The Culture War of the Future

“Religious Right May Be Fading, but Not the ‘Culture Wars’,” reads the headline of Peter Steinfels’ recent article in the New York Times. “There are good reasons to doubt any lasting truce, let alone a real peace,” he writes, but his evidence is flimsy, at best.

After acknowledging the mounting evidence that the religious right is losing its monolithic hard-line political stance on a host of issues, Steinfels rightly recalls that what was called the “culture wars,” beginning in the late 1960s, at first did not center on issues of religion. He notes that the issues currently dominating US political debate have little or nothing to do with religion.

Nevertheless, he warns, divisive religious issues “will remain ready to flare up at the least provocation.” Yes, they might. But why believe they will? Steinfels’ only substantive answer comes in his closing paragraphs, where he speculates—again, without any real evidence—that if a Democratic administration takes control in ’09 and “is not watchful,” it would bring a host of new officials to Washington who are unsympathetic or even actively inimical to the interests of religious groups. “Not a few may be in more agreement with Christopher Hitchens’ maxim that “religion poisons everything” than with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s or Mr. Obama’s public affirmations of faith.” And their resistance to any and all things religious would apparently fuel a resurgence of the religious right—an overreaction to an overreaction,” Steinfels calls it in his closing sentence.

This line of argument would not be surprising on a religious right Web site. But from a journalist who writes regularly on religion for the nation’s most prestigious newspaper, it is just plain weird. Not only does it rest on sheer, irresponsible speculation, it assumes that conflict over issues like abortion and gay marriage is sparked primarily by government policies toward religious institutions, which is a dubious claim. What’s the point of all this—except, perhaps, to fuel the predicted new cultural conflagration and thus create self-fulfilling prophecy?

In the midst of his diatribe, Steinfels throws in a brief reference to deeper disagreements, “for example, about the sources of moral authority, about the nature of knowing and the limits of scientific rationality, about how best to live out one’s sexuality, about purpose or accident in the universe. In many ways, these are not directly or properly political questions, but they are nonetheless public. They are struggled over in the marketplace, the arts, the news media and popular entertainment.”

In fact, these deeper disagreements, especially about sources of moral authority and the nature of knowing, can easily translate into directly political issues. Then they can sharply influence the lives of people in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as I have argued at length.

But here Steinfels is conflating two rather separate issues. There are the current, apparently fading, debates about specific issues like abortion and gay marriage. Then there is the deeper, more basic question that will trouble and sometimes divide American society for many decades to come: Is there, and should there be, any foundational truth that is objectively given and eternal? Right now I suspect the vast majority of Americans would answer “Yes,” regardless of which side they take in Steinfels’ putative culture wars.

Most of the anti-foundationalists—the minority who would answer “no”—have, or are in the process of getting, graduate degrees, mostly in the humanities (though a growing number in the social sciences). Eventually, that will give them influence far out of proportion to their small numbers, especially as they are the pool from which college teachers are drawn. There is a huge and growing trend for college students to receive the gospel of anti-foundationalism in the classroom, not because their teachers have embarked on any conscious evangelizing mission, but simply because their teachers increasingly see it as their professional responsibility to teach from an anti-foundationalist perspective.

Those on the right, both religious and non-, understand this and actively combat it. But there is not much they can do about it. It’s like trying to catch the wind. They know this at some level (as loathe as they are to admit it), which is why there is so much passion associated with their core issues.

The people who don’t understand it are more often on the political left or in the center. They are less likely than right-wingers to see the long-term culture war that has been brewing here, as Steinfels rightly says, since the late 1960s (and in Europe since the time of Nietzsche). That’s because they don’t see the potential contradiction in their own stance.

On the one hand, they hold liberal or moderate political views that allow room for a free play of differing, even conflicting, policies and values, with everyone invited to enter a reasonable debate about the competing options. They resist anyone who claims to “know the truth” and impose it on others. On the other hand, they assume that their must be some permanent foundational truth (or truths), which they symbolize in a wide variety of ways. Liberals prize the freedom to choose their symbols, but most are loathe to give up the basic premise that there is foundational truth (even if some say that no one may ever know precisely what it is).

Most liberals and moderates don’t worry about, or even recognize, the potential theoretical conflict they are caught up in. It brews beneath the surface. Nevertheless, that conflict affects them deeply. The conflict will probably affect their children and grandchildren even more deeply.

The gap between foundationalists and anti-foundationalists is the real culture war, the one that is still too poorly understood to be addressed yet in any constructive way on a large scale. It’s fine to have a religion journalist in the nation’s leading newspaper mention it. It’s a shame that, in his rush to fan the flames of more limited and widely-recognized “culture wars,” he does not give the really important issue the attention it deserves.