That New-Time Religion
By: William Voegeli
Books discussed in this essay:
- A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, by Andrew Hartman
- Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter
- One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution, by Gertrude Himmelfarb
- An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum
In 1993, after the USSR had dissolved and the Berlin Wall been pounded into souvenirs, Irving Kristol wrote, “There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me.” Instead, the defeat of Soviet Communism signified only that “the real cold war has begun,” a multi-front civil war against the “liberal ethos,” which “aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.” Kristol explained that he had come to believe that “rot and decadence…was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism.”
The fight against collectivism hasn’t been won, but remains hard-fought and competitive. The end of the Cold War signaled the demise of socialism and central planning as ideals people fought for, or even took seriously. In 1997 the influential philosopher Richard Rorty chided his fellow leftists for their vague desire to repudiate and move beyond capitalism, despite failing to figure out “what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution.” Until the Left comes up with clear, compelling answers to such basic questions, he said, it should limit its ambitions to “piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy.” As any Tea Party member assessing the Obama presidency will tell you, if liberals put enough piecemeal reforms together, the result is de facto collectivism. The existence of the Tea Party, however, and the fact that the Left is reduced to either denying its ultimate purposes or simply operating without any, constitute real achievements.
To believe the battle against “moral anarchy” has been equally close, with each side securing some victories while suffering defeats, would be delusional. This year’s Obergefell decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws means that no state has the constitutional power to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is the most dramatic evidence of the culture war’s asymmetrical correlation of forces. That the liberal ethos would claim so much territory so quickly was beyond imagining in the 1990s.
Irving Kristol was the leading neoconservative, and Patrick Buchanan neoconservatism’s leading “paleoconservative” critic. But in his 1992 speech to the Republican national convention (after unsuccessfully challenging President George H.W. Bush for the nomination), Buchanan characterized the political landscape in terms indistinguishable from those Kristol would later employ. The 1992 election, he said, “is about who we are” and “what we believe and what we stand for as Americans.” Conservatives, Buchanan said, were engaged in a war “for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.”
Andrew Hartman selected Buchanan’s phrase for the title of his history of America’s culture wars, A War for the Soul of America(2015). Others, of course, have written books on the subject. The first to attract wide attention beyond academe was Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), by James Davison Hunter. Hunter defined his subject in general as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.” In most times and places such hostilities resulted from clashing religious beliefs. The tensions specific to the United States at the end of the 20th century, however, were different, involving “opposing bases of moral authority and the world views that derive from them.” These differences, not primarily sectarian, were animated by the tension between what Hunter described as the orthodox and progressive worldviews. Adherents of the former believe that the ultimate moral authority is “external, definable, and transcendent.” For the latter, “the binding moral authority tends to reside in personal experience or scientific rationality, or either of these in conversation with particular religious and cultural traditions.”
“Culture wars” is a metaphor, but not simply an exaggeration. “Culture politics” never caught on, for good reasons. War means sovereignty is at stake, which isn’t the case in ordinary political conflicts. Whose country is this?
This question is particularly important and difficult for America. For most countries, a distinctive identity is largely defined by “ethnonationalism,” as political scientist Jerry Z. Muller calls it. Winston Churchill appealed to it during World War II, for example, speaking to English audiences of “this island race.” America’s Declaration of Independence begins by stating that the time has come for “one people” to sever their connection with “another.” At a time when America and England were demographically similar, the basis for calling Americans one people was not a distinctive ethnic identity. It came to be a creed, of which the principles announced in the Declaration’s most famous passages figured prominently. As America has become more heterogeneous over the subsequent 239 years, the meaning of its creed has become steadily more important, since the possibility of unity on the basis of a shared ethnic identity has steadily dwindled. Thus, Americans’ disagreements about who we are turn heavily on what we believe and stand for.
Furthermore, accepting the possibility of a loyal opposition is especially important to a self-governing republic. Arguments about what we believe and stand for resemble war more than politics in that it is much harder to treat adversaries who differ about matters so fundamental as patriots in good standing. To put the point another way, questions about national identity are meta-political rather than simply political. It becomes hard for republican politics to be the medium through which we resolve our differences if the question of who we are is disputed rather than settled. Six years after Irving Kristol declared that “the real cold war” had just begun, his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, wrote a book about the culture wars, One Nation, Two Cultures. Its assessment of America’s predicament at the end of the 20th century concludes with the hope that the configuration described in its title is indefinitely tenable, but the book’s foregoing analysis does not make that outcome sound likely.
Finally, the arguments over cultural issues are bigger than republican politics by virtue of addressing the social prerequisites for such politics. Even as he praised, in The Federalist, the Constitution’s ingenuity in “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” James Madison made clear that such devices amounted to “auxiliary precautions.” There was, by contrast, “no doubt” that a “dependence on the people” is “the primary control on the government.”
And if the success and safety of the government depend on the people, so that they’re depending on themselves, the people have to be good. No social contract, no matter how shrewdly devised, would allow the immoral and amoral to successfully govern themselves. In 1788 Madison told the Virginia convention considering whether to ratify the new Constitution:
But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.… To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.
Edmund Burke expressed a similar view. “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,” he wrote in 1791. “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
Buchanan called the war for the soul of America a “religious war” and a “cultural war.” The two terms are not interchangeable, but their subjects are related. In a similar way, America’s founders, even those who were religious skeptics, believed that the moral foundations necessary for a successful republic rested on religious devotion. No matter how many hopes we invest in “the influence of refined education,” George Washington said in his Farewell Address, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”