State of the Union January/February 2006

Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War

It's time to challenge the metaphor—and the easy caricatures of left and right that sustain it

Network exit polls in the 2004 election suggested how broad the non-warring middle is. Asked about abortion, 21 percent of voters said that it should always be legal, 34 percent that it should mostly be legal, 26 percent that it should mostly be illegal, and 16 percent that it should always be illegal. Viewed one way, respondents were "pro-choice" by a margin of 55 to 42 percent. Viewed another way, 60 percent of them gravitated to a "middle" position on abortion. There most certainly is a conflict akin to a culture war among the 37 percent of Americans—21 percent consistently pro-choice, 16 percent consistently pro-life—who were absolutely certain about where they stood on abortion. The rest of the population watches the battle from the sidelines, sometimes with sympathy for one camp or the other, but without anything like the engagement or commitment of the true warriors.

Meanwhile, the exit polls found that 25 percent of voters thought gays and lesbians should be able to marry legally, 35 percent favored civil unions, and 37 percent opposed any legal recognition for gay relationships. These findings could be used mischievously by either side in the argument. It can truthfully be said that 72 percent of voters opposed gay marriage. With equal truthfulness it can be said that 60 percent favored either gay marriage or civil unions.

A case can be made that journalists, and political activists trying to mobilize constituencies, are largely responsible for the idea that we are polarized. The political scientist Morris Fiorina is not being excessively cynical when he says that the notion of a culture war gives life to "useful fund-raising strategies" on the part of culture warriors.

"Certainly, one can find a few warriors who engage in noisy skirmishes," Fiorina wrote in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Society (2004).

Many of the activists in the political parties and the various cause groups do, in fact, hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of the American people—certainly nowhere near to '80-90 percent of the country'—who are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner.

Rather provocatively, Fiorina added, "The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other."

Here again the yes-and-no answer to the culture-war question provides a useful correction. Fiorina is quite right that many Americans want to stay out of culture wars, and that we are on the whole both moderate and tolerant. Yet as the numbers on abortion and gay marriage suggest, the proportion of us who care a great deal about these matters is rather larger than his metaphor of guerrillas versus death squads would imply. And arguments about these questions are passionately carried on well beyond the elite level of American life.

Americans who attend religious services more than once a week voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004. Those who never attend voted heavily for John Kerry. As William Galston and Elaine Kamarck showed in their important recent essay "The Politics of Polarization," written for the organization Third Way, this particular religious divide is something new. The old divisions have not gone away: one of the largest voting gaps is between blacks and whites, and there is also a divide between Jews, who are strongly Democratic, and white gentiles, who tilt Republican. But an additional divide pits traditionalist or orthodox believers of almost all stripes (including Orthodox Jews but not African-American Christians) against doubters, unbelievers, and more-liberal or "modernist" believers.

James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who introduced the culture-war concept to a wide audience, defines the orthodox or traditionalist view as "the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority." In progressivism, on the other hand, "moral authority tends to be defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism."

These conflicting world views play out across many issues related to religion and science, family life and sexuality. Pundits did not invent the battle over Terri Schiavo's fate or the arguments over whether intelligent design should be taught as part of science curricula in the public schools. Karl Rove was not a fool for deciding to mobilize Christian churches on Bush's behalf in 2004.

But neither was Rove a fool for encouraging Bush to speak cautiously on these matters, lest he turn off too many of that mass of moderate and tolerant voters to whom Fiorina rightly calls our attention. During his debates with John Kerry in 2004 Bush emphasized his respect for "the culture of life," but he would never say flatly that he favored overturning Roe v. Wade. Because those pro-lifers who were genuinely engaged in the warfare over abortion allowed Bush to speak in code, he did not have to drag more-moderate voters into a war they wanted no part of. Kerry tried to choreograph a similarly intricate cultural dance on gay marriage. He sent strong signals of sympathy to the gay community, and criticized Bush for dragging the "divisive" issue into national politics. But Kerry also said explicitly that he was opposed to gay marriage.

This strange approach to politics, involving nudges, nods, and winks on cultural issues, reflects the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don't. At election time political candidates need simultaneously to "rally the base," which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to "appeal to the center," meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion. The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances. Hot-button questions that rally particular sectors of the electorate—and draw listeners and viewers to confrontational radio and television programs—pre-empt serious discussion of what ails American culture and society.

Why Can't They Be Like Us?, the title of Father Andrew Greeley's 1971 book, is also a very old American question. Yet we often answer the question by ignoring it. Sometimes we even acknowledge that "they" are more like "us" than we want to admit. Occasionally we'll notice that the culture war rages inside individuals at least as much as between groups. Spotting this fact is one of the sociologist Alan Wolfe's great contributions to the culture-war debate, enabling him to conclude, as the title of his 1998 book has it, that we are "one nation, after all."

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E.J. Dionne Jr. is the chair of Democracy's editorial committee, a Washington Post columnist, a Georgetown University professor, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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