The Right Lost the Culture War

Leah McElrath Renna, left, Rosemary McElrath Renna, 3, and Cathy McElrath pose for a portrait in Washington, on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. The group will be attending the Easter Egg Roll at the White House on April 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Leah McElrath Renna, left, Rosemary McElrath Renna, 3, and Cathy McElrath pose for a portrait in Washington, on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. The group will be attending the Easter Egg Roll at the White House on April 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Has the Right surrendered in the culture war?” asks Washington Examiner political editor Chris Stirewalt.  The piece is illustrated with the photo and caption at right and begins:

As some 240 million American Christians observe the most sacred week of their religious calendar, the nation reached a pivot point on faith and values.

Demonstrating the lessening influence of Christianity on American public life, President Barack Obama, addressing a group of Muslim students in Turkey, said that one of the great strengths of the United States is that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.”

Stirewalt continues,

But Obama has correctly observed that the growing number of American nonbelievers (now 4 percent) and practitioners of a cafeteria-style spirituality have America looking much more like Western Europe. There, religion is like antique furniture, admired for its beauty but used only sparingly.

Obama, like many politicians, has been preparing voters for the transition to a more multicultural nation for some time. As a candidate, he explained that Americans have to appreciate that “we are no longer a nation of just Christians.” In his inaugural address he gave a nod to American “nonbelievers.”

[…]

There were some raised eyebrows when the White House sought out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parents to bring their children to the Executive Mansion for the annual Easter celebration as a show of inclusiveness. But there wasn’t the kind of shock and outrage that would have greeted the move a decade ago.

Similarly, the fact that gay marriage is now a foregone conclusion is met with mostly a shrug. With Vermont’s move to pass a law allowing the practice, every state will eventually have to acknowledge the legality of gay vows administered elsewhere. Keeping local restrictions will seem pointless and out of date when the laws actually do nothing to prevent the practice.
In much the same way, changes to the way the government treats abortion and embryos provoked some quibbling but mostly silence.

Exhausted by decades of the culture war and afraid of further economic setbacks, the silent majority hasn’t been roused by the issue. Perhaps it isn’t even a majority anymore.

Indeed, as Andrew Sullivan — a gay Catholic conservative married (in some states at least) to another man — points out, even social conservative firebrand “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger has pronounced gay marriage “a beautiful thing and a healthy thing,” albeit while wishing we’d call it something different when two people of the same sex do it.

I would quibble, however, with one word in Stirewalt’s question.  The right hasn’t surrendered the culture wars; we lost.

And yes, I include myself.  As regular readers know, I’m decidedly not religious and am libertarian on these matters with respect to the use of government power.  I spent the first nearly-three-decades of my life, though, immersed in Southern and military culture.  I’m still anti-abortion (although not anti-contraception) still oppose reading same-sex marriage into the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause (a subject for a separate post).

Conservative culture has been under assault from the popular culture, the schools, and the courts for quite some time now.  We’ve lost the youth and future generations are decidedly unlikely to ever become meaningfully “conservative,” short of an apocalyptic scenario.

Even many of my generation (I’m early Gen X), myself included, have been worn down through a combination of factors.  Gay marriage isn’t something I gave much thought to ten or fifteen years ago — it would have seemed like a reductio ad absurdum at the time — but I’d have reflexively opposed it.   I was bitterly opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” thinking it was the camel’s nose under the tent that could seriously undermine military cohesion.   But, as Cartman might say, the proof of the gay cowboys is in the pudding.   Men are marrying men, women are marrying women, gays are adopting kids, and the world continues to spin on its axis.  Gen Y soldiers and marines are more socially conservative than their civilian counterparts but almost surely think, as I do now, that throwing out competent gays for getting caught being gay makes little sense.

To be sure, there’s still the modern equivalent of the “Surrender, Hell – the South will rise again!” contingent, like my friend and fellow Jacksonville State alumnus Stacy McCain.   God bless ’em.  But, alas, Lee’s done surrendered.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay C. says:

    James, I’d say that the issue of homosexuality is not the only axis around which the culture war turns. Social conservatives still stand to slow the tide of other trends that they believe are damaging to society, until society itself decides that such a trend isn’t really that damaging.

    Just as Gen-Y military would balk at the idea of kicking out an otherwise competent gay merely for being gay, we all still balk at the idea of a human being getting married to a Corporation (look at I’m not going down the farm animals route). I’ve always believed that the role of a Constitutionally-minded, liberty-minded social conservative is to stem the tide of radical change when done through the Courts, or through overtly corrupt political processes. (I’ve read on the Internets that there are some VT residents who think that the legislative process for SSM in their state was corrupt and invalid anyway; to which I simply say “where’s the proof?”)

    I find social conservatism to be different from theological conservatism/(radicalism, really) in that it is the goal of the the latter set, which unfortunately gets all the press, to turn back the clock to a time to which they hearken, which few of them have actually lived, because they are unable to address the changes that are happening before their eyes. [sarcasm]Sometimes it seems these folks even believe in the divine right of kings[/sarcasm], although in all seriousness they are more than willing to engage in methods that compromise liberty, just as radical social liberals would, in order to achieve a desired result.

  2. odograph says:

    I think internet porn is way ahead of gay marriage in shaking society’s roots. It’s odd really that the gay thing has the bigger political pull.

    Ah well, when we all lived in the long house small kids got to see how it was done. What goes around comes around. Of course, back then we had taboos …

  3. James, but there has also been victories on many conservative fronts. Liberals long ago gave up defending programs like AFDC, accepting instead a more nuanced program that does not reward bad behavior and have elements of personal responsibility in TANF. A generation ago, liberals would have fallen on their swords to prevent welfare reform, but it is now a done deal and unlikely to be reversed.

    Similarly on abortion. Twenty years ago, the rallying cry on the left was “Abortion on demand without apology.” Now it is “safe, legal, and rare.” Very different both in tone and in policy implications.

    A generation ago, liberals were anti-military. Now, they compete with conservatives to offer the most over-the-top praise for our servicemen and women.

    A generation ago, liberals considered any anti-crime measures as hidden racism. Some refused to press charges when mugged because it wasn’t the muggers fault. Well, that no longer exists.

    The point is that the Conservatives won many many battles in the culture war — on crime, patriotism, welfare, and even shifting the debate on abortion. The problem is that what remains of the social Conservative program are those issues on which they lost or are losing. But in the grand scheme of things, I just can’t see how Conservatives can believe they’ve lost in general when they have won in so many ways.

    And look, the proof of the pudding is when you read the writings of an old-fashioned lefties. They certainly don’t look at America today and think they’ve won.

  4. Triumph says:

    Conservative culture has been under assault from the popular culture, the schools, and the courts for quite some time now.

    The problem here is that “conservative culture” is a bit of an oxymoron. Just look at your anthropology 101 textbook which will tell you that the basic premise about human culture is that it is consistently in a state of change. Language, social institutions, religions, etc. develop over years, decades, centuries. It is a fact of humanity.

    “Conservative culture” explicitly tries to deny the dynamism of human culture. It wants to maintain the status quo, conserve a set of cultural norms from a particular period in perpetuity. As such, it is a futile exercise.

    Culture can’t be conserved, which is why the anti-gay, religious nuts, racists, etc…will always be passed by the facts of history.

  5. sam says:

    No man can step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever onflowing.

    Heraclitus

  6. Franklin says:

    Other than statistical noise in surveys, I don’t think we will ever see a drop in support for gay marriage, gay adoption, or gays in the military. The demographics bear this out: 20-29 year olds are almost completely in favor, and the age groups who are marginally against them will be dead within a few decades.

    I don’t think the abortion debate is over. It will never be completely illegal, but I think someday we’ll have an honest debate from people who aren’t at the fringes (the “my body” crowd and the “infanticide” crowd). We’ll come up with some solution where abortion will rarely be used as a form of birth control. I don’t have the answer and perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but that’s what I think will happen.

  7. Franklin says:

    Mr. Finel-

    Good post. I know what you are referring to, but there’s still a debate over patriotism. To some conservatives, it is still unpatriotic to protest a war-in-progress. Which, of course, is much different than hating the actual people fighting the war.

  8. Bithead says:

    Do not make the mistake of confusing one battle or another as being the whole of the war.

  9. And look, the proof of the pudding is when you read the writings of an old-fashioned lefties. They certainly don’t look at America today and think they’ve won.

    The Left has generally become synonymous with Progressivism these days, which by definition is never pleased with the way things are. Even if they get everything they want they will then generate a new list of ad hoc demands based upon the latest passing fancies.

    I, for one, no longer associate the Left with liberalism because they seem to have forgotten what it means. Like James, my conservatism is motivated by libertarianism and a respect for the hard lessons of the past and not by religion. My biggest complaint about the Left isn’t necessarily their beliefs, though I will of course take issue with some of them, but the too frequent ahistorical Year 0 mentality that breeds contempt for tradition and continues to be blissfully unaware of the concept of unintended consequences. Take Young Mr. Yglesias for instance. Please. But YMMV.

  10. Moonage says:

    The problem I have, as previous comments are illustrating, is that people have a very difficult time differentiating the various aspects of being “conservative”. Gay marriage bans for example. I oppose gay marriage bans. Does that make me liberal? Quite the opposite, it makes me more conservative than a person proposing banning gay marriages. Because I am a true political conservative, I oppose ANY federal interference on the issue. What a state wishes to do is their own business. However, I’d prefer states stay out of the issue as well. That’s conservative. Cultural conservatism, as noted, takes a standard of living at a specific point in time and attempts to maintain. It’s not because they are just stubborn or mule-headed, it’s because that standard of living was perceived as better than what is being offered in the current time. However, you can’t define a person as “conservative” on all the issues. I support abortions on demand. That’s pretty liberal. I support expanded death penalties. That’s pretty conservative ( even tho “conservative” prevents death in one case and causes it in another ). I do this not because I’m liberal, but because I’ve worked with crack-babies that were born with no functioning brain. Solve the drug issue first, then we’ll talk about abortion. But wait, supporting the war on drugs is conservative…….

    Get my drift?

    It is the attempt by media to pigeonhole philosophy as being concretely one or the other that has created the perception one side has won or lost. Philosophy is a huge thing, it can’t be pigeonholed.

  11. Floyd says:

    Conservatism has not lost the culture war. America has lost the culture war.
    The result is not a shift in culture or a single nation with multiple cultures,(An absurd notion)but rather the putrid ooze of a dead culture.
    There is no longer the binding morality of a common culture, common ideals of decency,or common sense.
    A nation cannot depend on a dead or dying culture to control the primal urges of a citizenry desperate to fit in, leaving only the ever tightening fist of government control to maintain a “civil”[lol] society, and to beat back the spectre of chaos. This comes inevitably at the expense of individual liberty, despite the false perception to the contrary.
    All social structures are ultimately only systems of coercion and domination, A common culture mollifies this fact and allows for the yoke of conformity to rest easier on the shoulders of the participants.
    Killing the common culture strips back velvet and exposes the iron fist.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    …common culture, common ideals of decency,or common sense.

    So, only conservatives are masters of these things? And since the right has lost the culture wars…how long does America have left? 10 years? 20 years? Whatever are you going to do…

  13. HiItsNino says:

    Get over it. If your not gay than these decisions have no bearing on your life. None. I don’t see this attack on conservatives as a real thing. Its made up.

  14. Moonage says:

    I don’t see this attack on conservatives as a real thing. Its made up.

    Watch MSNBC for five minutes.

  15. HiItsNino says:

    I always thought our common ideals were things like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, the right to own a gun, education, infrastructure, etc.

    Seems to me its the conservatives that are always trying to take most of those things away, or they claim that someone else it. Seems like you don’t like our common ideals and would rather have a country of your own.

    “The price of freedom is tolerance” -Thomas Jefferson

  16. Moonage says:

    Seems to me its the conservatives that are always trying to take most of those things away, or they claim that someone else it. Seems like you don’t like our common ideals and would rather have a country of your own.

    That is the second post in a row that strikes me as being completely clueless. Liberals want gun control, not conservatives. Barack Obama is a LIBERAL, he is NOT a Conservative. Barney Frank is a LIBERAL, not a conservative.

    The entire point of conservative political philosophy is to keep government out of your hair. That is the complete opposite of what you think.

    Conservative cultural values would prefer that people just do right by each other and therefore needs for laws and such would not be necessary. Liberals use laws to push those values.

    So, if a person is a political conservative who wants to keep government out of their hair, then they automatically oppose liberal agendas that use the government to get what they want on cultural issues. But, that does not make one a cultural conservative. Me and you can both believe in some cultural issue, let’s take abortion for example. I’m going to guess we both support it. The difference is you would want the law to make it legal. I would want the law to keep completely out of the issue. If there is a need for abortions, in both cases it would be available. In my case, it’s there if needed. In your case, since the government has acknowledged it, does Medicaid/Medicare cover it? Does a doctor HAVE to offer it? Do private insurance companies have to cover aspects of it ( since it’s elective )? What happens if the abortion’s botched on government funded programs? Etc.. Etc.. Etc..

    In my case, it’s a personal responsibility. In yours, the government’s.

    That is the heart of the issue.

  17. slimmy says:

    But Moonage, small govt conservatism is dead dead and dead. The Right wants to control childbirth, who you can marry, when you can die, whether you should serve in the military, all the details to your private life contingent solely upon the authority’s fiat, suspend portions of the Bill of Rights, and who is a ‘real’ American. There’s no end to what the Right Wing Nanny State lusts after to control in our daily lives.

    Extremely arrogant, extremely intrusive and smothering. The Dems want to smother us too – just on a different set of issues.

  18. Floyd says:

    An interested party;
    Did you actually read what I said?
    Typically, a leftist loves to take “sound bite” and masticate it beyond recognition, in order to spit out a misrepresentation what was said.”Eschewing” the facts.
    Of course I would not expect someone to digest the complexity of truth, when he can only swallow lies.
    Objectivity, though, comes from ingesting information from all sources, then defecating the poison and the lies , exposing the refined products for what they are.
    [I just had to carry the metaphor to the very “end”, maybe I’m just “anal” about such things!][lol]

  19. tom p says:

    All social structures are ultimately only systems of coercion and domination, A common culture mollifies this fact and allows for the yoke of conformity to rest easier on the shoulders of the participants.

    So… the yokes on you?

  20. An Interested Party says:

    The entire point of conservative political philosophy is to keep government out of your hair.

    Unless, of course, you are Michael Schiavo, or a lesbian couple that wants to adopt a child, or someone who wants to smoke pot in the privacy of your own home…

    re: Floyd | April 10, 2009 | 01:30 pm

    Actually, since so much of what you write is nonsensical, I was just trying to sort out if that is what you believed…

  21. Floyd says:

    Absolutely; The answer is Yes, but my Boss replaced it when He said…

    “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you, and learn from ME; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy, and MY burden is light.”

  22. Floyd says:

    An Interested party;
    Of course not, and thanks for the affirmation.

  23. Floyd says:

    the 1:51pm entry was in response to tom p’s
    question….

    “So… the yokes on you?”

  24. Moonage says:

    The Right wants to control childbirth, who you can marry, when you can die, whether you should serve in the military, all the details to your private life contingent solely upon the authority’s fiat, suspend portions of the Bill of Rights, and who is a ‘real’ American. There’s no end to what the Right Wing Nanny State lusts after to control in our daily lives.

    That fight has always existed in one form or another. It’s just being called red-blue or convervative vs liberal as opposed to the Spanish Inquisition, fascism, Islam, or whatever. Total conservatism can’t exist in an organized society. Socialism has never existed in its true form and can not work either. The question is where in the middle we choose to exist. I prefer to exist with only enough socialism to keep some semblence of order. Liberals choose to use orders with some semblence of democracy. What’s the point of voting if the government controls every aspect of your life? The goverment is only there to provide for the protection and welfare of its citizenry. Anything beyond that is a liberal thing. People are whining about conservative values losing out now, they started losing out with The New Deal. The conservative culture is suffering not because Obama won, but because about 1 in 4 people have ceded personal responsibility and dumped it on a willing government who in turn tells them what their values are, if they have any at all.

  25. Franklin says:

    1 in 4 people have ceded personal responsibility and dumped it on a willing government who in turn tells them what their values are, if they have any at all.

    I’m just curious what you have in mind when you say something like this.

    Many people have always allowed other to dictate their values; the most common example being the church.

    Are you talking about issues like pharmacists being forced to sell condoms? Doctors performing artificial insemination for gay couples? Real estate agents being forced to bring black people to see houses in white neighborhoods? There would undoubtedly be arguments about whether all of these are alike. Progressives would tend to come down on the same side of each issue. Fifty years ago, most people would have come down on the other side (although of course two of the issues were unheard of).

    If that’s not what you’re talking about, please never mind. Like I said, I’m just curious what you had in mind.

  26. Moonage says:

    I’m talking about Welfare, Medicare, food stamps, etc. The reason your examples are valid is because in order to get the money, states have to accept the terms.

  27. Tlaloc says:

    What moonage is advocating is actually anarchy, and I do not use that term as a pejorative since I happen to be an anarchist. I’m not sure if he/she is aware that that is what they are advocating and yet it is the case.

    Personally I think the best possible state for humanity is anarchy in which every individual recognizes that they are ultimately responsible for their actions. Such a state would take centuries to reach even if we all decided today it was the best goal. Given that suh consensus is far from reached the question then is what is the second best option. I think it is pretty clearly a liberal democratic-republic with strong social safety nets and firm restrictions on the power of corporate entities.

    In other words pretty similar to what the Democrats advocate (but too often fail to actually achieve).

  28. Moonage says:

    I’m not advocating anarchy, I’m advocating the US as the Constitution intended. The safety would be in place as deemed necessary by the states. Each state would establish their own programs as deemed ethically correct by the state. It wouldn’t be equal from state to state, but it’s not now either. The issue however in the traditional conservative v liberal was not whether we provide certain services, it was the federal government’s control over states. When they started collecting federal income taxes, the consevatives started fighting an uphill battle.

  29. tom p says:

    When they started collecting federal income taxes, the consevatives started fighting an uphill battle.

    That’s not when it happened, moonage. The battle became uphill when the feds started distributing some of that largesse to the states… kinda like the first hit of crack. Once the states tried it, they were hooked.

    Instant junkies.

  30. sam says:

    @moonage

    I’m not advocating anarchy, I’m advocating the US as the Constitution intended.

    I’m afraid you’re shoveling shit against the tide. The Second Industrial Revolution, the rise of the modern corporation, and, most importantly, the Civil War destroyed the pure federalist ideal. As Ken Burns pointed out in The Civil War, before the war people said, “The United States are,” after the war they said (and continue to say), “The United States is.”

  31. sam says:

    Or, as I learned to say as a young child:

    I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

    I’ve believed in that since the first day I recited it. One nation indivisible.

  32. sam says:

    I’m sorry, coming up on my 7th decade, the memory is not what it used to be. The correct pledge I learned was:

    I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

    But, as I said, I’ve never forgotten nor stopped believing that we are one nation indivisible (that has stumbled, but moved ever forward in making liberty and justice for all a reality).

  33. Moonage says:

    I’m not shoveling shit, I am trying to explain that there is a constant struggle over the AMOUNT of socialism we accept. Total conservatism is not possible since no modern conservative even wants it. So the point of this thread becomes what level of socialism do we accept? Simply saying the war is over because of one issue while many other issues have been ceded just doesn’t jive with me. Some conservatives such as me don’t care if gays get married nearly as much as I oppose the federal government defining what marriage is. Before too long the concept of states rights will be completely moot.

  34. Moonage says:

    Tom, where did that largesse come from?

  35. sam says:

    Just a linguistic point, Moonage. I didn’t say you were shoveling shit, I said you were “shoveling shit against the tide.” Look it up.

  36. anjin-san says:

    That is the second post in a row that strikes me as being completely clueless. Liberals want gun control, not conservatives

    Who is being clueless here? Most of the GOP posters here seem to think of me as somewhere between a “liberal” and a “leftist” (whatever that means).

    I like guns. I own several & am a pretty good shot. I will not give them up without a fight.

    Trying to ascribe fixed positions onto large blocks of people is a fools errand most of the time. People tend to be fairly complex.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    Ahh I see the silly “socialist” tag is being bandied about yet again…I guess if enough people say it over and over it must be true…as for the whole argument over state’s rights vs. the federal government, I thought the Civil War had settled that issue, but I guess not in some people’s minds…

  38. Moonage says:

    Sorry about the summary judgment about liberals and gun control. But it is the liberals within the Democrat party that are pushing it right now. There are no conservatives pushing gun control.

  39. Moonage says:

    Sorry bout that Sam. I got what you meant and meant the same as well.

  40. anjin-san says:

    But it is the liberals within the Democrat party

    There is no such thing as “The Democrat Party”.

    Pull Rush’s cigar out of your ass, and start thinking for yourself…

  41. DL says:

    The real culture world was over when they crucified Christ and He rose again. The victory over sin and death has been completed. It just remains for those to choose(that free will thingy) to join in the side of that victory, or choose death.
    We have watched this geographic destruction of God’s Church before: Henry the Eighth’s England went, St. Paul’s Turkey also, and Augustine’s North Africa, only to see it return from the remnants elsewhere. It shall prevail where it counts -in the end.
    In America (where only 29 of some 365 bishops see fit to chastise and admonish Notre Dame)one can hear the lions roaring in the modern secular coliseum as Obama (the first infanticide president)seeks to destroy the Catholic Church through FOCA and the congress tries to put into the stimulus bill a clause that disallows church service attendence for bailout recipients.
    To those that have chosen correctly and chose God – there is great joy.
    In the end there will be two lines:goats and sheep. It is then that the “culture wars” will be over.

  42. Russell says:

    Yes, social conservatives are losing the culture wars. Because social conservatism, here in the US, is nothing more than what it has been everywhere: an irrational defense of tradition. It will not stand against a secular and global culture connected by the internet, informed by science, and unwilling to bow down to any one authoritative source. (That also is why fundamentalist forms of Islam do not have nearly the advantage that our social conservatives fear. They share common weaknesses.)

    The question for other kinds of conservatives is how long and to what extent they will stay yoked to that sinking ship. The last gasp of the social conservative is that socialism and Marxism are riding in on the back of gay marriage and abortion. That’s nonsense, of course. Yes, Gramsci pointed out that cultural change is a prerequisite for political change. That doesn’t mean cultural change will bring the political change he desired. The only thing that connects defense of capitalism to fighting gay marriage is when fiscal conservatives keep themselves tied to the social conservative. Cut the damn rope, already. You have nothing to lose but embarrassment at being connected in any form or fashion to those silly arguments.