Last summer, David Brooks wrote that the social conflicts “oriented around the Sexual revolution” were over. Legal same-sex marriage and the declining influence of traditional Christianity had combined, he wrote, to put the goals of the culture wars of the last few decades out of reach. Conservatives, Brooks argued, now had two options: They could continue to fight a losing battle and eventually be counted among our culture’s worst civic villains—or, they could fight a new war, not zeroed on things like sexuality, marriage, and abortion, but on poverty and the fragmentation of society.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.
Brooks acknowledged that conservatives are already involved in the work he suggests, but his prescription was that such work in humanitarian efforts become the primary concern of social conservatives. If Obergefell ended the first culture, conservatives should go fight another one, a war centered not over ideas about human flourishing but over situations where it is threatened.
I wrote shortly after this op-ed appeared that, though its appeal to a holistic kind of conservatism was well-intended, it ultimately presented a false choice. Conservatism in its very essence–especially religious conservatism–is about how to preserve good things from humanity’s inherent sinfulness. Because human sin and selfishness cannot be confined only to politics or sex, it’s impossible to cede the ground of human flourishing in one area in order to gain it another. Human nature just doesn’t work like that, thus, conservatism cannot either.
I had no way of knowing how well the Obama administration would prove my point.
The White House sent a decree last week to all public schools in the country, directing all federally-funded schools to open up restroom access to transgender students based on the students’ self-identifying gender identity. In other words, the federal government is warning the country’s public schools—kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school alike—that they will be presumed guilty of discrimination if they try to direct students to restrooms that match their biology.
Is there any term for this kind of astonishingly aggressive move, other than the term “culture war”? As former Obama staffer Michael Wear noted on Twitter, these sweeping reforms to American schools will happen without any serious national conversation about transgenderism or (perhaps more significantly) freedom of conscience. On the contrary, this move comes just days after voters in North Carolina approved a bill mandating that public restroom access be based on biological sex rather than gender identity. Persuasion politics and Andrew Sullivan’s “live and let live” case for gay marriage feel very far away now.
The country is clearly divided on transgenderism and public policy. Yet, for the left, such division is apparently a cause for aggressive coercion rather than debate and incrementalism. The Department of Education’s directives do not have any category for families (much less teachers!) who may have sincere moral or religious objections to transgender theory. Obviously, we can expect the courts to sort through those issues very soon. But what does it say when we have an executive branch of government that speaks and governs as if concepts like religious liberty and conscience accommodation don’t even exist?
This is why Brooks and others’ understanding of “culture war” is deficient. The idea that conservative Americans can escape the “wrong side of history” if only they will shut up and be kind is an idea based on a myth: The myth that progressivism has a fixed destination and, once arrived, will seek to go no further. Was it for bombastic rhetoric or theocratic zealotry that the Little Sisters of the Poor now await for the Supreme Court to decide whether they can be consistently Catholic? Was it for political activism that people like Barronnelle Stuzman faced crippling fines and public scorn? Of course not. These Americans were prosecuted for their beliefs, not their bullying.
Rather than thinking of culture war as a Byzantine byword, we should consider the realities behind it. As Richard Weaver wrote many years ago, ideas have consequences. There is an undeniable conflict in American culture between the doctrines of self-authentication and autonomy and those of transcendence and obligation. “Culture war” may be too small or too cute a phrase for this conflict, but it nevertheless gets to the heart of something very important. Conservatives who think they can opt out of the culture war may think they are skipping schism en route to charity, but they are really skipping charity as well. Brooks urges conservatives to spend their time on the “fragmentation of society” rather than the definition of marriage and family, but he misses the fact that such fragmentation begins with wrong ideas about those very things.
It is of course possible to believe in traditional things and yet live a broken, fragmented life. That’s why the partisan elements of the culture war are so deceptive. But this doesn’t mean that such belief is inconsequential or a mute partner to more “practical” life. What we call the “culture war” matters not just in the voting booth but in our daily perception of the world around us, a fact that the Obama administration clearly understands.
So stop that call to cancel the culture war. You may think you can do just fine without it. But the evidence suggests that it may not return the feeling.