February 16, 2008
By PETER STEINFELS
On every side, one can read obituaries for the religious right.
Jim Wallis's new book, "The Great Awakening," carries the subtitle, "Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." E. J. Dionne Jr.'s book, "Souled Out," is subtitled "Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right." The subtitle of David P. Gushee's new book, "The Future of Faith in American Politics," poses "The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center" against that of the religious right.
Sometimes stated outright and sometimes between the lines is the hope that the decline of the religious right will ease what Americans have come to know as the culture wars.
There is no question that many evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics have grown disenchanted with both the political agenda and what they see as the strident style of the organized religious right. Some have been convinced, by their own Scriptures and by new leaders, that poverty, human rights, genocide, sex trafficking and global warming must be no less matters of Christian concern than abortion, homosexuality and embryonic stem-cell research. Even more have reacted against their faith being enlisted in partisan politics.
But what will this retreat of the religious right mean for the future of the culture wars? Caution is in order. Combat may wane, at least a little, at least for a while. But there are good reasons to doubt any lasting truce, let alone a real peace.
The culture wars, it should be remembered, predated the religious right. They began in the 1960s when the youthful counterculture and the antiwar movement were pitted against solid citizens.
In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon appealed to the "silent majority," without any explicit religious reference--a decade before the Rev. Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority. In 1970 Vice President Spiro T. Agnew denounced the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "effete corps of impudent snobs" whom he held responsible for misleading public opinion. Other Conservatives berated "limousine liberals" as hypocritically assisting the poor and blacks at the expense of working-class whites.
About the same time, the first generation of neoconservatives was constructing an elaborate theory (naturally) of the nation's cultural crisis. They drew on the literary critic Lionel Trilling's notion of an "adversary culture" in literature and art that had opposed bourgeois society throughout the 19th century.
By the 1960s, this outlook was said to have become a mass phenomenon, communicated by higher education to a "new class" of workers in knowledge-based sectors of the economy. The campus-spawned new class, according to the neoconservatives, was at war with the traditional business class for control of the culture.
Religion was only a marginal factor in this first round of the culture wars. They were fought on grounds of patriotism, support for a war overseas (Vietnam), middle-class virtues and social resentment against racial minorities and liberal elites.
Four decades later, issues of that sort have not disappeared as fodder for culture wars. The threat of radical Islamist terrorism, the still-distant exit from Iraq, and the cultural and economic anxieties stirred by immigration may very well replace any relaxation of the religious right's ability to mobilize voters around abortion or gay marriage.
But, in fact, significant cultural flash points like those over abortion rights and gay marriage have not gone away. They may be eclipsed in 2008 by national security or economic insecurity. They may be subject to compromises, as some advocates of a post-religious-right agenda hope, like proposals to cooperate on reducing the number of abortions or to settle for civil unions that are not called marriage.
But conflict on these issues will remain ready to flare up at the least provocation. Legislation that might bring both opponents and supporters of legal abortion together to reduce abortion has remained trapped in a spider's web of details and suspicions dividing the two groups. The next president, whether Republican or Democrat, may very well loosen President Bush's restrictions on federal financing of embryonic stem-cell research. And then there are Supreme Court appointments.
But there are also still deeper disagreements, as is inevitable in a pluralist society--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, like sitcoms and video games.
There is a third reason the culture wars will not only persist but may also regain their former intensity. The leaders of the Democratic Party have done their best to counter the impression that it is hostile to religion and religious values. The potential of Senator Barack Obama's religious stance to heal the culture wars of the baby boom generations was an underlying theme of Andrew Sullivan's brief for the Illinois senator in The Atlantic in December.
But it is unclear how far this sensitivity goes into the ranks of the liberals and progressives who will be filling posts in executive agencies, Congressional offices and the judiciary if the Democrats win in November. The occasions for friction are legion, including decisions about financing religion-based charities, nondiscrimination legislation and regulations of many kinds.
After years of enduring attacks from the religious right, a few may relish the opportunity for payback. Many more may simply have little patience for religious objections and little familiarity with religious allies as they press measures they care about deeply. And not a few may be in more agreement with Christopher Hitchens's maxim that "religion poisons everything" than with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's or Mr. Obama's public affirmations of faith.
When it comes to religion and politics, the culture is at a strange conjuncture. Over the last four years, a growing stream of evangelicals, including a former president, Jimmy Carter, have published books calling for a broader, kinder, gentler religious public agenda than the religious right's. Just as the message has apparently been heard, it has encountered a counterwave of books arguing that religion is totally unfit, not merely for public life, but for personal life as well.
If the latter surge finds any receptive audience, it is much more likely to be among liberal Democrats than among Republicans. If a Democratic administration is not watchful, it could set off another of the overreactions to overreactions that have marred American politics.
Copyright 2008, NY Times.