Will the ‘Culture Wars’ Work Again?

“Culture Wars” are back in the headlines. They actually never left politics.

Right-wing leaders have been invoking the symbol of “Culture Wars” ad nauseam without attracting mainstream media attention. But now, current Republican leaders and presidential candidates have decided to compete to prove who is the most committed cultural warrior.

Ask activists in the field all this time. Among others, the idea of “War” has been used to justify support for Proposition 8 in California and to oust the Supreme Court justices who supported marriage equality in Iowa. Next we’ll hear it attempt turning back Washington State’s legalization of marriage equality.

The “War” is also framed as a “War on Religion.”

The recent flap about requiring employers, religious or not, to cover contraception was expertly turned by the right-wing into this larger “war.” Framing it as a “War on Religion” with reinforcement through right-wing fear of unbridled sexual license, politically seduces fundamentalist Protestants who feel their world is coming down around them into joining Catholics they’d never worship with in the battle. Even users of contraception got to fear that something bigger is taking place that threatens their religious freedom.

Picked up by right-wing talkers and Republican Party leaders who dutifully follow the script of talking-points handed to them to defeat President Obama, “religious freedom” became the rallying cry. In the mind of Darrel Issa, Republican Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, this “War” justified his exclusion of women on a panel of “experts” during a congressional hearing about allowing religiously-owned institutions an exemption from covering contraception.

Responding to complaints from Democrats, a letter from Issa’s staff invoked this broader frame: “As the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that [your one allowed panelist] Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

Guns, God, and gays are useful issues. They’ve been tools to rile up the right-wing religious voting base on which Republicans depend. Back in an August 17, 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan infamously invoked the fear: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.”

As Thomas Frank argued in 2004 in What’s The Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, this call from political/economic conservatives to vote for them as warriors in an apocalyptic battle to save religion and culture was a diversion meant to lure the religious right-wing into supporting economic policies that would actually destroy the financial futures of their everyday members.

“Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends,” Frank wrote. “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won.”

The success of this strategy for the Republican Party, as I argued in When Religion Is an Addiction, was due to the psychological condition of the radical religious right-wing at the time. They were ripe for the picking.

Their frayed, worn out addictive usage of religion while their churches were rejecting being yoked with “the world,” was no longer providing the “high of righteousness” on which they had come to rely. They needed assurance that they were still right.

They needed something more to relieve their fears about their beliefs, to prove they weren’t just kooks on the margins of an American culture that was leaving them behind. They found their salvation in movement politics.

Their addiction had progressed, so they needed continuous political battles and victories. Once addicted to those new user activities, they couldn’t stop finding and fighting one cause after another after another.

They needed the rejuvenating energy of fighting culture wars. They needed to believe they were crusading for their souls. Their presidential hope, George W. Bush, let them down. Then, the symbol of everything they feared was elected president, and they portrayed President Obama as the face of all that is evil.

But the culture continued to change. Marriage equality picked up support. Women began to take for granted that they should have control over their bodies and reproductive choices. Younger generations grew less interested in the old people’s tired “war.”

A five-year study of the Millennial generation by the conservative Barna Group, for example, found that conservative evangelical churches are losing young people, particularly their most creative. Their report concludes that young Christians see the evangelical church as an exclusive club that runs counter to young peoples’ values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and support of diversity. Still, the old right-wingers have gone back to what they knew. They’ve taken refuge again in “Culture Wars.”

Fittingly, Pat Buchanan began his February 4, 2012 column: “Yes, Virginia, there is a religious war going on. It is for the soul of America. And traditional Christianity is besieged.”

We know what the “Culture Wars” and “War against Religion” really are. It’s the diversion used to bring the religious right-wing to the polls and to move progressives off their strongest issues by responding to the outrageous things the right-wing says. With religious addicts, as with any addict not in recovery, we know we must not be distracted by their arguments. We must set the agenda ourselves and refuse to let them get us off track arguing phony wars.

Barry Goldwater predicted this kind of fight. The defeated conservative presidential candidate in 1964 told Nixon advisor John Dean: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know; I’ve tried to deal with them.”