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On Culture Wars and Running With the Wolves

(photo: Sherwood411/flickr)

For years the American conservative movement pandered to a Christian Right they mocked in private to leverage election victories. Trust me, I heard plenty of Republican consultants and officeholders refer to them privately as “the crazies” in the ’80s and ’90s. Now the religious zealots are leading the GOP around by the nose.

So here comes “Culture Wars, The Sequel,” or should I say the latest sequel, and it’s about as welcome as a new installment in that other slasher franchise, Halloween. Even the term “culture war” is obnoxious, since it conveniently sidesteps the stakes. It is nothing more or less than orthodox religious believers trying to use government to make their unique doctrines the law of the land.

The clashing worldviews behind the conflicts really do clash, of course, and the media’s decades-long failure to make clear these profound differences – one in particular – leads to all kinds of confusion.

Consider this. Reacting to the Obama Administration’s morally and medically sound effort to make contraceptives available to all American women, Rick Santorum said White House officials are “trying to impose their values on somebody else.” As if in his mind that’s a bad thing. The absolute defining quality of the Christian Right is its effort to impose its particular beliefs and doctrines on everyone else.

No same-sex marriage. Women must be subservient and let the responsible males in their homes and capitols decide what’s best for their bodies and their souls. Using government to carry out this private, hierarchical mandate is, after all, what God tells them they should do.

The thing is, I think Santorum is sincere. He really believes that a paternalistic hierarchy was divinely established on one of the six days of creation. In his eyes, it’s not his own values he’s trying to impose, but God’s. And anything that subverts that plan – even a humane libertarian openness that, say, makes contraceptives available but doesn’t mandate them – is someone else imposing their values on God’s Country.

There is some truth in the Right’s suspicions. I would like to persuade others to recognize freedom as grounded by a belief in individual moral autonomy rather than the limited freedom to either give orders or obey them.

There is a profound difference between making contraceptives available to American women and imposing a private religious prohibition on those outside the faith. The former broadens available choices. The latter eliminates choices.

The media seldom explore this fundamental difference between liberal and conservative America because to do so would seem “unbalanced.” Far better to retreat to process coverage (“Did Obama handle the recent contraception issue badly?”) Worse, I think many believe the fundamental difference doesn’t exist. The focus is on the contest of wills, not the content of two different conceptions of freedom.

The struggle is not new. And the media should have paid much more attention to this fact. From the Constitutional Convention of 1787 until today, people with radically different concepts of freedom have gone at one another. It’s freedom as individual liberty versus the freedom of some – a church, a state, a corporation – to impose its authoritarian will on others within a pluralistic society.

We fought a Civil War over slavery. Southern Planters read the Constitution as a guarantee that they could impose their own ideas of order on a subset of America. Well, I’m sure they read it, and they sure ready to abandon it when it suited them. Anyway,  the argument, of course, resurfaced during the Civil Rights Movement, when segregationists wanted to maintain a social order that was immoral by any measure and out of step with the nation’s laws. It’s the argument made today by the New states rights advocates who like to hide behind the euphemism, “Tenthers.” It’s the argument of the Catholic Church in the contraception controversy.

Progressives have not been immune from the temptations of authority. The disaster that was Prohibition is a pretty good example. And there are certainly other differences and shades of differences between those we generalize as liberal and conservative. I’m just focusing on one of central importance. And generally speaking, it’s fair to say that a consistent goal of progressives throughout our history has been to extend more choices, in all realms of life, to American citizens. We take individual moral autonomy seriously.

To use one piece of evidence symbolically, progressives don’t burn books, or Dixie Chick albums either. Only those wanting to reduce or eliminate choices, usually out of the belief that people are morally incompetent and need authoritarian guidance, burn books.

Today’s government-obsessed libertarians should recognize that their true enemies are those in the American conservative movement who are always fighting for the right to tell the rest of us what to do.

Rick Santorum and the rest of them are not just being hypocritical when they complain that we want to impose our values on everyone. In their worldview, they are just trying to sort us poor little lost sheep into our proper pens. Those of us who believe such views are incompatible with democracy are, to them, dangerous wolves. Yeah, well, I’ll run with the latter.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith