The Culture War: What does winning it look like? Toward a vision of decentralization

July 3, 2012 | 2 comments | Tags: , , ,

On the question of recognizing and properly defining fundamental truths in our law, we must fight.  But in the interest of “living together” as a unified, democratic society, not all culture war battles need to be won through the coercion of the state.


by Brandon McGinley

In the introductory post to this blog, I repeatedly referred to the “culture.”  In so doing, and in promising to discuss controversies of political importance, I of course alluded to the concept known as the “culture war.”  I have, in fact, and only partially in jest, referred to myself in the past as a “culture warrior.”  Despite the idiom’s reliance on the word “culture,” though, the term is largely used in reference to politics (electoral politics as well as actual government policy); perceived charges and retreats in the war are largely marked by political wins and losses.  This encourages the mindset, even and especially among those engaged in the “culture war,” that victory is one with comprehensive political success.

Over at First Thoughts, one of the excellent blogs hosted by First Things magazine, Greg Forster writes that this idea of victory is unsatisfactory and unrealistic:

If “winning” means the preferences of our cultural subgroup are enacted as policy, there is no hope for victory in the culture war – for either side. We will not submit because our consciences don’t permit it, neither will they for the same reason, and there is no serious prospect of either side eliminating the other. As long as we aim for a “victory” in terms of dominance for our cultural subgroup, the war will grind on. All we will accomplish is the fragmentation of society, the hollowing out of what used to be a real moral consensus and shared culture across religious divisions, and the ongoing destruction of the relational capital that might provide a basis for “living together.”

[Maggie] Gallagher says, “the challenge of our time—and it is a deep challenge, not an easy one—is to find new ways to combine truth and love.” Truer words were never spoken. If we want to rise to them, we have to rethink what counts as victory in the culture war. Victory means a truce we can all live with. We have to find a way to live together that doesn’t require either side to sacrifice its conscience.

But I do think it’s time to stop thinking about winning a war. Distinctly conservative religious subcultures, even if they all banded together (which itself is a difficult undertaking) would probably account for no more than a third of the U.S. population. And even if we had a majority, our beliefs give us no right to rule our neighbors. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14)

Policy needs to be based on a moral [consensus] that is shared across the religious subgroups of a society; otherwise we cease to be a free people. There is plenty of evidence that Americans beyond the conservative religious ghetto know what makes for a good life, in natural human terms: marriage, work, church and civic involvement. The objective conditions for moral consensus are there. If the social elites would just “preach what they practice,” in Charles Murray’s terms, the culture would right itself.

This outcome would not be seen to be a victory for conservative religious subgroups. Indeed, it would probably be framed in terms that were sometimes unwelcoming to us. The elites would need to reassure themselves that when they preach marriage, work, church and civics, they are not thereby agreeing to be ruled by a bunch of crazies. Yet this outcome would give us what we claim to want – a culture that affirms the basic structures of decent human life. Wouldn’t that be a victory worth having?

Forster’s piece is to a degree an extended reflection on (former president of the  National Organization for Marriage) Maggie Gallagher’s statement (itself in response to the capitulation on same-sex marriage by her friend David Blankenhorn):

The truth about something as important as marriage cannot be the price we pay to live with each other. The challenge of our time is to find new ways to combine truth and love. Giving up marriage is too high a price to pay. And it is not the last good we will be asked to surrender, unless we find the courage to stand.

(You can read Gallagher’s full response to Blankenhorn here.)

Forster is correct, to my mind, on a few points.  1) Cultural conservatives realistically cannot, nor should we desire to, achieve all of our goals through public policy and the coercive power of the state (as our opponents largely desire and intend).  2) No strictly political triumph will achieve the total surrender of either side; therefore, state incursions into cultural issues will effect (among other consequences) social “fragmentation” as groups who cannot abide the state’s “official position” recede into insular communities.  Beyond this, however, in discussing the concept of a “truce we can all live with,” Forster’s thinking seems to get muddled.  Let’s try to parse what he’s saying, and hopefully generate some ideas as to how we can “live together” without rejecting the Truth on which a decent society must be based.

Earlier in his post (not quoted above), Forster indicates that the “factions” in the culture war are essentially at an impasse: neither can accept anything in the other’s policy prescriptions without sacrificing their own conscience.  But then he indicates that “victory” in the culture war will consist of a truce–apparently a political truce–satisfactory to all.  Furthermore, policy needs to be founded upon a “moral consensus,” which he suggests is nascent in American society.  How is this all to be negotiated?

First, we need to consider the “non-negotiables” that must be a part of any authentic resolution of the culture war.  Gallagher helpfully left a comment on Forster’s post in which she defines the most fundamental battleground of the war, on which there can be no legitimate truce:

Culture war is a term created by James Davison Hunter to describe a technical process: a culture war is a struggle over the nature of reality and who has the capacity to legitimately define reality.

Is the thing in the womb tissues–or a human life?  That’s the culture war on abortion.  Are two men who commit to each other a marriage?  Or not?  That’s the culture war on marriage.  Its hard to compromise this because its about what is real and true.

Indeed it is.  At this level no compromise is acceptable; any analysis of a resolution to the culture war must begin here.  We must always seek policies that respect the right to life and the truth of marriage at all levels of government.  But what of this “truce” of which Forster speaks?

Once the terms of the game are set–marriage as a natural institution between one man and one women and the unborn as a living human person–then perhaps, in order to facilitate “living together” and to avoid over-reliance on state coercion (which breeds frustration, contempt, and ultimately social fragmentation), focus should be shifted away from a top-down implementation of a cultural scheme.  We need not and should not seek rigid conformity with some sort of federal cultural regulatory scheme.  (This is the endgame for other belligerents, though–see my post on Canadian public school indoctrination.)  Rather, we ought to seek a society bound by essential moral truths but which otherwise gives a wide berth to the diversity of individuals and communities that comprise the republic.

This means respecting the decisions that communities of like interest make about how they would like to define their community.  In the United States, we call these units “states” (hence the name of the country), but if possible cultural decisions should be made at lower levels.  The  more local the policy, the more likely it is to accurately represent the prevailing culture as well as the diversity of the community, and the less likely those who disagree with the policy will feel put-upon.

How would this look in practice on, say, the issue of same-sex sexual conduct and marriage?  Imagine a federal republic in which marriage is properly defined and protected in national policy, but which does not presume to dictate specifics of cultural policy to a republic of diverse administrative units.  Thus, one quite conservative unit (let’s call it “Mississippi”) might decide, based on the prevailing norms of its particular community, not only to recognize no relationship but marriage, but also to criminalize sodomy.  Another unit dominated by more liberal culture and norms (“Massachusetts” seems a good name) might conversely decide to provide all sorts of relationships with legal rights and privileges quite similar to marriage, but under the name “civil unions.”  Lastly, a particularly diverse, culturally moderate unit (called, conveniently, “Pennsylvania”) might chart a middle path, recognizing only opposite-sex relationships while choosing not to criminalize non-predatory sexual behavior.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all decree from above, each community is permitted to reflect its own values in its own legal regime, within the boundaries of objective truth and decency set by national policy–a kind of bounded libertarianism.

This decentralization of the culture war also goes a long way toward discovering and/or creating the elusive “moral consensus” of which Forster speaks.  We just need to dial back our expectations: rather than seeking such a consensus at the national level, what about starting in our local communities?  Once the language (and thus the political reality) is properly defined, then the culture war ought to pivot from enshrining goals in policy* to a limitless collection of smaller, more local skirmishes which will collectively shape the national culture, but which individually are not consequential enough to seriously damage social comity.

This, it seems to me, is what realistically and charitably winning the culture wars looks like.  The foundational truths are enshrined in law (both because they were largely agreed upon beforehand and in order to further instill those truths in future generations of citizens), thus setting the terms of public discussion and therefore the boundaries of political choices.  But those boundaries are expansive, permitting diverse locales to institutionalize diverse cultural norms, even those we find to be in error.  We then fight to correct error when it occurs not through political or legal coercion, but through engagement with a community and its people.


There is so much more to be said about this sketch.  The value of local communities and of “the particular” will be a recurring theme on this blog; so many modern political and cultural errors can be solved or at least mitigated by “thinking small.”  Several thousand words could be dedicated to the question of how we arrived at this reality of high-stakes cultural/political struggle, rather than more local, less consequential disputes (spoiler: it was the nationalization of cultural politics of Roe v. Wade and its related cases).  And none of this says a thing about how we achieve the initial, extraordinarily challenging victory on the question of language and properly defining reality in our culture and our law.

What I hoped to achieve here were the faintest gestures toward a vision of culture war victory that respects the consciences, intellects, and dignity of our opponents, without compromising that on which we cannot compromise.  It is a vision of victory without unconditional surrender (as they seek from us).  So, dear reader, is such a conclusion possible?  Or are we locked in a life-or-death struggle?  If so, what does that mean for the tactics we use?  How do you see this all playing out?

* There will of course always be policies worth fighting for, such as school choice, that affect the culture of family, but here I refer to those policies which are literally about sexuality and the family as such.



2 responses to “The Culture War: What does winning it look like? Toward a vision of decentralization”

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m glad you’re reconsidering using the full coercive power of the state to enforce conservative moral values.

    My idea of a compromise is that I don’t use the state to enforce my values either, but you keep your grabby hands off what I do behind closed doors and ESPECIALLY contraception. I will fight with my last breath for the right not to have a baby. I would lock myself up in a room for the rest of my life if I had to…but I hope it won’t come to that. Seriously, lay off reproduction and I can compromise on other things, even to the point of some pretty abhorrent laws.

  2. John says:

    Sarah, with all due respect, what on earth are you talking about? Are you really going to claim that you are against “using the state to enforce your values”? So you would be against passing a law to enforce your belief that racial segregation is wrong? You would be against passing a law making rape illegal?

    All laws are simply codified morality. People who are against “legislating morality” simply don’t understand what a law is. We think that rape is wrong, so we make it illegal. And so on. Nobody is actually above or beyond using the state’s power to regulate morality. People who claim that they are are just using a selective definition of what counts as “morality” or “values.”

    As to the reproduction issue, same thing applies. You can’t just carve out a huge exception to “values” or “morality.” Reproduction is how new human beings are created. If that’s not worth valuing, recognizing, and regulating, then what is?

    We can argue about what sort of sexual behavior is right or wrong, but to claim that sexual acts are exempt from morality is just flat-out incorrect.

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