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How To End The Culture War

This item about whether Obama will bring the culture war to an end has inspired two thoughtful posts -- one by Tim Fernholz at Tapped, and another by Ed Kilgore at the Democratic Strategist.

Tim's post concludes by posing the following question: "So, Damon, how does one end the culture wars?"

Good question. One option is to demoralize the other side to such an extent that they effectively give up and go home. This is pretty much what fundamentalists did after the humiliation of the Scopes Trial in 1925. For the next five decades, conservative evangelical Protestants stayed out of American public life. Maybe those liberals who would like to pass a maximalist version of the Freedom of Choice Act have something like this in mind. But in the age of blast faxes, talk radio, and Internet-based political organization, I frankly doubt this would be successful. More likely the provocation would radicalize the religious right more than anything since 1973. 

The other way in which one could imagine a culture war coming to an end is through conversion: the slow migration of right-wing culture warriors away from extremism and toward the political and cultural center. Obama clearly hopes to motivate such conversions. How likely is he to succeed? I think it depends on the issue. Ed lists three such issues -- church-state separation, homosexual rights/gay marriage, and abortion. Let's take them in turn.

Church-State Separation. This is where Obama can make the most difference. The United States has always been big on civil religion, and many of its fights over church and state have concerned the question of how much theology (and what style of theology -- mainline Protestantism? traditionalist evangelical Protestantism? liberal evangelical Protestantism? orthodox Catholicism? liberal Catholicism? generic Judeo-Christianity, whatever that is?) can and should be incorporated into our civic catechism. The theocons around George W Bush wanted to bring that catechism as closely as possible into alignment with orthodox Catholic social theory, which Bush largely did, albeit in an evangelical idiom. This combination inspired ecstatic enthusiasm in the ranks of the religious right for much of Bush's presidency, but it repelled many others (both secular and religious), who ended up feeling like the president was telling them that their failure to conform to traditionalist Catholic-Christian moral teaching made them bad citizens. As I've argued at length, this is no way to handle religion in pluralistic nation of 300 million people.

Obama promises to do much better by infusing his rhetoric (and this aspect of the culture war is largely about rhetoric) with a more genuinely civic form of religiosity. That means fewer scriptural references, less emphasis on the divisive sexual teachings associated with traditionalist religious groups, a greater effort to highlight moral commonalities and downplay disagreements, and a commitment not to insist on the theological basis of the nation's principles (that is, the president should talk about liberty and equality, but he should let Americans decide for themselves whether our rights are founded in nature or reason or faith -- and if faith, which faith). In short, no more talk about a chasm separating a "culture of life" and a "culture of death" that just so happens to align with the country's two major political parties. Obama's already shown himself to be a master of speaking the language of civic inclusivity, and I suspect this talent will help him over the coming years to de-radicalize not-insignificant numbers of culture warriors.

Homosexual Rights/Gay Marriage. This is an aspect of the culture war where I think the right has already lost and will keep on losing, more and more decisively, over time. Public opinion data tell us that each generation is more open to and accepting of the dignity of gay relationships than the one before it. And I find it hard to imagine any scenario in which this change will reverse itself -- though it may be slowed down if the nation's courts insist on pushing change even faster than it's happening on its own. (I fully understand why some gays bristle when they're told that they must wait a few more years for public recognition of their love and commitment. But it will happen -- and it will happen with less social rancor and resistance if judges stand back and allow it to bubble up from civil society instead acting to impose it from above using the coercive power of the courts.) In other words, on this front the right has already lost the culture war, which means Obama should proceed firmly but cautiously to consolidate the victory. (The agenda laid out on the White House website gives me confidence that this is precisely what he has in mind.)

Sounds pretty optimistic so far, doesn't it? Well, that's because, like those who take on the thankless task of Middle East peace negotiations, I've saved the most intractable problem for last. And that, of course, is . . . 

Abortion. And here I think that liberals -- including conscientious and fair-minded liberals like Tim and Ed -- show that they just don't grasp the depth of the problem, and how it very well might keep the culture war alive for a very long time to come. The problem has to do with the Constitution -- our nation's fundamental law. It claims to speak with the voice of all Americans -- "We the People." The provisions contained within the document express what all of us (tacitly) affirm to be the ground rules or background assumptions for public life in the United States. It is a statement of our political identity as a nation.

Prior to Roe v. Wade, the Constitution took no stand on abortion. Instead, each state was allowed to resolve the issue (imperfectly) in its own way while the country as a whole -- its fundamental law -- remained silent on the issue. (This, by the way, is also how the issue is handled in socially liberal Western Europe, where democratically elected legislatures readily place modest restrictions on abortion that would never be allowed to stand under current American constitutional law.)

But all of this changed with Roe. Some Americans believe that an abortion is an act of lethal violence against an innocent human being whose rights (like everyone else's) should be protected by the state. Other Americans believe that the only legally relevant moral considerations in an abortion are the wishes of the pregnant woman -- which of course presumes that the fetus is not a human being in need of protection against lethal violence. These are contrary and incompatible metaphysical assumptions about matters of life and death and human dignity. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court declared that the fundamental law of the United States affirms the position of the second group and rejects the views of the first. On that day, the Constitution ceased to be neutral on this matter of metaphysics.

The pro-life movement, which overlaps to a considerable extent with the modern religious right, was conjured into being not by the fact that some states prior to 1973 permitted abortions but by the Supreme Court's assertion that the metaphysical convictions of abortion opponents are incompatible with the nation's fundamental law. The pro-life movement is thus in large measure an expression of identity politics. It amounts to a spirited refusal on the part of a group of Americans to accept that its views are constitutionally unacceptable. Pro-lifers are saying, in effect: "This is my country, too, and so you are wrong to think that We the People affirm the right of a mother to murder her baby. We the People affirm no such thing."

This is why a pro-lifer would be infuriated by Tim's comment (which Ed unfortunately endorses) to the effect that "unlike some liberals, I think people who feel differently [on abortion] deserve a certain amount of respect. But they don't deserve to have a veto over other people's rights." For many pro-lifers -- those ensconsed on the other side of the culture war -- this self-congratulatory statement cannot help but be profoundly insulting, insinuating as it does that "respect" for a pro-lifer is compatible with denying him or her any voice whatsoever in shaping the nation's fundamental law on abortion.

And this is the core of the problem. Roe "settled" the question of abortion by saying that the pro-choice side wins 100 percent of the time, now and forever: America is a pro-choice nation and those who don't like it can (respectfully) go to hell. No wonder we'll still fighting these battles 36 years later. (This is also why it's so unfortunate that Tim is content to tell abortion opponents, in effect, to go fuck themselves: if abortion rights make "the religious right angry, that's what happens in a liberal democracy." No, what normally happens in a liberal democracy is that two sides in a rancorous public debate seek to reach a compromise -- and each side gets to continue its argument during the next election cycle in the hope of gaining ground. Once an issue is constitutionalized, this political process stops, freezing out the losing side completely.) 

How could Obama -- how could liberals, how could supporters of abortion rights -- both win and end the culture war, once and for all? By supporting the reversal or significant narrowing of Roe, allowing abortion policy to once again be set primarily by the states -- a development that would decisively divide and demoralize the conservative side of the culture war by robbing it of the identity politics that holds it together as a national movement.

But isn't this a cure worse than the disease? Wouldn't it be an absurd example of portraying a catastrophic loss for liberals and feminists as a victory? I don't think so. As Ed notes in his post, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in the middle on abortion, leaning toward the pro-choice side, and that's where the issue would be settled in most states. (Hell, even a state as conservative as North Dakota has recently shown its reluctance to go very far in regulating abortion.) Perhaps a few states -- Utah, some in the deep South -- would significantly curtail reproductive freedom. But it's likely that the United States a decade following the reversal of Roe would look much the same as it does now, with many states making the democratic decision to go at least as far as most European nations in permitting women to legally terminate their pregnancies. But there would be one important difference: in this post-Roe America, opponents of abortion would no longer be able to blame their losses on a system unfairly rigged by secular-liberal jurists to delegitimate their views. They would lose, but they would lose fair and square, in the court of public opinion. 

Tim asked, and now I've answered. That's how -- in my view, the only way how -- liberals can win the culture war. Short of that, we're left with a stalemate lurching a few steps one way or the other depending upon the occupant of the Oval Office. I realize that after eight years of George W. Bush and with Obama's exhilarating victory still fresh in their minds, liberals are in no mood to contemplate a bolder strategy. Many probably endorse the title of Tim's post: "The Culture Wars Aren't Ending. Not Sure If I Mind." At the moment, I kind of agree. But here's the thing: the GOP is going to win the presidency again someday. When it does, will the religious right once again be an important part of its electoral coalition? Or will the party have been moderated by the religious right's intervening collapse? Liberals have it in their power to help bring about such a collapse -- an outcome that would be good for the country and good for liberalism. But it will only happen if liberals become willing to de-constitutionalize the issue of abortion.   

UPDATE: Thanks to Daniel Larison for pointing out my error in saying proposed restrictions on abortion had recently been defeated in North Dakota. It was in South Dakota.

UPDATE 2: You can find a new post here in which I respond to a few critics.