The US ‘Culture Wars’ as We Know Them Might be Over 13 December 2015
Ben Woodfinden considers what the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage will mean for the long fought culture wars of the United States.
At a recent conference held by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush proclaimed that “religious freedom is under attack in this country in a way like never before.” Republican primaries for the 2016 Presidential Election are starting to heat up, and rhetoric like this is normal for candidates looking to woo conservative Evangelicals voters. This important constituency has for the past four decades had the power to make its preferred candidates the Republican nominee. But Bush’s message is more than simply campaign rhetoric, it addresses something many conservative Christians in the United States now believe: that Christianity is under attack in a way never seen before.
To contemporary observers of Christian conservatism, it is apparent that a substantial shift has taken place in the outlook of the movement. The focus and rhetoric of the movement is increasingly shifting away from an “offensive” posture focused on the active promotion of Christian values in American society towards a more “defensive” stance focused on the preservation of religious liberty and autonomy. What this may represent is a redrawing of the battle lines in the so called “culture wars,” with conservative Christians turning their focus towards protecting their own freedom and rights against a perceived aggressive secularism that is increasingly taking over American society. If this is the case, then the culture wars that have been such an important part of American political life since the early 1970s may essentially be over, at least in their current form.
How Did The Culture Wars Begin?
Conservative Christianity in the form of Protestant fundamentalism had been strong in the early 20th century, but retreated into political isolation in the decades after the Scopes trial in 1925. The movement began to re-politicize due to the perceived moral decline in American society that took place in the post-war era. In 1977 Focus on the Family was formed and in 1979 the Moral Majority was created by the fiery fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. These two groups created political arms for conservative Christianity, and helped increase the prominence and influence of the movement in the following decades. It is important to remember that the movement is diverse, and is not uniformly represented by organizations like the Moral Majority. But, conservative Evangelicals are by far the most significant grouping within the movement.
At the height of the movement’s influence headlines were made on an almost daily basis by lawmakers, activists or organizations praising legislation that promoted Christian values in public life. Neither Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush would have been elected President without the movement’s support. The influence of the movement was instrumental in creating the climate that led to the passing of the Defence of the Marriage Act, a federal law that allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. This bill was signed into law by President Clinton, a Democrat. The same can be said of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a policy enacted by Clinton that barred openly gay men and women from joining the military.
Times have changed. When one listens to or reads the most prominent contemporary voices for conservative Christianity, the concerns seem less and less about traditional issues like school prayer, and increasingly about perceived state sanctioned and civil attempts to force secular and anti-Christian values on believers. “We’re living in a time right now in which religious liberty is imperiled at home and around the world,” said Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty. Pastor Robert Jeffress recently said in an interview that “[Christians] are being marginalized right now, treated as objects of contempt by the media. And once that happens, then the taking away of further rights will be very easy.” Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has declared that the United States is moving toward the “criminalization of Christianity.” Prominent author and speaker Eric Metaxas recently said that “the church has to wake up and has to say that everyone needs to be concerned about religious freedom… if we do not stand as one, we will certainly hang separately.”
There are no shortage of issues on which Christians feel their faith is under attack. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign after it was revealed that he donated $1000 to the Proposition 8 campaign in California that resulted in a popular vote overturning same-sex marriage in the state. A slew of corporate positions on same-sex marriage, from Starbucks announcing its support to fast food giant Chick-fil-A announcing its opposition have elicited a strong reaction against traditional conservatives.
In Houston, Christians were outraged after a transgender washroom bill resulted in the city’s legal department issuing subpoenas on the sermons of multiple pastors across the city. Mayor Annise Parker partially relented after a backlash against the city, but for many Christians the message was clear – religious liberty is under attack. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council warned Christians that “America must see the totalitarianism that accompanies the redefinition of marriage and human sexuality, which results in citizens being denied their most fundamental rights.” Christians might also point to attempts by the Obama administration to force businesses like Hobby Lobby (owned by conservative Christians) to pay for insurance coverage for contraception for employees despite employer religious objections.
On all these issues, Christians believe they are being persecuted and victimized because of their moral and religious positions. While opponents may see this as the just condemnation of bigotry, others see it as a concerted attempt to enforce unwelcomed values upon religious conservatives and to push those who dissent out of public life.
Perhaps the best issue to illustrate the growing Christian sense of persecution occurred not long ago in Indiana. Just 20 years ago American politicians on both sides of the aisle passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Only three senators voted against it. Earlier this year an almost identical law was passed in Indiana, unleashing a vast wave of criticism and condemnation. Supporters of the bill see it as a way to protect the religious rights of individuals who feel they cannot partake in an activity that violates their conscience and basic moral beliefs. Opponents saw the bill as a legal protection for discrimination. The Governors of Connecticut and Washington, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Ashton Kutcher were among the many public and political figures who condemned the law. Many individuals, organisations and states threatened boycotts against Indiana unless the law was withdrawn.
There is a common theme that brings together many of these events – LGBT rights. These issues have increasingly become the symbolic battleground on which the culture wars are being fought, and it is not difficult to figure out which side is winning. The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges may turn out to be the final and decisive defeat for religious conservatism not just on this issue, but across the board on a host of different issues. In other words, gay rights may be the battle on which the war is transformed into a rout.
Sexuality is the defining clash in this cultural conflict because it is the most potent symbol of what both sides stand for. For traditional Christians sexuality is understood as being purposive and intrinsically connected to procreation. For those on the other side of the issue, sexuality is a core component of individual fulfilment and personal identity. Interfering with this is seen as a form of repression unacceptable in a progressive society in which equality has become the most fundamental governing principle. Losing this battle presents Christians with the stark realization that society is no longer fundamentally ordered around a specific set of Christian values.
But Christian fears run much deeper than political disagreements. It is clear on both sides that the United States is undergoing a deep transformation. Christian concern over the increasing secularization of American society is nothing new, but even as recently as 2001 the majority of Americans disapproved of both same-sex relationships and having a child out of wedlock. Today, simply having these beliefs is frowned upon. The majority of Americans (57%) now support same-sex marriage, even though just 14 years ago the majority (57%) opposed it. American moral attitudes, especially in relation to sexuality have become increasingly liberal.
However, the transformation taking place in American society is deeper than simply social attitudes. The religious landscape in America has also changed dramatically in recent years. Pew Research Center’s most recent survey entitled America’s Changing Religious Landscape showed a dramatic rise in the number of people who claim no affiliation to organized religion. According to the study individuals not affiliated with any particular religion now constitute the second-largest religious grouping in the United States, at 22.8 per cent. They still trail evangelicals, but are now a larger group than Catholics. Non-affiliated Americans have increased by nearly 7 percentage points, while Christians have shrunk by nearly 8 percentage points to 70.6 per cent.
What these dramatic shifts reflect is a substantial change in what constitutes the mainstream of America society.
The Benedict Option
Hostility to Christian values in the public sphere and the increasing transformation of America into a “post-Christian” society has led to a significant debate among conservative Christians on what the future holds for serious believers. A popular topic of discussion within Christian circles right now is what has become known as “the Benedict option,” a term popularized by the well-known commentator Rod Dreher. The Benedict option takes inspiration from After Virtue, where philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote “we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict.”
The Benedict option is based on the belief that mainstream secular culture has become openly hostile to Christian values. What Christians must do is establish safe havens within society, institutions and communities in which Christians can essentially withdraw from society and preserve their traditions, values and lifestyles. As Dreher puts it the Benedict option is about “pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values.” Plenty of Christians disagree with Dreher and have criticized the Benedict option, but the interest surrounding the discussion reflects the deep anxiety many Christians feel about the future of their faith in the public sphere.
Christians are coming to view themselves as exiles within their own country, unwelcome and marginalized because of the views that they hold. For Christians engaged in the political process, the focus is increasingly turning towards defending religious liberty and allowing Christians to live out their faith without interference from a hostile society or government. There are many that fear even this may be a tough battle. In his dissent on Obergefell, Justice Samuel Alito warned that the ruling “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” Others fear that churches that refuse to accede to this decision and marry same-sex couples will lose their tax-exempt status, crippling many denominations and congregations.
Regardless of whether these fears are justified or not, a dramatic shift has taken place in recent years. Religious conservatives no longer enjoy the public influence or popular support that made them so influential in the late 20th century. Instead, Christians are being forced to retreat and turn inwards, preserving and defending the institutions and freedoms that allow them to live out their faith. No one doubts that America has changed. The values that comfortably characterized previous generations no longer represent the mainstream values of American society. Opinions that were mainstream and widely accepted less than twenty years ago now find themselves on the margins of public discourse, and for the people who still hold to these views the public square no longer seems like a safe space to share these beliefs.
The culture wars are over, and many Christians now fear that they will end up losing much more than just a political debate.
This article is from Issue 11 of On Religion. If you enjoyed it, subscribe to our magazine for just £19 a year and help us to keep publishing.