It is popular, even avant-garde, to dismiss and deride America’s so-called “culture wars” and to assert that the important issues are economic: jobs, household income, taxation, economic growth, and economic justice. How many times have we been told “It’s the economy, stupid”? The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by Daniel Henninger entitled “It’s Always the Economy, Stupid.”
What we don’t hear is that these “culture wars” are a proud American tradition; one might even say essentially American. Going back to this country’s founding, Americans engaged in a “culture war” over whether we owed allegiance to the British king, in spite of his belligerence, or whether Americans were entitled to forge their own path. Americans battled other Americans with words and weapons over this issue. From America’s founding and deep into the nineteenth century, we experienced an intense “culture war”, and eventually a Civil War, over the question of whether people had the right to own other people. For much of the nineteenth century, there was a “culture war” over whether America’s borders should be expanded by military conquest. In the twentieth century, there were numerous “culture wars”: whether American military force should be exerted outside our borders when America was not directly threatened (“foreign entanglements”); whether women should be able to vote; whether the nation ought to be able to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages; and whether employees should be able to organize for purposes of collective bargaining. While many of these issues had economic consequences, of more importance were the conflicting perspectives on human rights, liberty, and justice. Make no mistake about it, the debates about these issues were not subdued, passionless, or peripheral. Millions of Americans engaged in these debates with vigor, and sometimes rancor.
The abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, was clubbed senseless by a colleague in the Senate over the paramount “culture war” of his time, slavery. While American Minister in Paris in 1870-71, the former abolitionist congressman and friend of Lincoln, Elihu Washburne, was lauded for the courage and generosity he displayed when Paris was being devastated by the Prussian army, and then by the Communards; he was the only foreign minister to remain in Paris during those chaotic days. The Protestant Washburne even tried to save the Catholic Archbishop of Paris who was murdered by the Communards. Did Sumner and Washburne endure these indignities and trials because “It’s the economy, stupid”?
Today’s “culture wars” involve whether a child in the womb deserves protection from destruction, whether two people of the same sex (or three or more people, as asserted in a recent lawsuit in Utah) should be able to obtain a civil marriage, and whether religious liberty will survive in a postmodern America that has been taught that being cool means embracing philosophical materialism and utilitarianism, even if we don’t understand the consequences of these ideologies.
It is disingenuous and historically inaccurate to suggest that these debates are peripheral to America’s well-being. The inconvenient truth about America’s “culture wars” is that they are part of the fabric of our nation.
We have been instructed to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”. In the 21st century, this means that when we engage the culture we cannot be dogmatic or resort to tirades, as many in the audience have no frame of reference for Catholic dogma and no tolerance for moralistic tirades. Rather, in this new “Athens”, we need to bring reason, patience, preparedness in terms of our knowledge of natural law and universal human rights, compelling examples that demonstrate the justice of our position, and goodwill. Our goal is not to score points but to change hearts and minds, at least those hearts and minds that are receptive to transformation. America’s future, the future of our children and grandchildren, depends on it.