Culture War No More?

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 11-12.

Most American conservatives think they’re engaged in a culture war, and many of them think they’re losing it. Now along comes Jeremy Rabkin, a thoughtful conservative commentator and professor of government at Cornell University, who tells them they’re wrong on both counts ("The Culture War That Isn’t," Policy Review, August & September, 1999). "As historical description," he says, "the notion of a ‘culture war’ is a gross distortion. As a guide to contemporary strategists, it is a needless counsel of despair."

The culture war metaphor—the sense that "the past several decades have been characterized by a sweeping struggle pitting the forces of liberalism and progressivism, on [the] one hand, against those of religious orthodoxy and tradition on the other"—became widely accepted after the publication of James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars in 1992, although a number of observers (including the beloved Editor–in–Chief of FT) had been employing the term for some years. By now, Rabkin concludes, the phrase has become "a ubiquitous description of reality among political and religious conservatives."

That, he is sure, is a mistake. It is based, to begin with, on a "liberal legend." "The story goes somewhat like this: The country used to be religious. Then modernization and secularization took hold with the growth of commerce, technology, and cities. Religious conservatives made a desperate effort to fight back the tide with Prohibition and the Scopes trial, and the humiliating failure of these efforts forced conservative Christians to retreat from politics for decades thereafter. And only the excesses of the 1960s and ’70s prompted their reemergence."

None of this, Rabkin insists, is quite right. The temperance crusade was led not by conservative Christians but by progressive reformers who combined it, over time, with such other reform efforts as opposition to slavery, support for women’s suffrage, and the campaign against child labor. (And the opposition to Prohibition was most strong not among secularists but among "traditional Catholics and Lutherans.") The Scopes trial was both more complex than the standard Inherit the Wind depiction of an implacable conflict between religious dogma and modern science and less momentous than it appeared in mythic liberal retrospect. Protestant fundamentalists had already been divided among themselves before Scopes, and they did not retreat from politics afterwards. Nor were their politics consistently conservative: a majority of them supported FDR in the 1930s, and as late as 1976 half of all who identified themselves as "evangelical Christians" voted for Jimmy Carter, his liberal politics notwithstanding.

The culture war imagery, Rabkin goes on, is as wrongheaded about contemporary politics as it is about political history. It tempts conservatives to ignore their victories and exaggerate their defeats. Its depiction of politics as war "imputes an absurdly inflated sense of discipline and purpose on each side" of the purported divide. It blinds itself to the fact that most American voters locate themselves not at one or another ideological extreme but in the "bewildered and exasperated . . . middle."

"The truth about America," Rabkin argues, is "far messier than a ‘culture war’ between ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressive’ forces. We are in the midst of many overlapping and cross–cutting social conflicts. Yes, there are deep divisions regarding public recognition or accommodation of religion and on sexual morals and ‘family values.’" But, he insists, there are deep divisions on a whole range of other issues—gun control, multiculturalism, economic policy, environmentalism, animal rights, etc.—that "don’t at all line up neatly as cultural divisions between religious conservatives and secularizing ‘progressives.’ We are a nation of Puritans and a nation of scoffers and we do . . . a lot of arguing. . . . That doesn’t quite add up to a ‘war.’"

The whole idea of culture war, Rabkin suggests, is somehow un–American. "The German term Kulturkampf derives from Bismarck’s struggle to bring Catholic institutions under Prussian state control in the 1870s. It is a phrase that does reflect actual historical experience—but not very much in this country. Kulturkampf ideology had its echoes in struggles in many other European countries trying like Bismarck to erect modern states over the opposition (or imputed opposition) of faithful Catholics." Nothing like that struggle—or what Rabkin calls its "alternate legacies of fanaticism and fatalism"—finds an echo in the American experience.

What is one to make of all this? It would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. The culture war metaphor probably does contribute to the unfortunate tendency of American conservatives to imagine themselves a besieged minority locked in perpetual—and perpetually losing—apocalyptic conflict. Rabkin is also right to suggest that a sense of historical perspective is a useful antidote to that defeatist tendency. (I have made a similar argument in these pages—see "The Myth of Declension," May 1999.) Visions of Armageddon make for grandiose hopes and fears—and for a dangerously overheated politics.

Along the same lines, Rabkin’s invocation of American exceptionalism should serve as a salutary reminder. Favorable circumstances allowed the American revolutionaries and founders to avoid the ideological extravagances of their later counterparts in France, Russia, and elsewhere. And in succeeding generations our political leaders have similarly managed to avoid, comparatively speaking at least, a politics of wretched excess.

On most issues most of the time American politics is indeed a struggle for the center, and Rabkin is right to warn conservatives about the pitfalls of political polarization. As he points out, such a politics "is quite dangerous if you do not have the majority on your side—and religious conservatives have no reason to think they have a reliable, natural majority on their side." "But," he adds, "the majority will only be against them if forced to take sides." If conservatives would disenthrall themselves of the culture war illusion, he suggests, they would recognize that their situation is not so dire as they imagine. They may not occupy the commanding heights of American politics—but neither do the liberals, who, after all, find electoral and legislative success these days chiefly when they manage to mask (and moderate) their liberalism.

All this in Rabkin’s argument strikes me as eminently sensible. But it is not the whole story. Most Americans—wisely, in my view—do not normally preoccupy themselves with developments in the political and intellectual landscape, and for them the notion that the nation is caught up in a culture war is indeed alien and unpersuasive. But those who, for better or worse, find it their business to deal with ideas cannot but be aware that such a conflict is in fact in progress.

It rages among the cultural elites, and it is in deadly earnest. It involves competing worldviews that, however subtle and complex in their details, can nonetheless be summed up with rough accuracy under such encompassing rubrics as "progressive" vs. "traditionalist" or "secular" vs. "orthodox." It is essential that the war of ideas be conducted with as much civility as can be mustered, and the search for common ground must never be abandoned. But for those called to be public intellectuals, it is an evasion either to pretend there is no conflict or to fail to take a stand on contested issues of principle.

And, in culture as in economics, there is a trickle–down effect. Ideas matter, and in the long run they shape, willy–nilly, the conditions and conduct of everyday life—sometimes quite dramatically, as in the ideas promulgated as law by the Supreme Court. Moreover they do so rather more systematically than Rabkin suggests. Divisions over ideas often do "cross–cut," as he says, but at least as often they do not. As George Will has said, ideas cluster, and people cluster politically. There is more consistency than Rabkin recognizes in our disagreements over, among other things, abortion, school choice, homosexuality, religion in public life, gun control, multiculturalism, economic policy, environmentalism, and animal rights. Political choice is not a random process. And the more attention people pay to their choices, the more consistent they become in choosing.

Rabkin is right to warn against conducting all of politics all the time as cultural warfare. He is also right to suggest that conservatives are most likely to be successful, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated, when they present their views in as nonthreatening, indeed as winsome, a manner as possible. But they would condemn themselves to fecklessness and irrelevance if they lost sight of the larger scheme of things in which particular events and policies find their place. For, like it or not, the culture war that Jeremy Rabkin says isn’t, most definitely is.