The National Catholic Review
William Bole
Why even Obama cannot bring an end to the culture wars
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During the early months of the Obama administration in Washington, there were persistent rumors of a ceasefire in the nation’s notorious culture wars. One writer hailed “the coming end” of these furious battles over abortion, gay marriage and the like, a demise that would be ushered in soon by greater attention to such bread-and-butter concerns as work and wages and by President Obama’s agreeable style. The rumors were circulated mostly, and wishfully perhaps, by liberals who hoped to take the steam out of conservative social crusades. It seems that word never reached the people who fly the flag of traditional moral and family values.

While some people were counting down the days of the culture wars, many of the staunchest soldiers in the wars were pressing their uniforms. Gary Bauer, a onetime Republican presidential hopeful and a leader of social conservatives, opened fire directly on Obama. The former head of the Family Research Council, a nonprofit public policy organization, declared that the president, then barely 100 days in office, was rolling back “a generation [of]...small, incremental advances in promoting pro-life, pro-family policies.” First among those Bauer cited was the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal statute that defined marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman. Bauer alleged that the Obama White House was scheming to repeal the act, known as DOMA. Not long after, the Justice Department filed a brief in support of the law.

More Conservative Than Social

At the time of Bauer’s assessment (published in Human Events on April 29) many observers believed the opposite—that Obama seemed to be soft-pedaling social issues like gay marriage or was reaching for common ground, notably on abortion. That still seems true enough, but the most telling part of Bauer’s early call to arms is that it was issued before he and other social conservatives really got angry.

That began a month later when they were infuriated by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Although a pro-choice president could hardly be expected to seek out a pro-life nominee, there was scarcely a hint of abortion partisanship in her judicial record and more than a hint of moderation on the issue. Still, the opposition of pro-life groups was adamantine. They seized on her role as a board member of a multi-issue, Puerto Rican legal advocacy organization that filed briefs in favor of abortion rights, but they pointedly ignored the most notable abortion-related case she actually ruled on as a federal appeals judge. In that case, involving the use of U.S. aid to family-planning agencies abroad, Sotomayor ruled against pro-choice groups.

Then came the health care shootout. Pro-life groups assailed proposals that would, in their contesting view, lead to government-funded abortions. Fair enough. But they also did their part to credit fantasies about “death panels” that would somehow emerge from the optional end-of-life counseling proposed as part of Obama’s health care overhaul. Next they helped scare up protestors who shut down discussions of the president’s initiative at numerous town-hall meetings. But, for those who wondered what social conservatives were really up to, more revealing was the message that pro-lifers should derail health care reform, abortion aside.

Case in point, a mass e-mailing this past summer from a regional pro-life organization, Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Its redoubtable president, Anne Fox, commented in the action alert that even if it were possible to remove what she insisted are the “anti-life underpinnings” of the reform push, “as individuals we would have to be scared by this bill for other reasons.” Those other reasons had everything to do with the financial costs of what Fox indicted as “universal health care.” This is an arguable point, but it is not a pro-life or family-values argument. It is a Republican National Com-mittee argument.

And that is the trouble with social conservatives or at least many activists who most visibly wear that label. They often seem more conservative than social, more devoted to the political conservative movement than determined to address the roots of contemporary U.S. cultural challenges, like family implosion and widespread abortion.

At times during the deliberations about Sotomayor, the pro-family movement seemed oddly preoccupied with the judge’s views on firearms. Within hours of the nomination, Ken Blackwell, the Family Research Council’s “senior fellow for family empowerment,” cranked out an opinion piece carried by FoxNews.com: “Obama Declares War on America’s Gun Owners With Supreme Court Pick.” Even the president of Americans United for Life, Charmaine Yoest, managed to highlight that issue (together with abortion) in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The pro-life leader remonstrated that Sotomayor had “failed to recognize the Second Amendment right to bear arms.” Such worries throw light on a dance taking place between moral-values conservatives and other segments of the conservative movement, in this case the gun lobby. There is very little daylight between these ideological partners.

Kept Off the Agenda

Just as revealing is what these advocates of traditional values are not talking about—anything that suggests a place on their agenda for economic justice. Other social trends that would appear to be of concern to social conservatives do not seem to have captured their attention of late.

Recent research finds, for instance, that divorce rates in the United States have tapered off, but that is because of a steep drop in divorce among the college-educated middle class, especially the affluent. Family breakup is in fact plaguing poor and working-class communities, creating what some researchers have dubbed a “divorce gap” along socioeconomic lines. In his new book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out, “The tensions in the marriages of the non-college-educated reflect, in part, the declining job prospects that husbands face.”

A similar picture is developing with regard to abortion. U.S. rates have fallen off significantly, except among women with low incomes. Three-quarters of the women who responded to one survey cited “economic hardship” as their reason for getting an abortion, and studies sponsored by groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have concluded that social and economic supports correlate significantly with lower abortion rates. Unwanted pregnancies, meanwhile, have been surging among women with low incomes and waning in middle-class suburbs.

If standard-bearing social conservatives are speaking of these trends, they are doing so in a whisper. It is possible that some of this may strike a little too close to home for a movement that is disproportionately southern and evangelical.

Southern states are known to be the most divorce-prone in the country, followed by states in the West. The regional pattern looks roughly the same when it comes to teenage pregnancy and birth. Mississippi is a leader in abstinence education, but it is also the state with the highest teen birth rate, having recently relieved Texas of that distinction, according to figures released earlier this year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin (himself an evangelical Protestant), relates that evangelical teenagers on average make their “sexual debut” at 16.3 years old. Teenagers in no other major religious group besides black Protestants have sex for the first time quite so early.

For many pro-family crusaders, these are not just social issues. They are notably backyard problems, which can be the most discomforting. But there is a better explanation for the lagging interest of social conservatives in such findings as the divorce divide, and it has less to do with geography than with ideology.

Ignoring Economic Inequality

The demographics of these trends are complex, but one common thread is the effect of income and education on whether a family stays together, a woman chooses an abortion or a 16-year-old becomes sexually active. The problems may not always call for lunch-bucket liberal solutions like larger, refundable tax credits for working families or a more generous federal grant program for college and vocational education. But they do call for discussions, in which many social conservatives would be less than eager to engage, tending toward the question of economic inequality. Some of this disinclination goes back to the beginning of the post-World War II conservative movement, which joined together libertarians, like the economist Milton Friedman, and moral conservatives, like the political theorist Russell Kirk.

Writing in the August-September edition of Policy Review, published by the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford, Peter Berkowitz noted that the disparate elements of this new conservatism had been “united in thought by opposition to the New Deal” as well as to Soviet Communism. The Hoover senior fellow suggested with approval, that opposition to New Deal-style liberalism and egalitarianism remains the warmest bond of conservatives today.

On the part of pro-family conservatives, this would make a fair measure of sense if the New Deal had been an anti-family project. But that would be a decidedly unhistorical view of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies. Concepts like the family wage were championed by so-called “maternalists,” reformers who believed social policy should bolster the traditional family by enabling the companionate roles of breadwinner and homemaker. They included personages no less than Eleanor Roosevelt and the president himself, not to mention his visionary labor secretary, Frances Perkins. As Allan Carlson points out in his underappreciated 2003 book The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of American Identity, they were resisted most pointedly by two forces that converged: the National Association of Manufacturers, which coveted women’s labor, and the National Women’s Party, which crafted the Equal Rights Amendment and disparaged the homemaker role for women. F.D.R.’s maternalists carried the day.

In a lecture back in June 2002 in Washington, D.C., Carlson, who is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Ill., explained that the New Deal’s family-support system (featuring lush working-class wages and a fixed work week) reigned for four decades. It unraveled as the real wages of men sank in the 1970s and ’80s, eclipsing the era of what Carlson describes as the “breadwinner/homemaker/child-rich family.”

That family-values conservatives today would still identify themselves, even in part, as against the New Deal, is something of a historical irony. It is also a tribute to the not-so-invisible hand of people like Milton Friedman in the wider conservative movement. This case, however, should not be overbuilt. After all, the American Catholic hierarchy is socially conservative on many questions, but New Deal-oriented. Carlson himself is a credentialed social conservative whose talk in Washington was delivered as the annual Witherspoon Lecture, sponsored by none other than the Family Research Council. Social conservatives may not be as unswayable as they seem.

No one expects these culture warriors on the right (and there are plenty on the left) to begin chanting for health care reform and subsidized housing. But if they could see their way to acknowledge that economic insecurity is a pro-life concern, and other similarly sensible propositions, it would be a shift in a more interesting and peaceable direction.

William Bole is a journalist in the Boston area and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World (Seven Stories).

Comments

Test Kuhlman | 10/30/2009 - 9:14am
test todd
John | 10/28/2009 - 4:39pm

So....Leftists and liberals may advance their belief system... and that's unquestionable. But should conservatives/republicans do the same, that's instantly 'questionable' and bad?

Pro-lifers spend alot of time and their own money trying to save women and their children....all the problem pregnancy centers, all the homes for unwed or abused moms, etc. are run by pro-lifers out of their own pocket or with very little support from the Church, religious orders and the "peace and justice" crowd who by and large are entirely ignorant of this huge part of the pro-life movement that really does put its money where its mouth is.

And unlike liberals, pro-lifers tend to actually listen and read to what the other side says, writes, and does...so they didn't need to wait 100 days post election to see what Obama and company did. He promised to make FOCA a priority. He promised to lift the Mexico City policy, thereby allowing federal funding of Planned Parenthood again... he brought to town and to power hundreds of people who have long resumes helping the abortion industry.... Just because the New York Times or Time didn't run an expose on all this doesn't mean it didn't happen. Pro-lifers saw this and reacted. How is this somehow 'bad'? or indicative of them jumping to conclusions unfairly?

As for capital punishment and 2nd amendment rights.... it's actually not so difficult to see how someone who fights for the rights of the completely innocent and completely defenseless to have life wouldn't be overly concerned with the rights of violent murderers who've been proven guilty not by one but by several trials to be both guilty and threats to others. Nor is it complicated to see how a pro-lifer would see the 2nd amendment as the last defense from a tyrannical regime running roughshod over civilians as has happened virtually everywhere on earth.

When one spends any time at all reading Planned Parenthood literature and taking note of their authors' rhetoric, one sees that they're not "nice", live and let live people. They very much are "into" controlling other people via the power of government and they very much do hang around with others further to the Left who talk openly of 'using the state power' to get rid of ideological opponents. Hence the whole hearted IPPF support of Communist China's "one child" policy. It's not hard to see how pro-lifers would react to these seminars, articles, and creeds with an instinctive desire to go buy a rifle and a thousand rounds of ammo. Not for offense, not to go to war, but to defend one's home and family from people who casually talk about "zero population growth" and getting rid of people they don't like!

Now these people are sitting in the seats of power and we're all supposed to be hunky dory about it? Pro-lifers have all the right in the world to be afraid of a government populated by folk who have a definite world view that admits to the use of force to get their way. They have all the right in the world to be suspicious of people who are in high dungeon over a murderer's sentence while being benign about 3,500 babies killed per day, without trial, without due process. And since many pro-lifers man the problem pregnancy centers in the worst parts of town, they have every right to be suspicious of "liberals" whose policies and 'social-justice' programs "for the poor" have resulted in MORE poverty, family breakdown, and societal problems, not less.

leonard Nugent | 10/28/2009 - 11:49am

Both parties disgust me. It's that simple.

JOHN GRONDELSKI | 10/27/2009 - 8:37am
In claiming that the Administration "filed a brief" in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, the author is being ingenuous. The argumentation advanced by the Justice Department in support of DOMA is so weak that it essentially concedes major points to the plaintiffs attacking the law's constitutionality. Another example of the rhetoric/action dichotomy of the 44th President.
outsidethebox | 10/26/2009 - 7:41pm

The term culture "wars" is used, I had always assumed, in a metaphorical sense. Over the past few weeks I have come to wonder if that is a mirage, if it is not actually literally true.

I went to see the films "Capitalism - A Love Story" and "Food, Inc." which shows how corporations have taken over the production of food and organize it to benefit themselves, regardless of the health and well-being of people or animals. I also saw "The Warning" on Frontline (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/view/) which deals with the economy, and in particular, the thwarted efforts of Brooksley Born to prevent the financial mess which most of us, excluding of course the big executives, are in. Then last night I watched the PBS Masterpiece Contemporary film "Endgame" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/endgame/watch.html) which deals with the secret negotiations which went on for 4 years prior to the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. As I watched this last presentation, it became clear to me that we are involved in a true war. South Africa had a racial apartheid. The Western World and the United States have a system of economic apartheid. There are the minority rich and the majority poor/disempowered. I think that if you follow these same steps in watching these presentations, you will reach the same conclusion.

One of the really profound pieces of dialogue in Endgame is when Prof. Esterhuyse, an Afrikaner, in a discussion about what individuals around the table are afraid of says that he is most afraid that they will be punished for the wrongful oppression that they have perpetrated. I think that this very same dynamic operates today, and understandably so. Endgame really offers the only constructive path out of our situation today. There must be recognition of wrong and repentance and systemic change. Only then will the war end and violence be averted. It is interesting to note that it was not religious leadership who initiated these negotiations but a Gold-mining company that recognized that their interests would not ultimately be served by a violent struggle in South Africa. In fact, when a religious leader was invited to participate in the talks, his answer was that his Church does not get involved in politics. Doesn't this all sound so familiar?

Thomas Stammen | 10/24/2009 - 2:39pm

Deacon Mike, it’s your type of rhetoric and spewing from the mouth that continues to add fuel to the fire of the conservative/liberal debate. Your comments reflect the fantastical intellectual elitism consistently espoused by the left along with belittling the right as ignorant.

Thomas Sowell, a black economist and writer, brings a little reality to some of the accolades received by our president: “Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez,Muammar Qaddafi and Vladimir Putin have all praised Barack Obama. When enemies of freedom and democracy praise your president, what are you to think? When you add to this Barack Obama's many previous years of associations and alliances with people who hate America — Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Father Pfleger, etc. — at what point do you stop denying the obvious and start to connect the dots?”


Mike Evans | 10/24/2009 - 10:55am
The extreme right has found a ready market for its insidious Kool-Aid. Made-up allegations without any truth to their foundation, accusations of communism and socialism, charges of pro-abortion, racism, and just plain anti-democrat feelings all contribute to the flavors they sell. Talk radio, super conservative journals, Fox TV News all seem to have found responsive followings. Presently, it is impossible to argue sensibly with any of their adherents. The result of drinking the Kool-Aid? Invincible ignorance!
David Cruz-Uribe | 10/24/2009 - 9:39am

The author's contention about the emphasis on "conservative" in "social conservative" is apt, but the situation on the ground is more nuanced.   At a recent pro-life gathering I spent a day manning a table for the state anti-death penalty coalition.    The experience left me with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I found the people attending to be quite open to our message that the death penalty was a pro-life issue, and more than a quarter of them signed postcards to their state legislators.  On the other hand, the leadership of several major "pro-life" groups were non-committal when we asked for their support.  And, while signing our cards, more than a few people launched into screeds about Obama the communist.

I do not fullly understand the contradictions implicit in all of this, but I suspect that the fact that the left in America has refused to have anything to do with the pro-life movement has driven many people to the right.   The leadership of both the pro-life and conservative movements then have a vested interest in conmingling the issues and forging a "united front."    If the left is going to undo this and win back some of the "folks in the pews" it is going to have to work hard to convince them that it is serious about abortion.  And, unfortunately, I don't think some parts of it are.

Helena Loflin | 10/23/2009 - 11:24pm
Social conservatives are also deafeningly quiet when it comes to pro-life concerns (other than abortion) related to healthcare insurance reform.  Where is the uproar among conservatives against the industry's predatory and anti-life "pre-existing conditions" like pregnancy, the possibility of becoming pregnant, intent to adopt a child, previous Caesarean section, history of being a victim of domestic violence, being a kidney donor, etc.?  Or, are these pro-life concerns just too politically inconvenient?  Or confusion causing?  Why support several pro-life issues when all you need to get the political job done is one?