I've sparred with Damon Linker about the "culture wars" before, and I can't resist another chance at the conversation, since I think we were talking past each other a bit last time. Linker's latest entry on this front:
Now, I'm all for trying to undercut the political salience of culture-war issues. And I think symbolic gestures like these can be a very effective way to achieve this goal. But we need to be clear that keeping the religious right out of political power (by stealing the votes of its more moderate members) is not the same thing as ending the culture war. Indeed, the core of the religious right might very well respond to political impotence by becoming even more radical and more committed to its causes.
And mark my words: This unhappy outcome is guaranteed if President Obama signs anything resembling the Freedom of Choice Act that's been kicking around Congress for the past few years -- and which during his presidential campaign he famously (and for pro-lifers, notoriously) promised to sign. If he fulfills this promise, Obama will not only have failed to end the culture war. He will have ensured its survival for another generation.
I missed out on the high dudgeon culture wars of the nineties, so maybe I'm not quite clear on what he means, but my question for Linker is this is: What does the end of the culture war even entail?
We know that Linker thinks "that keeping the religious right out of political power" isn't an end. We can consider that in the Peter Beinart article Linker cites, Beinart describes the end of the culture war in comparison with the 1920s, when relevant cultural issues ("immigration, Darwinism, and the Ku Klux Klan") receded in the face of the challenges of the 1930s; he suggest a similar thing might happen now as some White Protestants view the economic crisis and our international position as more important than "guns and gays." But the "culture wars" of the 1920s obviously didn't end: immigration, creationism and civil rights issues are still very much alive and very much contested in the political debates of our day.
There are real public policy differences at the basis of these discussions: Should women be able to have an abortion, or not? Should LGBTQ people have the same rights as everyone else, or not? Do we teach evolution, creationism or both in schools? When we think of "cultural" decisions, we think that government shouldn't really be involved in those, but it's also obvious that government does affect those issues and that people on both sides will always be ready to use government to affect those issues.
Culture wars end, I think, when one side "wins," by way of having public opinion so strongly on its side that any objections are just outside of the national conversation -- i.e. prohibition or slavery. This is what people are talking about when they forecast the eventual triumph of gay marriage advocates. But while I do believe that gay marriage is on the right side of history, it will take time for that view to set in, and it is certainly unlikely to happen anytime soon with issues like abortion, affirmative action, and the general role of religion in the public square.
Obama won't end the "culture war" -- if by culture war we mean these conflicting impulses -- but what he is doing is making it more civilized and more broad-minded. Working with evangelicals to reduce unwanted pregnancies is a good idea, but Obama isn't going to compromise on choice. In that sense, I think Ross Douthat has the right idea.
Which is why I disagree with Linker that Obama potentially signing the Freedom of Choice Act and further radicalizing the religious right is an "unhappy outcome" that will continue the culture wars for another generation. Women should have the right to make their own choices about their bodies. Unlike some liberals, I think people who feel differently deserve a certain amount of respect. But they don't deserve to have a veto over other people's rights. If that makes the religious right angry, well, that's what happens in a liberal democracy.
So, Damon, how does one end the culture wars?
-- Tim Fernholz