After Monday’s presidential debate, Damon Linker noted on Twitter that the debate had not featured a single culture war question, causing him to conclude that “the religious right is really dead.” Rod Dreher agreed, “With a stake through its heart and a garlic necklace.”
That sounds bad. But I’m not sure the conclusion is warranted. For one thing, a number of important issues were left out of the first debate. There were no questions about health care, for instance, or immigration. Is immigration a dead issue? I’m thinking not.
People have been declaring for decades that the culture wars (like religion itself) are over. It’s never really true. Still, these issues may be presently drifting to the margins of mainstream culture, along with the people who champion them. I suspect that would mostly be good.
The Culture Wars Never Truly End
Culture wars never truly end, because they cut to the heart of fundamental questions about how people should live, which are never fully resolved. Declaring that culture wars have been either “lost” or “won” is most always foolish, especially because religious conservatives themselves are far from moribund.
Traditionalists have lost a few rounds in the public square, but their numbers are holding strong overall. The waning religiosity among very young adults is admittedly a concern. Their heads are still turned by the strongly progressive moment in which they came of age. Still, the highly religious tend to be very tenacious about preserving both their genes and their culture. They have high rates of childbearing, and are willing to build their own cultural bastions when the mainstream ones don’t welcome them. In other words, they have stamina.
Over the past decade, liberals have poured energy into winning the mainstream culture, ensuring it is dominated by a sexually libertine and expressively individualist ethic. Traditionalists haven’t had anything like those same resources (in terms of either money or elite influence), so they’ve struggled to keep a toe-hold in the public square. Very little has been settled on rational grounds. But progressives have won a lot of ground with money, corporate influence, and in some cases, judges and political officials who were willing to subvert the Constitution and democratic process to achieve their cultural goals.
So here’s the situation in a nutshell. Truth and longevity are on the traditionalists’ side. Money and elite influence are on the side of the progressives. Now are we supposed to be disappointed if culture wars have a spell on the back burner?
Are We Turning a Page? Doubtful
This of course is not what Linker meant to imply. He thinks the culture wars have waned because traditionalists have lost so completely. There is some truth to that. Most Americans seem to regard same-sex marriage as a settled matter in the wake of the Obergefell decision. But there are (from the traditionalist perspective) more optimistic sides to this picture.
That most Americans view the marriage issue as settled implies that most don’t see the need to keep pushing the progressive envelope at this moment. Progressives have tried to stir up public support for transgenderism and polyamory, but thus far most Americans don’t seem especially energized. That could change, of course. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the public will follow the progressive fringe absolutely anywhere.
It’s still somewhat unclear how many Americans were really convinced of the rightness of same-sex marriage, as opposed to deciding it was inevitable and no longer worth fighting. Interestingly, in the wake of Obergefell, support for same-sex marriage leveled off and then fell a bit across multiple demographics. It’s hard to say what exactly that means, but it doesn’t seem to show wild enthusiasm for charging on to new progressive horizons.
Insofar as progressives have won the public opinion wars, they largely did it through a deafening broadcast of oversimplified memes. “Love is love.” Brilliant. “The kids are all right.” Sure they are.
The problem with this kind of obfuscation is that eventually people will realize they were deceived. It may not happen in a blinding “eureka” moment. (Then again, it may. I’ve known a few people who did have such a “mugged by reality” moment.) Some people may just realize over time that actually, there is a difference between, say, a two-man pair and a man-and-woman pair. That fact will not change simply because we issue the same formal document to each.
Also, children rather like having mothers. (Fathers too! They are not interchangeable!) Further, removing children from their natural parents is a consequential thing, which should not be considered routine (even if it is sometimes justified).
For a long time our guardians of culture have sternly warned us against noticing these basic truths. When you’re building a castle of illusions, though, you really can’t afford to relax your grip on the public imagination. Even just a few short years of lax enforcement and sluggish momentum might do all sorts of harm to the cause. Take your foot off the progressive pedal and the next thing you know, a new generation of traditionalists may burst forth on the cultural scene, resurrecting heteronormativity and protecting the unborn! Unfortunately for the progressive, tradition never sleeps.
Plugging the Dam
It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future of our republic these days, but here’s a bright spot. What if Trumpism, the alt-right, Black Lives Matter, disaffected millennials, and other rising problems leave progressives too busy and demoralized to persecute religious conservatives?
Few things would please me more than to watch the Left go scrambling after white supremacists, leaving traditionalists in peace. Is it possible that a bracing glimpse of a post-Christian America will make them a little more tolerant of Christian America?
Maybe it’s a long shot. But if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that cultural battles can take rapid and unexpected turns. This is going to be a long race. And traditionalists are generally pretty good at keeping themselves hydrated.