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The Culture War That Isn't

Sunday, August 1, 1999

IS AMERICA IN THE GRIP of a bitter culture war? Quite a few people seem to think so. And for some of them, the events of the past year prove that conservatives are losing it, perhaps decisively and irretrievably.

Here, to cite the most prominent example, was the despairing reaction of Paul Weyrich, long-time conservative activist, after the Senate acquitted President Clinton on impeachment charges: "If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago." From this premise, Weyrich proceeded to still more despairing reflections in a widely circulated letter to supporters last February: "I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. . . . in terms of society in general, we have lost." "Our culture," he went on to charge, "has decayed into something approaching barbarism"; as for the country, it "is very close to becoming a state totally dominated by an alien ideology, an ideology bitterly hostile to Western culture." The proper response, as Weyrich saw it, was a withdrawal from public campaigns — in effect, a kind of cultural secession: "we have to look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile culture. . . . We need some sort of quarantine."

To be sure, many conservatives, while sharing Weyrich’s dismay at the public reaction to the Clinton scandals, shrink from pursuing his bitter logic to the same apocalyptic conclusions. At the same time, few have thought to quarrel with the premises on which those conclusions are based: that the past several decades have been characterized by a sweeping struggle pitting the forces of liberalism and progressivism, on one hand, against those of religious orthodoxy and tradition on the other; that this conflict, more than any other single force, has shaped the domestic politics of our time on every level; that we are, in short, in the throes of a "culture war," whether we choose to remain in the field or, following Weyrich and others, declare defeat and get out. To most conservatives, and indeed to many liberals, this way of interpreting our recent history now seems simply beyond argument.

It isn’t. As historical description, the notion of a "culture war" is a gross distortion. As a guide to contemporary strategists, it is a needless counsel of despair.

Anatomy of a metaphor

THE TERM "CULTURE WAR" itself, as applied to American politics, did not gain wide currency until the 1990s. What pushed it into circulation were the events of the preceding decade — in particular, the siege mentality generated by the disappointment of higher hopes in the Reagan years.

In the early 1980s, a lot of religious conservatives thought of themselves as the new winners in American politics, the leaders of a newly mobilized majority. A few years earlier, Weyrich himself had approached television evangelist Jerry Falwell with an idea for a new organization that would mobilize evangelical Christians, unite them with conservative Catholics and Jews, and establish a powerful new voice in American politics. Weyrich, raised a Catholic, was the person who suggested the name "Moral Majority" as a way of bridging sectarian divisions and emphasizing the common moral principles that seemed so much under attack in the 1960s and ’70s. Falwell, for his part, had little experience in politics. But like Weyrich, he had seen the potential for political mobilization of his audience. Harnessing this latent constituency and broadening its appeal seemed to be a plausible way of changing the direction of national politics.

The new organization chose its targets strategically. The Moral Majority called for the restoration of prayer in public schools — a venture with overwhelming popular approval, at least according to opinion polls. It called for the renewal of restraints on pornography — another winner, according to polls. And it also emphasized the need for restraints on abortion, picking up on a concern long championed by the Catholic Church but one in which evangelical Protestants had not previously been very active. On all of these issues, the Moral Majority could cast itself as the voice of a latent majority, resisting policies imposed by judicial edict at the behest of liberal elites.

At first, the strategy seemed to be working. In the 1980 elections, particularly, the Moral Majority was widely credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan and a contingent of new conservative senators, several of whom won their seats by defeating famous liberal politicians (including George McGovern). As it turned out, however, neither Congress nor the Reagan administration invested much energy in the Moral Majority’s agenda, while the organization itself was bitterly denounced by political opponents as a fomenter of intolerance and divisiveness. By Reagan’s second term, Falwell decided that the very name of his organization had become a political liability. After briefly trying to run it under the neutral name "Liberty Foundation," he rolled up the operation altogether after the 1988 elections.

By then, the political isolation of religious conservatives also seemed to be driven home by the pathetic showing of another TV evangelist, the Rev. Pat Robertson, when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and failed to win a single primary. Robertson subsequently tried to salvage something from past political mobilizations by organizing a new organization, the Christian Coalition. Its new executive director, Ralph Reed, summed up the lesson of past experience when he said, "We know that we are not the majority."

From the recognition that religious conservatives were a minority, it was only a short further step to the conclusion that they were a hopelessly besieged minority, engaged in a struggle for survival with implacable foes. The idea that this struggle amounted to a "culture war" with liberals was given particular currency in the early 1990s by James Davison Hunter’s book of that name. Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, made the plausible point that sectarian differences between Protestants and Catholics (and Jews) had receded in importance and were now eclipsed by divisions that ran across denominational lines between those with an "orthodox" view of the world and those with a "progressive" view. The progressives, he insisted, were systematically stigmatizing and marginalizing those of orthodox views, while the latter responded with increasing resentment and belligerence.

Hunter’s follow-up book had the alarmist title Before the Shooting Begins and tried to make the case for respectful accommodations between the belligerent forces in the "culture war" — before divisions culminated in real violence. Conservatives who demurred from these darker forebodings (like those who demurred from Weyrich’s declaration of defeat) nevertheless were prone to embrace the metaphor on which they were premised. By the mid-1990s or so, the "culture war" had become a ubiquitous description of reality among political and religious conservatives, whether or not they were familiar with its origin.

Protestant, Catholic, Jew

JUST HOW UBIQUITOUS Hunter’s metaphor has become can be seen in the examples of three recent books by religious conservatives, all of which attempt to take the long view of the state (and fate) of religion in America. Though they go off in quite different directions, each starts from the shared recognition that dangerous cultural forces seem to have gained ascendancy in American life.

The book that has received the most public attention is Blinded by Might, co-authored by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. Both worked under the Rev. Jerry Falwell in the early 1980s, when Falwell was organizing the Moral Majority. Like Paul Weyrich, Thomas and Dobson believe that the religious right has largely failed in its effort to redirect the path of American culture. In some ways, they are no more optimistic than Weyrich. The subtitle of the book poses a question: "Can the Religious Right Save America?" The general answer of the book is no — at least not by politics.

Thomas, for his part (the authors speak in their own voices in alternating sections), decries the "aphrodisiac of political power" and the vain delusions that seduced the founders of the Moral Majority. It began with the seeming triumphs of the 1980 election: "The election was proof that God was on our side. . . . Victory and success, money and access to the White House, to Congress, and to the media — this was all the proof we needed of God’s approval and blessing." Two decades later, says a humbled Thomas, "the moral landscape of America has become worse. . . . We failed because we were unable to redirect a nation from the top down. Real change must come from the bottom up or better yet, from the inside out."

Thus Thomas and Dobson preach a return to what they insist is the true Christian vocation — preaching the gospel and setting a good example. That, at any rate, is the positive aspect of their message; its negative side is a thoroughgoing disdain of politics. Dobson, now a pastor in Grand Rapids, Mich., reports that his church now avoids any form of political involvement, refusing to allow petitions "of any kind" to be distributed, refusing even to participate in voter registration drives. Having grown up in Northern Ireland and reflected much on its sectarian strife, Dobson now preaches the ancient doctrine of submission: "Submitting to government authority involves recognizing that authority is from God and then willingly and completely subjecting ourselves to that authority. . . . Submitting and honoring political leaders is especially difficult when those leaders are anti-Christian. . . . But the Bible calls for submission and honor to those who may not be like us, or — as in the case of Paul with regard to Nero — even an enemy of the Christian faith."

In The American Myth of Religious Freedom, Kenneth Craycraft takes the argument much further. He is not just disdainful of American politics but of the American constitutional system. Craycraft holds a Ph.D. in theology from Boston College. He is not a priest but a college professor. He writes in defense of traditional Catholic thought and insists that the liberal principles of the American Constitution are irreconcilable with true Catholic teaching. He devotes an entire chapter to demonstrating that the attempted reconciliation, advanced in the early 1960s by John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths, was a conscious exercise in "irony." In Craycraft’s reading, the church’s actual doctrine on religious toleration, promulgated in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council (where Father Murray played an important advisory role), is much more guarded and qualified in its acceptance of religious toleration. The true Catholic understanding of religious freedom, Craycraft insists, is "the freedom of the Church" and not "freedom for error." Liberal doctrine, by contrast, extends freedom to private religious sects only on the prior understanding that none reflects binding truth — a claim liberal doctrine necessarily (and quite undeservedly, in Craycraft’s view) arrogates to itself.

Craycraft’s argument, of course, places him far afield of mainstream American Catholic thought. Radical as it is, however (to say nothing of angry and contentious), his book is in many ways a rather scholarly, serious, and cogently argued exposition. It expresses an outlook that has rarely been heard in America but was once widely trumpeted in Europe, and not all that long ago. And it leads to a conclusion somewhat akin to Weyrich’s — that faithful Catholics have no stake in upholding an American constitutional system that is, at its very roots, corrupt.

Craycraft does not call for the imposition of a Catholic state in America but for the recognition by Catholics — and perhaps others of what he vaguely refers to as "orthodox faith" — that they have no stake in the existing order. "The only definition of religious liberty in American political discourse," he believes, "is one that marginalizes, if not eradicates as a significant presence, orthodox religious belief." Much like Thomas and Dobson, he calls on true Christians to cultivate their own separate gardens and turn their backs on the notion of a shared political community.

So who wants to go on fighting in the "culture war"? Ironically, it is the Orthodox rabbi, Daniel Lapin. Lapin, who was born in South Africa and ordained in England, has followed an unusual path for an American rabbi. He no longer has his own congregation and does not live in a Jewish community. He conducts a syndicated radio program and other advocacy efforts from his home on an island near Seattle. In the book and apart from it, Lapin’s message is that Jews need to make common cause with conservative Christians in what he unapologetically characterizes in "culture war" terms — from his title, America’s Real War, to the military metaphors that run through the text.

Thus, where Thomas and Dobson warn against the vain temptations of political prominence, Rabbi Lapin wants his readers to know that he was a featured speaker at the 1996 Republican National Convention (his book also carries endorsements from U.S. senators). Where Kenneth Craycraft decries the liberal doctrines of Locke and Jefferson, Lapin celebrates the biblical wisdom of the Founding Fathers and belabors (sometimes improbably) the parallels between biblical Israel and early America. And he does not hesitate to extend the argument to a defense of the free market (and low taxes), proudly identifying this economic program with biblical precepts. In short, in depicting America as God’s country, a special home for God’s faithful, Lapin embraces exactly the kind of rhetoric that Christian conservatives have had to eschew — or are told by Thomas and Dobson that they have to abandon.

It is hard to read this somewhat overwrought book without thinking of that joke mocking renegade Jewish intellectuals who allied themselves with the emerging movements of European nationalism in the nineteenth century: "Anti-Semitism was going nowhere until the Jews got into it." Rabbi Lapin seems to think that the defense of Christian America won’t succeed unless the Jews get into it. In fact, great chunks of this book attack liberal Jewish groups for their reflexive hostility to conservative Christians and their eagerness to confuse Jewish religious precepts with partisan liberal politics. At times one wonders just who is being rallied here; if Lapin really intended his argument to reach a Jewish audience, he might have tried a different forum than the Christian publishing house which distributes this book. Still, it remains a curiosity that, in this season of soul searching on the right, it is an Orthodox rabbi who most insistently cries, "Onward Christian soldiers!"

Other Americas

WHAT IS PERHAPS MOST STRIKING about the prevailing defeatism among religious conservatives is its ahistorical, perhaps even anti-historical, character. It’s as if the collision of religion and politics only happened yesterday. Yet since before its birth, the United States has been marked — indeed, largely formed — by the vigorous engagement in politics by believers of every description, pursuing a multiplicity of agendas.

Americans insisted on independence in religion even before they rose in rebellion to assert their political independence. In the New England colonies, founded by dissenters from the Church of England, there remained abiding suspicion of the established church at home. Even the learned and austere Jonathan Edwards protested against the missionaries sent out from London in the 1750s "to proselyte Protestant Dissenters to the Church of England, as if they imagine there can be no salvation out of that church." By the 1760s, news that the Anglican church was seeking to establish a bishop in North America provoked a fury of protest. "People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden," warned a New England pastor, "but by keeping all imperious bishops and other clergymen . . . from getting their feet into the stirrup at all."

The alarm over Anglican impositions then fed the protest against the stamp tax, which triggered the main quarrel with Parliament: "stamping and episcopizing," a British newspaper reported, were commonly regarded in the colonies as "only different branches of the same plan of power." Patriot orators hammered home the connection: "If Parliament could tax us," John Adams emphasized, "they could establish the Church of England with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies and tithes; and prohibit all [local] churches as . . . schism shops." So the constitutional arguments of James Otis were regularly echoed by the non-Anglican clergy: A 1781 Tory tract on the Origin of the American Rebellion spoke of "Mr. Otis’s black regiment, the dissenting clergy." Protestant ministers in New England preached the revolutionary cause from their pulpits in the 1770s with every bit as much fervor as Patrick Henry did in the political assemblies of Virginia.

Perhaps this was no longer an orthodox Christianity. It did not emphasize submission to civil authority or even to religious authority. It was, on the contrary, eager to link religious liberty and civil liberty as twin principles of God’s providential plan. As Ezra Stiles put it in a sermon at the end of the Revolutionary War, "liberty, civil and religious, has sweet and attractive charms" and in holding to them, Americans could trust that "God has still greater blessings in store for this vine which his own right hand hath planted."

This outlook made the bulk of American Protestants feel entirely at peace with American institutions. But it did not make them complacent. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Americans pioneered the techniques of evangelism in a democratic age — the mass distribution of Bibles and tracts, the mass conferral of adult baptism on those "reborn," above all, the revival meeting, combining bonfires and entertainment with prayer and exhortation. Religious ferment in the decades before the Civil War helped to create an atmosphere in which startlingly new sects emerged, some of which are still gaining new adherents at a great rate today, like the Adventist churches and the Mormons.

And religious fervor then poured into a host of social reform efforts, of which the anti-slavery cause proved the most explosive. When the country was finally rent by civil war, masses of people thought they were re-enacting a biblical drama. It was not, for example, a public relations gesture by Gen. Sherman to have his troops sing, "We come to bring the Jubilee." Similarly evocative of the popular imagination were the righteous rhetoric of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the references to President Lincoln as "Father Abraham."

Both before and after the Civil War, therefore, efforts to organize public schools — or "common schools," as they were often called — could appeal to a religious culture that was widely shared. Before the 1840s, most schools were operated by churches, hence targeted at families already connected with particular denominations. The common schools movement tried to bring everyone together on a non-denominational foundation, with Bible reading substituted for theological discussion. It says much about America that this movement so largely succeeded. Immigrant Catholics in eastern cities could be recruited into separate (private) "parochial schools," but most Americans set aside denominational differences in support of common public schools.

In other words, divided into dozens of different congregational or denominational arrangements, religious Americans could think of themselves as obdurate individualists, jealously guarding their own freedom of conscience — or as part of a vast, underlying consensus on basic principles. Most of them were both and were drawn in different directions for that reason. Common schools did not prevent continued sectarian splintering in other respects.

The same dilemma confronts religious conservatives today. What prevents them from seeing that their dilemma is an old one is the seductive notion that everything has changed in this century because of a new "culture war" of which they are the main victims.

Culture wars past

HOW DID THIS IDEA come to have the power it exerts today over religious conservatives? The answer is that contemporary liberals have told and retold the story of their rise to preeminence in America — and told it so confidently that it has come to be believed even by conservatives.

A version of this liberal legend (as academics might say, this "cultural script") appears, for example, in Cal Thomas’s and Ed Dobson’s book. The story goes somewhat like this: The country used to be religious. Then modernization and secularization took hold with the growth of commerce, technology, and cities. Religious conservatives made a desperate effort to fight back the tide with Prohibition and the Scopes trial, and the humiliating failure of these efforts forced conservative Christians to retreat from politics for decades thereafter. And only the excesses of the 1960s and ’70s prompted their re-emergence.

As it turns out, however, none of this is quite right, and as a single story it is altogether misleading.

The temperance crusade, for starters, was a continuing element of American politics for most of the nineteenth century. Its leading champions before and after the Civil War were not wrathful Christians but Republican reformers, who mixed temperance crusades with pleas for the abolition of slavery and in later times with campaigns for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. Campaigns against alcohol abuse were the equivalent of contemporary campaigns against drug use and no more the special concern of "conservatives" than the drug war is today. If anything, the effort to bring government into the moral campaign against alcohol was the special concern of "Progressives" — as it is today in the war against tobacco.

Advocates of a Prohibition amendment were, in fact, particularly prominent at the Progressive Party convention that nominated Theodore Roosevelt as its candidate in 1912. The Progressives did clamor for trust-busting, for federal regulation of industry, for conservation programs and other reforms. But nobody regarded a federal prohibition on alcohol use as at all out of place in this wider agenda. Leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union played a prominent role there on many issues — it was the first political party convention to support women’s suffrage by admitting women delegates. The Progressive Party described itself as "the recrudescence of the religious spirit in American political life" and was so seen by others: The New York Times described the 1912 convention as "a Methodist camp following done over into political terms." The Progressives did, in fact, sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" at their convention.

From first to last, moreover, the main opposition to temperance crusades and the Prohibition amendment came not from "secularists" or "liberals" but rather from traditional Catholics and Lutherans, whose religious convictions did not make them sympathetic to teetotaling (nor to women’s suffrage nor many other progressive reforms). Far from giving pause to advocates of Prohibition, such opposition only made them all the more eager to correct the erring ways of immigrants and their children.

Now consider the actual record of the Scopes trial itself — a singularly defining struggle, or so we have been taught to believe, between traditional religion and modern science. That prosecution of a Tennessee school teacher for teaching the theory of evolution is now regarded as a turning point of history, an American version of the Roman Church’s persecution of Galileo. Even many religious conservatives now wince at the mention of the Scopes trial. It is supposed to bring to mind all that is backward and intolerant in traditional religion. And the scorn it aroused is supposed to explain why fundamentalists felt forced to withdraw from politics until the day before yesterday. But almost none of these notions derive from the historical record — indeed, they are refuted by it.

Begin with the first element of that myth — the positing of a fundamentalist monolith. The term "fundamentalism" itself derives from a series of essays, published between 1905 and 1915, distributed under the general title, The Fundamentals of Christianity. It was a characteristic American effort to sum up theological points of agreement among otherwise rival (Protestant) denominations. It was certainly motivated by reaction against "modernist" or "liberal" interpretations of the Bible then gaining ground in theological seminaries. But the World Christian Fundamentals Association, established in 1919 to organize support for these doctrines, was still one of many competing organizations, and none could really claim a disciplined mass following. Even The Fundamentals had published articles expressing openness to certain theories of human evolution. At the very moment when the Scopes trial was opening, fundamentalists tried to get the Southern Baptist Convention (then meeting in nearby Chattanooga, Tenn.) to declare opposition to the theory of evolution as an essential Baptist tenet. The resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.

Far from being the culmination of a massive campaign against modern science, the Scopes trial was something of a freak — one of those oddities of a decade when mass communications stimulated a whole series of remarkable stunts. The Chattanooga Times indeed referred to the trial as a "stunt." To be sure, the Tennessee legislature did enact a measure excluding the teaching of evolution from public schools. But it was signed into law by a reform-minded governor who had won a national reputation as a "progressive" for his efforts to expand and improve public education in the state. The measure was seen as a compromise with the fundamentalists, buying their continued support for public education by leaving controversial subjects outside the schools, as fundamentalists themselves were prepared to do on points of theological dispute.

As for other details of the trial, almost every one is the opposite of what the post-Scopes mythology would have us suppose. The newly formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was so eager to offer a test case that it took out a newspaper ad offering to pay the expenses for the prosecution. Scopes was the only teacher ever prosecuted and the prosecution was not a crusade but a project of civic boosters who wanted to put Dayton, Tenn. on the map. Local "promoters" induced a local prosecutor to initiate charges, after they had recruited John Scopes to stand as defendant. They envisioned the trial as something akin to a Chautauqua lecture series and, even before William Jennings Bryan agreed to appear for the prosecution, they had tried (unsuccessfully) to enlist H.G. Wells to appear as a star witness for the defense. John Scopes was not even a biology teacher but a 24-year-old math teacher and football coach who subsequently admitted (in private) that he could not really recall whether he had actually mentioned evolution when he did substitute teaching in biology. The trial "promoters" were delighted (though the aclu was not) when Clarence Darrow, celebrated "agnostic," agreed to take up the defense of Scopes.

William Jennings Bryan, who was eager to appear in a duel with Darrow, announced in advance that he would pay Scopes’s fine if the prosecution succeeded. And he proceeded to couch the prosecution case, not in religious terms, but in broadly populist terms: "The right of the people speaking through the legislature to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it."

Far from seeing his case as a fundamentalist crusade, Bryan asked the vice president of the American Jewish Congress, a highly successful New York lawyer, to assist him in his legal pleadings. Samuel Untermyer (with whom Bryan had long been associated in Democratic Party politics) immediately cabled encouragement and advice. Even H.L. Mencken, reporting from the scene of the trial, acknowledged that there was not "any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself where Christian men gather to defend the great doctrines of their faith."

Nor did the final outcome have anywhere near the drama of a great historic event. After Scopes’s conviction, the Tennessee Supreme Court, characterizing the trial as "bizarre," cut off an anticipated appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by remitting Scopes’s fine on a strained technicality — but only after holding that the law, itself, was a constitutional exercise of legislative control over schools and no threat to free speech, because it was only dealing with school curricula. The state attorney general then followed the court’s suggestion to drop the case.

These and other remarkable details are documented in a careful study of what actually happened at the Scopes trial, Summer of the Gods, published in 1997 by historian Edward J. Larson. What Larson also documents is that few observers at the time saw the trial as a great turning point. Most commentators treated it as at best a draw — and no great credit to either side. The trial came to achieve mythic proportions only decades later, when (as a journalist who covered the original trial put it) the Scopes trial became "part of the folklore of liberalism."

By the 1950s, historians looked back on the trial as an illustration of heartland intolerance. "In the shadow of McCarthyism," as Larson reports, historians "inevitably" invoked the Scopes trial "alongside the Red Scare [following World War I], even though fundamentalists did not initiate or disproportionately participate in that earlier assault against alleged domestic Communists. Ballyhoo gave way to bogeymen." In 1955, Inherit the Wind, the Broadway stage play, later made into a successful movie, helped make the Scopes trial a favorite metaphor for religious intolerance. (The projection of their own prejudices upon the national past was a familiar compulsion among liberal moralists of the day. In his account of the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible launched its breathless defense of tolerance and reason with comparable disregard for the historical facts).

Also contrary to myth, the fact is that "fundamentalists" did not fall back in confusion following the Scopes trial. They were already divided and discouraged, relegated, for the most part, to specialized journals and newspapers of their own in the 1920s. Even in the 1920s, their adherents were more likely to be people of less education and affluence, who were not, in any case, very active in politics. Everywhere in the South and even in much of the Midwest, "fundamentalist" Protestants voted for Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s — and made no fuss about his support for the repeal of Prohibition. As late as 1976, half of those voters who identified themselves as "evangelical Christians" voted for Jimmy Carter, who was quite ready to present himself as "born again" and saw no conflict between his religious views and his liberal policy commitments.

The "culture war" that isn’t

IF RELIGION IN POLITICS is nothing new, neither is opposition to religion in politics. And both tendencies have frequently been tangled together. As in the 1760s, Congregational ministers were loudest in denouncing taxation for an Anglican bishop in North America — as a threat to "religious liberty"; so, in the 1780s, it was Baptists in Virginia who were the strongest supporters of Jefferson’s campaign against state aid to churches — for fear it would disadvantage their own lay preachers. In the 1840s, Congress heeded the call of New England clergymen to honor the Sabbath by ending Sunday mail deliveries; Jacksonian Democrats quickly reinstated Sunday mail delivery to demonstrate the government’s impartiality among competing sabbatarian doctrines. So in the 1980s, many liberals denounced the Moral Majority for mixing religion and politics, though they had applauded the involvement of clergymen in the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and the anti-war movement in the 1970s. And not a few supporters of the Moral Majority had themselves denounced these earlier ventures — for mixing religion with politics.

Yet a lot of religious conservatives now talk as if they had been victimized by some peculiarly new and sinister line of attack. Not only are the slogans hurled against them quite old, they are not notably more effective in our time. Certainly the collapse of the Moral Majority as an organization did not reflect any wider triumph for its opponents. At just the time when the Moral Majority itself was floundering, after all, Ronald Reagan was triumphantly re-elected and four years later, George Bush came from behind to win the White House as his successor.

Even the Clinton years have hardly been a return to 1960s liberalism on social issues. The truth is rather the reverse: Clinton has prospered by co-opting conservative social issues from Republicans. From his initial campaign in 1992, he was eager to display his concern for families and for faith, having himself photographed in church with his own family, carrying the Bible, singing hymns with families in churches around the country. After his initial blunder in trying to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, he promptly retreated on that issue and never looked back. When a Republican Congress sought to embarrass Clinton by enacting the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 — authorizing federal agencies and state governments to refuse to acknowledge the validity of same-sex marriages — Clinton signed it without a word of protest.

Conservatives rightly protest that Clinton mocked his own marriage vows and then lied about it under oath. But the reason he lied, after all, was that his polling suggested to him that the public would not be at all quick to forgive his conduct. Maddening as Clinton’s defense was in the ensuing impeachment fight, it was all conducted in the shadow of public disapprobation — which was why the president’s staunchest defenders were quick to insist that his conduct was indeed "indefensible" (but just not impeachable), rather than trying to rally the country to a full-throated endorsement of adultery and perjury. Perhaps it was all unpardonably hypocritical. But was it an example of "culture war"?

Looking back, the rhetoric of "culture war" seems inappropriate to our situation for several reasons. First, if Hunter’s original thesis is correct and "denominational differences" no longer loom very large — even among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (and an emerging Muslim minority) — then "orthodoxy" is not really about the Bible. It is "religious" in such an abstract sense that even the divinity of Jesus becomes a secondary question. This is descriptively true of a sizable body of "religious conservatives" — at least in their attitude toward public policy. But if they can compromise their differences with each other, they can compromise other differences and find common cause with those who share "traditional values" and are far less serious about biblical authority than they are.

Indeed, the preoccupation with "culture war" blinds conservatives to the very real victories they have recently achieved — and to the reasons for their having achieved them. Roe v. Wade has not been overturned, but the Supreme Court has finally begun to allow some restrictions on abortion that register moral concerns. More strikingly, the court has refused to extend Roe v. Wade into a right to assisted suicide, while voters have repeatedly rejected state referenda on this issue and Dr. Kevorkian’s crusade has finally landed him in jail. On school choice, religious conservatives have built coalitions in a number of states to gain indirect public funding for religious schools, over tremendous opposition from teachers’ unions. This is an extremely promising development for the future. But, like the successful resistance to the euthanasia movement, it could not have been achieved by religious conservatives on their own. It could only have been done by building coalitions with people who share similar aims and attitudes on particular issues, for their own, sometimes divergent, reasons.

Second, the metaphor of war itself imputes an absurdly inflated sense of discipline and purpose on each side. Hunter divides the world into "orthodox" and "progressive" forces, but the latter are largely defined in the most abstract terms as opposing the "biblical" or "traditional" precepts of the former. This takes at face value the notion that "reason" or "Enlightenment" points clearly in one direction — a conceit that is not even maintained these days by the most "progressive" thinkers in universities. Is it "progressive" to side with feminist hectoring — or with hedonist self-indulgence? Is it "progressive" to take sides with regulatory enthusiasts ("safety fascists") — or with reckless thrill-seekers? Is it "progressive" to stand with "science" — or with post-modernist assaults on the authority of "western science" (or "patriarchal science," as advanced feminists now call it)? It is all these things and a dozen others, equally confused and contradictory. Who is really more confused and defensive in our time, believers in "progress" or believers in God?

Then, too, who is the commander in chief of the "orthodox" forces in this war (and who is his "progressive" counterpart)? Many have claimed the mantle. But how good are their claims? Is there anyone of whom it can be said: When he commands, conservative Christians obey?

The third difficulty with the "culture war" diagnosis derives from the other two. Both sides in this "war" have ended up appealing to common rhetorical themes in their effort to enlist the great bewildered and exasperated American middle. The left talks endlessly about "oppression" — and now so does the right, even the religious right, which has become quite adept at lawsuits invoking the "rights" of religious students or parents or citizens. The left hearkens to the glory of the civil rights movement — and now so does the right, when it appeals to the "right to life" or the "right to choose" in education. Both sides have their lawyers, as well as their lobbyists, their pollsters, and their issue advisors. Both sides try, with varying degrees of success, to show that they are just regular folks who think what most other Americans would think if only they were paying as much attention. A lot of it may be disingenuous, but you can’t wear a public mask for too long without growing into it.

The truth about America seems to be far messier than a "culture war" between "orthodox" and "progressive" forces. We are in the midst of many overlapping and cross-cutting social conflicts. Yes, there are deep divisions regarding public recognition or accommodation of religion and on sexual morals and "family values." But the same is true for attitudes about gun ownership. And also for views on multiculturalism. There are also deep divisions in attitudes about risk and security in economic affairs, about the aims of developers and the concerns of environmentalists, about animal rights and human needs, about the claims of children and the potentialities of pharmacology — and on and on and on. Quite a lot of these disputes elicit a moralistic rhetoric on one side and an answer of skeptical hooting on the other. But they don’t at all line up neatly as cultural divisions between religious conservatives and secularizing "progressives." We are a nation of Puritans and a nation of scoffers and we do quite a lot of arguing. And we have long been so. (Mark Twain’s scoffing — and his immense popularity — a century ago should remind us of both: "To be good is noble but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.") That doesn’t quite add up to a "war."

Some observers view this as fragmentation. But it is perhaps more notable how hard it is for the fragments to escape the tides of popular culture that wash over the whole country. So, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention caused a stir last year when it urged its membership to boycott Disney World and Disney movies until the studio changed its policy on something or other. Not enough attention was paid to the premise — that Southern Baptists would otherwise be cheerfully buying tickets from the folks at Disney. And no doubt they would be. Similarly, when Pat Robertson seized the opportunity presented by cable television to organize his own cable network — the Christian Broadcasting Network — it turned out to fill most of its airtime with recycled Hollywood TV shows and not even from the glorious 1950s but from the troubled 1970s. Perhaps it is a bit cleaner than current fare. But it is not a separate world view. What does it mean that the same channel has metamorphosed in the past year into the Fox Family Channel without much noticeable change in programming?

The "almost chosen" country

WHEN PAUL WEYRICH hen Paul Weyrich and Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson urge Christians to cultivate their own gardens, there is a sense in which their prescription is unexceptionable, even self-evident. Culture of any kind requires cultivation. Serious religious faith requires devotion. No one grasps God’s word on the fly or glimpses God’s promise in passing. Souls nourished on little more than the offerings of the entertainment industry will be spiritually starved. Expecting popular culture to do the work of churches or Bible studies is on a par with expecting to find spiritual inspiration from the Gallup poll. Popular culture may be more debased than it used to be, but it was always beneath the standards pious people set for themselves.

Still, it remains dangerous and self-defeating for religious conservatives to see popular culture as simply an arena for politics and then to see politics in terms of a single, overriding culture war. Wars force people to take sides. In a real war, those who are not with us must be against us. That sort of polarizing politics is quite dangerous if you do not have the majority on your side — and religious conservatives have no reason to think they have a reliable, natural majority on their side. But the majority will only be against them if forced to take sides. There is certainly no majority for what Weyrich denounces as "cultural Marxism" and no evidence at all, that I can see, for his warning that the U.S. is becoming "totally dominated by an alien ideology" that is "bitterly hostile to Western culture." Few Americans now seem to be "bitterly" anything. Liberal politicians certainly don’t seem to feel they have much electoral support for anything except a bit more gun control — and even there, victory keeps eluding them.

The German term Kulturkampf derives from Bismarck’s struggle to bring Catholic institutions under Prussian state control in the 1870s. It is a phrase that does reflect actual historical experience — but not very much in this country. Kulturkampf ideology had its echoes in struggles in many other European countries trying like Bismarck to erect modern states over the opposition (or imputed opposition) of faithful Catholics. Related dreams of "progress" later unloosed far more fanatical — and murderous — programs in the twentieth century, with far more fanatical and murderous reactions. Since World War II, voters in most of Western Europe have recoiled from apocalyptic politics and have settled instead for a satisfied cynicism. No longer seeking inspiration in politics, they expect politicians to be corrupt and politics to be a game of party maneuver.

As real culture war is remote from American experience, so are its alternate legacies of fanaticism and fatalism. Conservatives here are dismayed that most citizens seemed willing, in the end, to put up with a president who proved to be a perjurer and an adulterer. But in France, only a few years ago, people put up with a president who proved to be a Nazi collaborator. Americans are still far from that degree of sophistication.

This point is so obvious that even social scientists notice it on occasion. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart organized a vast survey of "values" in 42 countries in the early 1990s. One of Inglehart’s most interesting findings, described in his book Modernism and Postmodernism, is that national pride tends to be strongly correlated with religious faith. In Latin America, Africa, and other parts of the developing world, overwhelming majorities of respondents tell the pollsters that they are "very proud" of their nationality and that God is "very important" in their lives. In Western Europe, only minorities give these answers to either question. The United States is near the top of the charts on both.

Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson protest that it is wrong for Christian conservatives to think of America as a special country. But they do, and they long have. That’s what most Americans have always believed about their country.

Is this a sign of proper piety or of sinful pride? Perhaps some of both. The Psalm says that "God has made the nations." We talk here about popular consent. Lincoln, who epitomized our system as government "by the people" as well as "for the people," also referred to Americans as an "almost chosen people." A good phrase, implying that American citizenship is not just a matter of right but, as old-fashioned Protestants used to say, a calling. I can’t say it is un-Christian for religious conservatives to withdraw from politics. But I am sure it is un-American.