Culture Warriors Surrender, But Battles Rage On

In auto racing, a white flag means "last lap". --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
In auto racing, a white flag means "last lap". --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The culture wars are over, according to Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter for former South Carolina Gov. Mark Stanford. The left has won and all that’s left, according to Swaim, is to negotiate the terms of surrender.

As evidence, Swaim offers statements by two prominent evangelicals, Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, to the effect that their “side lost the culture war.”

And while some on the left may argue this is merely a “rhetorical pivot,” Swaim argues that “religious conservatives are rethinking their role in American society and politics.” Instead of looking to convert everyone, or the culture itself, to their way of thinking, religious conservatives are recognizing the value of pluralism:

Many have finally given up on the whole idea of a culture war or are willing to admit they lost it. They are determined only to remain who they are and to live as amiably and productively as they can in a culture that doesn’t look like them and doesn’t belong to them.

Whether or not they are successful in doing this, says Swaim, is up to “the adherents of ascendant social progressivism,” who need to decline to “take full advantage of their newfound cultural dominance.”

There are a couple of problems with Swaim’s argument. One, religious conservatives may have lost some key cultural battles, most prominently the fight over same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost the war. That’s because it’s a multi-front war and because sometimes you can lose the rhetorical battle but still win the ground game.

Abortion is a case in point. Social conservatives have spent more than 40 years trying to convince Americans that abortion is a moral evil and should be banned at the national level. But they haven’t succeeded. Opinion on abortion is roughly where it was 40 years ago, with a small majority of Americans believing it should be legal in all or some circumstances. But social conservatives have been widely successful over the past decade in severely curtailing women’s access to abortion by working through state legislatures to pass a host of bills that erect hurdles to abortion, from multi-day waiting periods, to rules that limit access to abortion pills, to regulations designed to shut clinics down and forced women to travel great distances to get an abortion.

Is the culture war on abortion over? Has the right given up? Not by a long shot.

Swaim also has a limited view of exactly who is driving the culture wars. It’s true that evangelicals like Moore have called for less focus on the culture wars and a renewed emphasis on the gospel. But evangelicals are only part of the equation. The U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been more influential in sparking the culture wars around “religious liberty” than any other entity, haven’t backed down one bit.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just released a video commemorating the 50th anniversary of the church’s Dignitaries Humanae religious liberty decree. Tom Roberts at National Catholic Reporter notes that it mixes “footage of grim scenes of hooded and handcuffed captives and violent chaos in unidentified locations around the globe with ominous talk of government ‘harassment’ of and existential threats to religious institutions in the United States,” in addition to dire warnings about the government infringing on the right of American to practice their faith.

And just recently, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who is behind many of the bishops’ religious liberty efforts, called the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act an “attack the religious freedom of Catholic educational institutions and other organizations” and “part of a ‘bloodless’ persecution in the U.S. of those seeking to bring the ‘healing balm’ of truth, love and mercy into our culture.”

Clearly the Catholic bishops haven’t gotten the message that the culture wars are over.

There’s also a problem with Swaim’s dismissal of “hardened secularists’” dismissal of Mohler and Moore’s language as a mere “rhetorical pivot.” The entire culture war is itself a rhetorical pivot, from abortion, to same-sex marriage, and now to transgender people in bathrooms. Whatever riles up the troops and whatever connects to whatever deep cultural insecurities conservatives are facing in the moment.

As Emma Green notes in The Atlantic, “America is experiencing a period of profound gender anxiety. Mainstream understandings of ‘gender’ are changing.” This in turn is causing conservative states like Mississippi, which recently made the definition of “male” and “female” a matter of law, to “codify concepts that have always seemed culturally implicit,” like who should use the men’s room and who should use the woman’s room.

Part of this, writes Green, is a backlash against the move toward legalizing same-sex marriage, which destablilized a long-established gender binary, with anxieties first expressing themselves as requests for exemptions from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies and more recently in the right of states to control the access of transgender individuals to public bathrooms.

What this means, Green says, is that “[n]on-traditional notions of gender have finally become widespread enough to foment a sustained backlash.” And with the federal government now moving aggressively to create protections for transgender individuals, “small-government-loving states like Mississippi and North Carolina have resorted to the law to protect their notions of gender,” which “shows the depth of their panic about these ambient cultural shifts.”

The culture wars are dead; long live the culture wars.