Monday, January 28, 2008

Church and State, God and Country: The 'Culture Wars'

When politicians want votes, they declare war on something or someone. This isn't new. All the way back in 1812, a cadre of young Democratic-Republican congressmen called the 'war-hawks' managed to push the United States government into war with Great Britain. The leaders of this little band of brothers (Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun) would eventually disown one another (not until after they co-founded the Whig party to tear down Andrew Jackson, which didn't go so well) after disagreeing on sectional issues wrapped around the unsavory surprise package of slavery, but each would go on to a distinguished political career: Clay would be the first 'great' Speaker of the House and Calhoun would be Vice President and then Senator.

A few years later, give or take, James Knox Polk was elected president promising to get tough with Great Britain and Mexico over border disputes (in the former case) and expansionist greed (in the latter). Perhaps he remembered that Washington got burned in the War of 1812, because he reached a very reasonable compromise with Great Britain. He did declare war on Mexico, however, and in the Mexican War the United States was more than doubled in size and Mexico was gutted. More important, from a political perspective, was the fact that Polk's party (the Democrats) were able to label their political opponents (the Whigs) as 'cowards' and 'un-patriotic' for their charge (true) that the Mexican War was primarily intended to add new slave states to the Union and increase Southern political power in the Senate. The result was that Democrats swept the wartime elections and the Whig party was gravely crippled and ultimately destroyed.

Wars with countries became less popular, but other kinds of wars have become quite the fad since. Lyndon Johnson declared a 'War on Poverty', which hasn't gone as well as he might have liked. It was a president from Johnson's own party, Bill Clinton, who put the axe to Johnson's Great Society. Though most narcotics were already illegal in 1969, Richard Nixon declared 'War on Drugs'. That one has made the 'War on Poverty' look like a victory. George W. Bush declared his 'Global War on Terrorism' in the wake of September 11, but that quickly became 'The War on Everyone We Don't Like and on Everyone The Countries We Want To Be Friends With Are Worried About, Just To Be Safe.' My guess, sorry to disappoint all the Democratic Senators and congressmen who voted for the GWOT and the Patriot Act, is that was what it was always intended to be.

The original 'Culture War' was Bismarck's 'Kulturkampf', which he said was a war between the German civilization and the medieval barbarism of the Roman Catholic Church. It was really a war between the government of the relatively new German Empire and the political power and influence the Catholic Church still held in parts of Germany. In the 1920s, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci blamed the 'cultural hegemony' of the capitalist class for the failure of a true global Marxist revolution to take hold and argued for a 'culture war' to create a new cultural hegemony. It was with Gramsci's writings in mind that Mao Tse Tung would launch China's 'Cultural Revolution.'

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of cultural warfare between the old 'Traditional America' and the 'heirs of the Counter-Culture' began to take hold among conservative Christian politicans. The 'Culture War' was referenced in Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, and his declaration of a 'religious war' against liberals brought the entire Republican Party hard to the right. The entire convention became an outburst of bile against gays, minority activists, feminists, and liberals. Even the very moderate George H.W. Bush (who had been liberal enough, after his election in 1988, to claim he sought to be remembered as 'the environmental President') was surprisingly savage in his acceptance speech. In the 1994 mid-term elections, reactionaries who had been laughing-stocks even in the Republican party had become the GOP mainstream. They went on to write the bill that Bill Clinton signed, formally turning Lyndon Johnson's 'War on Poverty' to a properly Reaganite War on the Poor. Even more frightening, some of them are moderates by our standards today.

The conservative leaders of the 'Culture Wars' will tell you that they are defending 'Traditional America' and 'Traditional Values', which liberals have attacked at every turn and wish to destroy. They argue that the forces of 'Secularism' are led by atheists and agnostics who wish to actually destroy religion in America and that they are defending Christianity from these attacks. It is true that the Counter-Culture assaulted many traditional American values, but it is equally true that the basis of the Counter-Culture (even as many of its leaders rejected religion) was the message of love, peace, human brotherhood, and mutual kindness taught by Jesus. More importantly, while many of the ideas of the Counter-Culture have been adopted and developed by the political left, the idea of a complete transformation of American society into a new form is not one in the minds of most liberals. The goal of the left is to broaden society's base, so that more people are accepted into the embrace of traditional American society and to improve what needs improving while safeguarding what must never be lost.

If there is a Culture War, the Religious Right has declared it. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, and others among the Founding Fathers were Deists. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens and was deliberately intended to prevent the atrocities (albeit on a small scale, but still atrocities) carried out in the name of theocratic local and state governments in New England from being expanded or repeated. Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has said that he wishes to bring the Constitution into line with the Bible, because it is easier to change the Constitution than the Scriptures. This sounds a lot more like Cotton Mather (who hanged witches in Salem) than Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. Even the most palatable Republican hopeful, Senator John McCain, is on record as opposed to abortion and gay rights. Whatever one's stance on these issues, it is important to remember that the judges likely to reverse Roe vs. Wade are also the judges likely to trample all over other 'implied rights' not listed in the Bill of Rights because no one ever thought anyone would think to question them.

For those skeptical, it has not been 'secular' liberals who have attempted to force school districts to ban long lists of books. Last night I watched the movie version of 'A Bridge To Terabithia' for the first time. I didn't like the book much when I was made to read it in school,. but the movie was excellent and has me thinking I should give it another chance now. I certainly agree with its message of the importance of imagination, friendship, and family in the face of life's harsh trials. It is a classic of American culture and teaches traditional values of perseverance, friendship, and family. Yet this is one of the books that conservatives would have liked to see banned in the 1980s.

In my opinion, the Religious Right would not like to defend American culture so much as they would like to edit it into their vision of what it should have been in the first place. Then they would like to exclude everyone who doesn't share that vision from their rightful place in a free society.

Do we really want our nation to become a gigantic version of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? I'm not a Quaker, but I was raised Mennonite and as a fellow pacifist I might be mistaken for a Quaker. I'd like to keep my ears.

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