Normally at this time of year, the culture-war fight is over a guy with a white beard. That's true again this year. What's different is that Phil Robertson has taken Santa's place, and instead of a war on Christmas, we have a war on "Duck Dynasty."
The patriarch of the popular A&E reality show said some crude things about homosexuals to GQ magazine. A&E was sufficiently offended that it suspended him from a show about his own family.
So far, the controversy understandably has been framed as a fight over free speech. My National Review colleague Mark Steyn writes: "Most Christian opponents of gay marriage oppose gay marriage; they don't oppose the right of gays to advocate it. Yet thug groups like GLAAD increasingly oppose the right of Christians even to argue their corner. It's quicker and more effective to silence them."
I think Steyn has the causation right. The free-speech issues are the inevitable consequence of a venerable argument about what a free society is.
Maybe I see it that way because I have Yuval Levin's wonderful book "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left" fresh in my mind (Note: I review it for the January issue of Commentary and discuss it with Levin for an upcoming edition of "After Words" on C-SPAN). Levin chronicles the argument between the Irish-born British parliamentarian and the English-born American polemicist over the role of government and the merits of the French Revolution.
As Levin shows, Burke, the father of modern conservatism, and Paine, an early champion of progressivism, were liberals in the sense that both defended a free society. But their assumptions about human nature and society led them to very different places. In a sense, they were protagonists in the earliest rounds of a two-century-old culture war.
Paine saw the individual as the irreducible unit of society, and the state as the guarantor not just of liberty but of personal empowerment. He held that with the right application of scientific principles, an egalitarian utopia could be achieved. It would simply require tearing down the prejudices, customs and habits of the old order, just as the French revolutionaries were doing. Paine eventually saw few distinctions between legal and cultural impediments to liberty, which is why he came to denounce Christianity as "repugnant to reason."