charged place than we had been led to think.



Religious conservatism, it is now evident, has survived both the new Gilded Age and the new Era of Good Feelings. Its main organization, the Christian Coalition, has fallen upon hard times, to be sure, and some in the movement, including Jerry Falwell, have publicly retreated from the political sphere. But the first law of religious movements in America is that as one organization or sect dies, another quickly takes its place.

When the Moral Majority disbanded in the late 1980’s, reputable historians and journalists were quick to pronounce, with an audible sigh of relief, the death of religious conservatism. Within months, the Christian Coalition had emerged to rekindle the suspicions and fears of those same critics. A decade later, the Christian Coalition too seemed moribund—only to be revived, temporarily at least, by the Republican campaign. And if this organization too eventually succumbs, it will no doubt be succeeded by another.

In any event, religious conservatism itself is undeniably alive and well. And not just in South Carolina but, as subsequent primaries demonstrated, in other states as well, including those where the religious Right has never been a particularly powerful force. And not only among evangelicals but among all religious denominations, including Catholics. Even politicians and academics of an essentially secular temper unwittingly testify to the influence of religious conservatism when they appeal to “Americanism” as a “faith,” a “civic religion.”

We have always known that the United States is unique in the strength and prevalence of its religious beliefs and practices—this, after all, is one of our main claims to being “exceptional.” What is interesting is how durable this exceptionality of ours has been. In his new book, The Fourth Great Awakening, Robert Fogel estimates, on the basis of 1988 data, that there are something like 60 million adherents of “enthusiastic religion” in the country—about one-third of the electorate. The largest number of these belong to Protestant denominations loosely characterized as evangelical, but included among them are many mainline Protestants, born-again Catholics, and Mormons. A Wall Street Journal/NBC survey released in the midst of the recent primary campaign showed one in five Americans identifying themselves as born-again Christians.

Senator McCain has good reason to appreciate the strength of these religious conservatives. But so does Governor George W. Bush, who has had to expend precious resources to counteract the effect of his appearance at Bob Jones University, which has made no secret of its hostility to Catholicism. This episode was exploited by McCain and will, no doubt, continue to be exploited by Vice President Al Gore. As the Wall Street Journal concluded from its poll, Catholics “are up for grabs in the general election. . . . It may not be an exaggeration to say that whichever presidential candidate captures the Catholic vote in the fall will win the election.”

This is far from being an issue just for Republicans. Gore is also vulnerable, not only from Catholics, who are no longer securely in the Democratic camp, but from evangelicals as well, another potential swing vote. Surveys in the early spring had Bush and Gore running dead even among all adults—but with born-again Christians favoring Bush by more than two to one.

Politicians may not appreciate just how varied this group is—not only theologically and denominationally but also socially and politically. In one survey, only one-third of evangelicals identified themselves with the religious Right; in another, only a fifth did. Among those evangelicals who did not associate themselves with the religious Right, almost half were Democrats. Although most adherents of the religious Right are Republicans, as many as 40 percent of those characterized as “religious conservatives” voted Democratic in the congressional elections of 1998. Moreover, many traditionally-minded Democrats who have little or no religious affiliation often find themselves allied with religious conservatives on one issue or another.

These complicated facts may help explain why no candidate presuming to speak for religious conservatives as a single bloc—and still less for social conservatives in general—has made much headway in our politics, as Gary Bauer learned to his distress. But they also suggest that Gore will have to think about who else is listening as he makes his hard-core liberal appeals to his hard-core constituencies of trade unionists, African-Americans, and feminists. He may well have been chortling at the sight of Republican candidates being torn apart by religious dissension. But he could face a similar problem if he continues to be neglectful or dismissive of the religious and social conservatives in his own party, let alone in the country at large.

That Gore has been aware of this dilemma is evident from his waffling response last summer to the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to permit local schools to teach or not to teach evolution as they see fit. At first, like Bush, Gore said simply that this was a matter for local authorities to decide; but within a few days he had reversed himself and announced his opposition to the Kansas board. By the time the primaries arrived, he was vying with Senator Bill Bradley as to who could appear the more liberal, the more progressive, the more secular. It will be interesting to see whether he persists in this strategy as the presidential campaign moves into full swing. President Clinton is a master at changing course; his Vice President may not be so adept.



This, in short, has been a more instructive primary season than most, for it has obliged us once again to take the measure of our country. What we have witnessed is not a political war in the usual sense—a war waged first among the several factions within each party and then between the two parties. Nor is it, more ominously, a Kulturkampf, a religious war that threatens to alter the longstanding relations of church and state. It is something more than the first and less than the second—a new episode in the culture wars that, contrary to the predictions of some, continue to engage us as they have for almost a half-century.

True, these wars have subsided in recent years, but—unlike the cold war—they have not gone away. True, too, Americans have never been more prosperous than they are today, and they have sound reason to be contented and optimistic. But good times and good feelings have not dulled their moral and religious sensibilities. The Gilded Age, it is evident, does not satisfy all human needs or solve all social problems. Nor do Good Feelings nullify or transcend deeply held values and beliefs.

Today, as for some time now, social and religious conservatives constitute a minority of the population. But it is a significant minority—a “dissident culture,” I have called it. That culture cuts across political, racial, ethnic, even religious lines. And it takes many forms, from membership in organized groups like the Christian Coalition to the spontaneous actions of families who, in one way or another, and for one reason or another (often purely secular ones), choose to opt out of the dominant culture. There are now over a million children who are being home-schooled, and as many or more families that are “TV abstainers.”

This dissident, minority culture can be disproportionately influential. It may be quiescent on the national level while active on a local level, as in the Kansas school-board case. But if challenged, it does not hesitate to emerge on the national level as well, in response, most notably, to Supreme Court decisions that go against the grain of traditional customs and beliefs, or to politicians who are not respectful of those customs and beliefs.

It is a tribute to the American people that the two cultures have been able to live together for so long, with periods of tension and dissension but without civil strife or political disruption. In the heat of the campaign this past January and February, the conflict between them flared up again—briefly, but dramatically and, for Senator McCain’s candidacy, perhaps decisively. It has died down now that we have returned to a more normal mode of politics; but it will not, at least in the foreseeable future, disappear.

Public figures, religious and political alike, cannot refrain from recognizing and responding to the serious issues at stake in these culture wars; indeed, they have a duty to recognize and respond to them. But they also have a duty to exercise prudence and discretion so as not to exacerbate conflict into open warfare. This, too, is a lesson of the primary campaign, and it may prove to be a lesson of the election as well.


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