Can Politics Win a Culture War?

Posted: May 12, 2010 8:35 PM
Can Politics Win a Culture War?

James Davison Hunter may be the smartest man in America.

A generation ago, he coined the phrase "culture war" to describe the contest over sex, family, abortion, religious liberty and other "social issues."

Michelle Malkin

Today we live in the middle of an endless, tiresome and unattractive culture war, and Hunter quite sensibly wants to stand athwart this mess and yell "Stop!"

Both the Christian left and the Christian right are wrong, according to Hunter: Wrong in imagining that a Christian can engage in politics the way it is routinely practiced today: by demeaning opponents, caricaturing their views, instilling and fanning base fears, raising utopian hopes, and promising followers power and prominence. Christians in politics have become "functional Nietzscheans" he says. How can followers of a penniless and crucified master lust for power?

Worse, the Christian right's theory of culture is simply false. One cannot "engage the culture" by converting individual hearts and minds or accumulating majority votes. Culture simply does not work like that. Culture is the power to "name reality," and that power is in itself inevitably intertwined with high cultural status. Culture is a product of elites, not of moral majorities.

Cultural questions are questions about the nature of reality first and foremost: Do gay people exist? Two hundred years ago the answer would be no. Today it is yes. That is cultural power -- the power to name a socially shared reality.

Is that thing in a mother's womb a baby or merely a fetus? That question is still deeply contested.

Here's my problem with Hunter's conclusion: Politics does work. Abortion remains a live moral and cultural question in America in part because of politics.

Hunter's critique of politics cuts deeply with me. Three years ago I started a political organization, the National Organization for Marriage. On the whole, I am proud of how NOM has engaged in this fight. People fight over symbols because symbols are the stuff out of which reality is constructed.

You go to culture war with the army you have. The reason people with traditional religious and sexual moralities gravitated into politics is that structures of the political elites are among the most open and easy to penetrate. To put it another way, politics is one field of culture-making that secular elites do not control. Political power thus operates in a partial and limited fashion as a break on elites' cultural power, since it raises the potential costs of attempting to de-legitimize of those who disagree with them in the public square. The risk of backlash tempers Harvard's dreams for America.

Absent a political backlash, elites who gave us Roe v. Wade could now be moving on to a greater institutionalization of abortion, making aborting teen pregnancies public policy, for example, or forcing pro-life doctors and nurses into other professions. Opposition to abortion could be pushed underground in the same way that racism is now underground. Instead, because abortion costs Democrats votes, Democrats and the elites that cheer for Democrats have muted their opposition to the pro-life position in ways that inevitably enhance the legitimacy of moral concerns surrounding abortion.

Politics is only one tool of cultural power, and not the best. But it is a potentially useful tool.

My own complaint about the religious right is not that it is too much in politics, but that it is not enough. In too many cases, religious conservatives talk like they are in politics, make demands like they are in politics, issue threats like they are in politics -- but they do not create the institutions that are at the heart of politics: organizations that raise money and spend it electing politicians who will vote for their cause.

Hunter is right: Religious conservatives who make "reclaiming the culture" their political goal are doomed to fail; more modesty and a tighter mission focus are essential. For politics to be an effective tool, values must be transformed into a political objective, i.e., something a politician can vote for or against (partial-birth abortion, conscience protection in health care legislation, waiting periods for abortions, parental notification).

You go to culture war with the army you have -- and then you figure out what you really need, or you lose.

(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 14 years.)

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