The Culture Wars – Have We Lost?

Published October 13, 2014


A recent New York Times editorial declares that the tide has turned against cultural conservatives. As public opinion trends leftward on social issues, they claim, voters are rejecting “radical” positions against abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Social issues, the editors chortle, are now “potent” tools for Democrats. By hammering away at Republicans’ views on reproductive rights, Democrat candidates hope “to incite the anger of women” (especially single women) and turn out the vote. Even though the “war on women” rhetoric sounds a bit stale, the tactics work well enough. Some Republican strategists even want to concede that Democrats “did win the culture war.”

In light of the Supreme Court’s October 6th refusal to review five federal appellete court decisions that overturned state bans on same-sex marriage, we might be tempted to think that the “Times” is right. By upholding these decisions, same-sex “marriage” will be effectively legal (it cannot be barred) in all 30 states under the jurisdiction of those Courts of Appeal. Once the rulings take effect, the dominoes will fall in 30 states and, in a majority of U.S. states, same-sex couples will be permitted to “marry.”

Momentum has shifted leftward on many issues and that seems to be the sole aim of many social liberals: getting people to agree with their moral vision. And America’s young people are low-hanging fruit. Unburdened by a knowledge of history, lacking the skills to analyze and reason, they can be won over with slogans appealing to freedom, tolerance and change. They join in rejecting what the “Times” editors describe as the “growing obsolescence” of conservative moral positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. “For a younger generation of voters,” according to the “Times,” “the old right-wing nostrums about the ‘sanctity of life’ and the ‘sanctity of marriage’ have lost their power, revealed as intrusions on human freedom.”

Not quite. The editors got a few things wrong.

First, even if it were true that “victory” in the culture wars can be measured by graphs of public opinion, that picture is decidedly mixed and more dynamic than the “New York Times” lets on. Liberals may have tipped the balance on some measures, but they’ve by no means “won.”

Marriage is struggling (no surprise), challenged by hook-ups, cohabitation and divorce. A September 2014 Pew study reports that 55% of adults over 50 say marriage and children should be societal priorities, but two-thirds of younger adults (18-29)disagree. While the majority of adults over 50 say it’s “very important” for couples to marry if they plan to stay together, only one-third of younger adults agree.

Although “everybody knows” the U.S. divorce rate is 50% – it’s actually not. It varies according to religious observance (27% lower for regular church-goers), race, and education. Among ever-married adults, 28% of Catholics have experienced divorce, compared to Protestants (39%) and those with no religious affiliation (42%).

Overall, 72% of adults are still married to a first spouse. (Those who divorce and remarry are more likely to divorce a second or third time, driving the overall rate higher.)

Cohabitation is steadily increasing. The CDC (2013) reports that 48% of women cohabited with a partner; 40% of those relationships eventually became marriages, 27% broke up, and 32% continued cohabiting. Cohabiters who do marry still face challenges. The habit of “yours and mine” rather than “ours” can be deeply ingrained, and easy divorce reduces the incentive to persevere through difficulties.

On moral issues, Americans’ views reflect a mix of conservative and liberal leanings. According to Pew (April 2014) Americans hold very traditional moral views on abortion (only 17% say it’s morally acceptable), extramarital affairs (4% say it’s morally acceptable) and homosexuality (23% say it’s morally acceptable). Another Pew survey found that more Americans believe homosexuality is a sin now (50%), than a year ago (45%). Even so, 49% would still support same-sex marriage. Finally, most Americans view contraception favorably (only 7% say it is morally unacceptable) and hold mixed views on pre-marital sex.

But statistics are not the whole story. They can help us “take the temperature” of our culture, but statistics – especially public opinion polls – can’t crown a victor in the culture wars.

We have to ask ourselves what exactly is “culture” and what would a “win” look like? Those questions require us to think deeply about the common good, the meaning of life, our dignity as human beings, personal fulfillment and even to confront the question of eternal life. Throughout history, revolutionaries have won culture wars by toppling the existing institutions and their cultural mores. What typically follows is chaos and tyranny.

The “Times” editorial offhandedly dismisses the “sanctity of life” and the “sanctity of marriage” as old “right-wing nostrums.” [A “nostrum” is a conventional remedy that has not been shown to have any desirable effects.] Yet, these principles – the defense of human life, the importance of marriage, inherent human dignity, human freedom (or better put, ordered liberty) – are great human goods, proven to have had desirable effects. And we can see all around us the consequences of the views that life is cheap and marriage unimportant.

The “New York Times” paradigm of culture war victory can never satisfy. Nor can it be sustained. Can the cheerleaders of uncommitted, carefree sex, or the fans of hookup culture, really claim they’ve “won” when –

  • the CDC reports epidemic-levels of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), conservatively costing $15.6 billion annually in the U.S. alone—twice the annual budget of the Centers for the Disease Control?
  • millions of couples cannot conceive a child because STDs have left them infertile?
  • when teen suicides continue to rise, leaving devastated families behind?
  • when pornography makes otherwise healthy young men impotent?
  • when it teaches young women to welcome sexual violence and degradation?
  • when a million babies die every year by abortion?

Ultimately, the battle over culture is not a campaign to capture shifting majorities. It’s a debate over our common self-understanding – our public narrative about human dignity, value, and destiny.

True, American culture does seem to be spiraling towards ever-increasing individualism, utilitarianism, secularism, and hedonism, profoundly affecting our relationships with others. Self-focused hearts become hardened towards the profoundly disabled or the lonely elderly, disconnected from neighbors and friends, utilitarian towards the human embryos conceived and destroyed during in vitro fertilization, calloused towards women who become “breeders” through surrogacy contracts, or who become caught up in the sex trade, and indifferent to the loneliness and hardships of immigrants.

But the “shift in public opinion … over time,” predict the “Times” editors, “may help spell an end to the politics of cultural division.” Thus, the “Times” would have us believe, if cultural conservatives would drop their discriminatory weapons (things like “conscience” and “religious beliefs”), stop using the “Catholic faith as a shield,” and toss aside the tired “nostrums” of “sanctity of life” and the “sanctity of marriage,” we’d all be clinking glasses, raising a toast to the liberal’s definitive “victory” in the culture war.

Not a chance.

We have literally millennia of data demonstrating that this is no way to live. The human heart cries out for more. We naturally yearn for the true, the good, and the beautiful and will not be satisfied until we’ve grasped it.

In the short run, the battles may be rough. But the real “war” will never be lost.

Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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