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Wishing Away the Culture War

Friday, June 1, 2001

I n february 1999, stunned by President Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate, conservative activist Paul Weyrich attracted national attention by issuing a public admission of defeat in the culture war. “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” said Weyrich. In a letter to fellow conservatives, Weyrich described “a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” It might be time to “drop out of this culture,” said Weyrich, perhaps even time to abandon efforts to influence the American political process.

Two years later, Weyrich’s weekly meetings of conservative activists are regularly attended by high level representatives of the Bush administration. Weyrich describes efforts by Bush aides to address his group’s concerns as “far superior” even to such attempts during the Reagan administration. There’s a reason for Weyrich’s change of mood. President Bush’s political advisors have concluded that religious conservatives like Weyrich are the key to forging a winning political coalition. President Bush won last year’s election largely on the strength of votes from the 57 percent of Americans, many of them religious, who described the “moral climate of the country” as “seriously off on the wrong track.”

The great strength of sociologist Alan Wolfe’s book, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now, is that it helps us to make sense of Weyrich’s moment of despair in the wake of President Clinton’s acquittal. Such illumination is to be expected from Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, contributing editor of the New Republic, and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. As author of numerous books, including the recent and widely acclaimed One Nation After All (which, like Moral Freedom, supplies sociological backing for the intuitive sense of some people that America’s culture war is coming to an end), Wolfe is among the most prolific and perceptive sociological students of contemporary America. Yet the great weakness of Wolfe’s Moral Freedom is that, for all the light it sheds on the despair of Weyrich and his fellow conservatives at the moment of President Clinton’s acquittal, the book cannot make sense of Weyrich’s turnaround.

According to Wolfe, the moral freedom that now dominates our culture allows individuals to “determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.” Under the regime of moral freedom, “any form of higher authority has to tailor its demands to the needs of real people.” Moral freedom’s adherents frown upon public shaming or harsh judgments of any sort about the moral decisions of others. (Of course, this disapproval of disapproval is itself a form of moral judgment.) Nowhere is the self-government so central to moral freedom more important than in matters sexual. Under conditions of moral freedom, even young people manage their own sexuality. How much more so a president?

It’s easy enough to see how a spirit of moral freedom might have led not only to President Clinton’s acquittal, but also to the heaping of opprobrium upon independent counsel Kenneth Starr. But how are we to account for the public backlash against President Clinton’s behavior during the last presidential campaign or the subsequent return of social conservatives to political influence? The trouble with Moral Freedom is that Wolfe’s interest in trumpeting a massive cultural shift away from traditional morality prevents him from acknowledging or exploring the changing, but still critically important, place of traditional morality in our new cultural system.

T he best way into Moral Freedom may be through the book’s stirring conclusion. There, Wolfe performs a brilliant feat of intellectual jiu-jitsu on that master theorist of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. Recognizing the inevitability of democracy’s triumph, Tocqueville, the scion of aristocrats killed or jailed in the French Revolution, willingly embraced liberalism. Refusing to join the efforts of his friends and family to restore the old regime, Tocqueville instead sought to strengthen democracy from within. Democratic man tends to be rootless, private, self-interested, and egalitarian to a fault. But the strength of America’s family traditions, along with America’s religiously based consensus on key moral issues, impressed Tocqueville as antidotes to democratic excess, and as models for European democracies of the future.

Yet now, with America’s traditional family system, its religiously based moral consensus, and much else that Tocqueville had hoped could redeem or modify the liabilities of democracy all swept aside by the advent of moral freedom, Wolfe in effect turns to the spirit of Tocqueville and utters the following challenge: Moral freedom is as inevitable in our day as democracy was in yours. Will you not therefore accept the democratization of morality, as you once accepted the democratization of politics?

Wolfe goes farther still. His book is an extended argument for the proposition that the advent of the radically private and relativized moral world that Tocqueville warned against is not nearly so troubling as Tocqueville had feared. Moral freedom, argues Wolfe, has many redeeming features, and is far from the moral anarchy with which its detractors equate it. And if moral freedom is both inevitable and desirable, then on Tocquevillian grounds, even its Tocquevillian foes must embrace it — or at least accept and make the best of it. Thus does Wolfe turn Tocqueville against himself.

But is Wolfe’s belief in the inevitability of moral freedom justified? Wolfe is a gifted sociologist, and his dazzling command of the sociological literature on American culture (from classics like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, to more recent studies like James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character) enriches Moral Freedom at every point. Yet, oddly, there is something fundamentally unsociological about this book. Although Wolfe announces the inevitability of moral freedom, he nowhere provides an account of either the social forces that have brought contemporary moral tolerance to dominance, or the forces that have stood in the way — and may still stand in the way — of moral freedom’s complete triumph. Instead, Wolfe offers an account of moral freedom’s ascent that resembles the theories of those nineteenth century anthropologists who speculated on stages of social evolution. Wolfe sees moral freedom as freedom’s third great age — its final and most radical stage. For Wolfe, the age of moral freedom succeeds the nineteenth century triumph of economic freedom and the twentieth century victory of political freedom. And just as economic and political freedom extinguished their greatest foes, so too, says Wolfe, will moral freedom.

Assuming that moral freedom’s opponents face certain extinction, Wolfe paints conservative social critics such as William Bennett and Gertrude Himmelfarb as the doomed aristocrats of the present. The analogy is questionable. Aristocratic privilege was part of a complex and interlocking total social system. Once feudal bonds between the aristocracy and the peasantry had been swept aside, restoration became impossible short of a radical counterrevolution. Tocqueville, for example, singled out America’s legal rejection of primogeniture as a structural key to democracy’s inevitable triumph. Without the ability to concentrate wealth, power, and title in the first-born son, an indispensable social prerequisite of aristocracy had effectively been destroyed.

The social underpinnings of contemporary cultural conservatism are by no means subject to that sort of all-or-nothing choice. And this raises an interesting possibility. Wolfe is describing the triumph of a surprisingly moderate and palatable form of moral freedom — a new cultural framework slowly pushing out its antiquated predecessors. But what if many of the redemptive elements of moral freedom touted by Wolfe are actually rooted in moral traditions that have not died and cannot die without taking moral freedom to the grave also? In that case, the conservative social critic is no doomed aristocrat, but a permanent and necessary fixture of the new social order. And that, in turn, would mean that our contemporary culture war, rather than being a decisive struggle from which moral freedom will emerge the victor, with traditional morality the vanquished, is actually the signature feature of this new moral era — an era in which moral freedom and moral traditionalism will alternately reconcile, merge, and vie for dominance. Perhaps instead of the dawning of the age of moral freedom, we are witnessing the onset of a permanent and inconclusive culture war.

Wolfe, of course, understands that a considerable amount of moral disagreement exists in contemporary America. Yet he argues that a substantial consensus on what we might call America’s implicit moral philosophy underlies these relatively superficial disagreements. That consensus, Wolfe regularly reminds us, generally excludes moral traditionalism. So beneath the clack and clatter of the culture war, Wolfe sees Americans moving en masse away from social conservatism and toward a moderate form of moral freedom.

But the evidence for Wolfe’s argument is weak. In constructing his picture of America’s implicit moral philosophy, Wolfe relies on two key sources — a public opinion poll he helped to design (in conjunction with the New York Times) and a series of in-depth interviews with Americans living in eight distinct communities, each of which was presumed to represent a particular slice of the American experience. The interviews yield rich data, which Wolfe interprets with subtlety and insight. But the survey questions are blunt and potentially misleading instruments of social research, and they play all too great a role in shaping Wolfe’s conclusions.

For example, respondents to Wolfe’s survey were asked to agree or disagree, at varying levels of intensity, with the following statement: “In my opinion, a person is either born good or bad and there is not much society can do to change that.” Only three of Wolfe’s 209 respondents strongly agreed with that statement, two of whom, as born-again Christians, interpreted the statement as an affirmation of man’s inherently sinful nature. From this lopsided result, Wolfe concludes that, with the exception of a few traditionalists, the vast majority of Americans share a common view of human nature. According to that view, the mind at birth is essentially a blank slate. Human beings can therefore be taught to act well, and are by no means intrinsically sinful.

Wolfe is struck by the fact that few of even the born-again Christians in his survey strongly agreed with the claim that people are born either good or bad. For Wolfe, this means that even cultural conservatives have fallen under the penumbra of moral freedom. But the statement from Wolfe’s survey is a very poor representation of a traditional religious view of human nature. For one thing, the survey statement contends that people are born either good or bad. That is certainly not consistent with the notion of original sin. And the blanket claim that society can do little to change a person’s inborn disposition is not consistent, even with Wolfe’s own description, elsewhere in the book, of the traditional view — which insists that moral authorities like parents, churches, and schools need to channel a human nature, which is otherwise inclined to do bad, toward right action.

So most thoughtful traditionalists, rather than accepting Wolfe’s survey statement about people marked permanently at birth as either good or bad, would have to reject it as unfounded. Yet Wolfe takes the strong agreement of a mere two born-again Christians (who ignored the contradictions, and loosely adapted the statement to their own religious framework) as pivotal evidence of the unpopularity of traditional morality in contemporary America.

This is not an isolated problem. To find out whether Americans have moved “beyond good and evil,” for example, Wolfe asked his respondents to identify individuals who were either evil or saintly. What he found was tremendous reluctance to classify anyone, other than a few famous (or infamous) historical figures, as unequivocally base or pure. Wolfe was also impressed by the fact that only 7 percent of his survey’s respondents ever pray for something bad to happen to someone. But none of this seems surprising. If Wolfe had asked people to speak about righteous or sinful actions, rather than to identify evil or saintly individuals, he would likely have gotten different results. Many a religious traditionalist leaves it up to God or the Church to finally condemn a given individual as irredeemably sinful — or to raise another to sainthood. Sainthood, in any case, is supposed to be rare. It’s hardly shocking that few claim to know a bona fide saint. Traditionalists speak more often of evil actions than of evil people (as in the well-used phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin”). We are all sinners, after all; yet all of us may be saved.

And remarkably, Wolfe dismisses, as misguided, responses from a number of his interviewees who actually did speak of evil actions by an ex-spouse, boss, or lover. For Wolfe, by conflating the notion of evil with someone who had hurt them personally, these respondents had effectively rendered the concept of evil meaningless. Yet here Wolfe illustrates, not the collapse of moral traditionalism, but his own inability to empathize with Americans who take the notion of evil or sinful action in everyday life seriously. No doubt, Wolfe is correct when he claims that many Americans have moved “beyond good and evil.” But his problematic survey questions make it impossible to draw up a nuanced and reasonable assessment of just how far beyond good and evil Americans really are. Wolfe’s survey questions — and his manner of interpreting them — effectively caricature and marginalize traditional moral views.

I t would be unfair to leave an assessment of Moral Freedom at that. Wolfe interprets the rich material drawn from his many in-depth interviews with brilliance and subtlety, and his capacity to make revealing connections between the everyday talk of ordinary people and larger moral and philosophical debates is unsurpassed. His insights into the quasi-religious nature of popular appeals to the scientific literature on evolutionary psychology, for example, are both striking and dead-on.

Yet nearly all the richness and complexity of Wolfe’s chapter on the moral philosophy of Americans cuts against his central point. Wolfe does a wonderful job, for example, of showing how disagreements among Americans on questions of biological causation play into disputes over hot-button cultural issues like homosexuality and addiction. Despite his claims of an “overwhelming consensus” among Americans on the idea of the mind as a “blank slate,” what Wolfe actually demonstrates is the existence of a wide variety of clashing views, many or most of which invoke combinations of nature and nurture. Yet Wolfe treats all of this variety as subtle shading within the larger framework of consensus supposedly established by the answers to his survey questions. The truth is, the survey-based claim of an emerging cultural consensus from which conservatives are excluded is anything but established, while the richer picture of moral-philosophical variety and conflict that derives from Wolfe’s open-ended interviews is convincing.

Wolfe does, of course, succeed in finding some common moral assumptions among America’s contending cultural camps. He is certainly right that, in distant resemblance to America’s contemporary moral individualists, even the most conservative born-again Christians craft highly individualized tales of personal salvation that stress the importance of free moral choice. It’s true that the emphasis on individual choice that characterizes contemporary moral freedom is a radicalized derivative of classic Christian individualism. But that link, while important and interesting, does nothing to gainsay the intractable nature of the divisions that constitute America’s culture war. Shared cultural assumptions do not make war impossible. On the contrary, they actually set the terms within which lasting disagreement takes place.

But if Wolfe overestimates the reach and significance of our cultural consensus while underestimating the ongoing power of traditional moral attitudes, the deeper problem remains his failure to explore the social bases of either moral freedom or moral tradition. His attempt to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of the old or the new cultural stances is incomplete without it.

Consider the newfound reluctance of Americans to pass judgment on their neighbors’ moral decisions. For Wolfe, our modern hesitation to shame or condemn is not moral cowardice; it is a becoming form of humility. Victorians had the virtue of moral self-confidence, but Americans under the regime of moral freedom, says Wolfe, have the counter-virtue of moral modesty. But this contest of virtues does nothing to explain the underlying cultural change, which has not come about because Americans suddenly became either moral cowards or paragons of humility. The older moral certainties were the product of a society in which people played an intimate part in their neighbors’ lives — not just as agents of shame, but as willing helpers in life’s fundamental tasks. Alan Ehrenhalt’s important book, The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, shows how strong such communities of mutual assistance were in America, even as late as the 1950s. It is the breakdown of these communities that accounts for our contemporary reluctance to judge others morally, and knowing this must color our assessment of the older and newer moral modes. From the perspective of moral freedom, traditional moral judgments seem cruel and arrogant. But these judgments make sense within communities of mutual assistance — where extended family members and neighbors are willing to sacrifice for one another’s sake, but quite reasonably hold to account those who renege on their own obligations to their fellows. The advantage of the new moral mode is clearly the freedom that it confers. Inevitably, however, the acolytes of moral freedom must live a life of relative isolation.

So the critical question is how far we can expect the breakdown of community to go. If there are limits to the human ability to live in isolation, then there are limits to moral freedom. It is true, as Tocqueville first noted, that nearly every major technological innovation or social reform from the middle ages on seems to have cut against old social hierarchies and strengthened egalitarian individualism. But there is reason to believe that there are limits to the democratizing process. It is no accident that the era of moral freedom came last, well after the ages of economic and political freedom. The very factors that slowed moral freedom’s advent will block its unchallenged ascendancy.

Our capacity for social atomization is limited, above all, by the nature of human childhood. Since it embodies, or requires from others, dependence, authority, hierarchy, loyalty, self-sacrifice, unequal love, and a raft of other illiberal dispositions, childhood is inherently undemocratic. Childhood requires reasonably stable families, and any stable social organization, however small or informal, entails rules of behavior, as well as explicit or implicit role hierarchies. The overwhelming social prevalence of heterosexuality and the ongoing existence of important differences in the attitudes of men and women toward sexuality and child-rearing also support traditional definitions of the family, and the complementary role-hierarchies within it. It is true that all of these breeders of hierarchy are presently under attack by a radicalized spirit of democracy. Yet it is anything but evident that democratizing tendencies can entirely drive out the traditional forms. Any claim on behalf of moral freedom’s final victory is obliged to assess the possibility and likelihood of an entire repeal of the stigma against homosexuality, the elimination of the differences between the sexes, and the abolition of childhood. Short of all this, important elements of the traditional moral system will survive and continue to war with the new democratizing tendencies.

Wolfe is unwilling to acknowledge the ongoing and inevitable power of these “conservative” social forces (e.g., childhood dependence, sexual complementarity, pervasive heterosexuality, the need for family stability), or the way in which moral freedom is forced to work both with and against them. He tries to handle the problem by stressing moral freedom’s moderation — its openness to diverse moral modes. But this expanding definition of moral freedom becomes a way for him to evade the continuing significance of traditional moral forms. Moral freedom is an intrinsically partial phenomenon. It cannot stand alone, but only “rides” upon traditional morality, which it can loosen or modify, but never replace.

Consider one of Wolfe’s best examples of moral freedom’s moderation. Nancy Watkins, one of Wolfe’s interviewees, is a fan of a self-help book called Eat Dessert First. The book itself, almost a caricature of the genre, tries to free up the reader’s inner hedonist, while it rails against moralists as prudes and religious fanatics. But Nancy Watkins, although one of the book’s boosters, is no hedonist. Raised in a strict conservative Christian environment, where dancing and trips to the movies were forbidden, Watkins uses Eat Dessert First to remind herself that self-indulgence has its place. And “place,” Wolfe emphasizes, is the key word. Watkins does not altogether reject self-discipline, but under conditions of moral freedom, she reserves the right to decide for herself how to balance the conflicting imperatives of control and release.

The lesson Wolfe draws from all this is that conservative social critics, focusing only on books like Eat Dessert First — and not on the real people who actually read them — have unfairly caricatured the complex moral spirit of our day. Wolfe’s point here is important and well-taken but is itself put into the service of a one-sided analysis. The moderation of people like Nancy Watkins cannot be understood under the rubric of moral freedom alone. It is true that moral freedom allows the individual to decide how to balance conflicting moral impulses. But a substantial portion of the moral imperatives being weighed for disposition by individuals come from traditional sources. Nancy Watkins’s conservative Christian background is the necessary and preexisting field upon which Eat Dessert First must operate. Wolfe knows this — yet takes it for granted. And that is because were Wolfe to directly acknowledge and theorize the complex but necessary role of traditional moral constraints under the new cultural regime, he would need to rethink his attack on social conservatives.

One of the most interesting and important moments in Moral Freedom is Wolfe’s account of a turn on the part of many American parents toward traditional religious schooling for their children. Many of these parents are themselves only moderately religious. In keeping with the ethos of moral freedom, they see the religious instruction offered by these schools as providing guidelines from which their children can choose — not strict prescriptions for action.

For Wolfe, the relaxed religiosity of these parents is a clear example of the new moral freedom. He is right about that. But the return to traditional religious schooling, with its old-fashioned practice of character formation, cannot be comprehended under the rubric of moral freedom alone. With the rise of the new religious schools, the nature of childhood has put a break upon the headlong rush toward uninhibited moral choice. Here in the era of moral freedom, schools like Summerhill — that famous “free school” of the 1960s — are nowhere to be seen. Instead, tradition has made a comeback, if only partially.

And about the moderation embodied in that relaxed parental religiosity: The parents of some of the children in the newly popular religious schools may have an easygoing attitude toward faith, but someone is staffing and directing those schools. Many of them (and a significant number of the parents) take their religion very seriously indeed. You can bet that many of the people who operate and patronize these schools are buying William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, a volume which Wolfe is far too quick to dismiss when he ought instead to be making sense of its appeal.

T he concept of moral freedom cannot, by itself, elucidate the complex cultural situation we now face. We are living at the conjunction of two contradictory moral modes, neither of which can gain ascendancy over the other, and each of which tends to bring about its opposite. These modes can reach a temporary truce, as when even religiously lax parents send their children to traditional religious schools. Yet on a given issue, and in a given context, there is always the potential for war. Under these conditions, conservative cultural critics will be a permanent fixture, yet will also be permanently frustrated by their inability to provoke a full-fledged restoration of the status quo ante.

Alan Wolfe’s book is an important and insightful but incomplete account of our contemporary moral world. In the end, the peregrinations of Paul Weyrich convey a more rounded sense of the scope of our new moral order. And should Weyrich’s new moral majority become an electoral reality, do not expect the coalition to be a stable one. More likely, there will be just enough true believers to bring it into being and just enough of those morally free fellow travelers in the back pews to bring the whole movement crashing down again as soon as it starts getting what it wants.