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.

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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books.


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  3. RustySkywater May 18, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    If I may offer an alternative view : You may see the Presidential letter – decree isn’t really the best word for it – as an act of culture war, but I and others who support transgender rights as a way to ensure equal access to school facilities. I just can’t understand the opposition to this. Even as you’re mentioning parents with moral/religious objections to transgender theory, that’s not relevant in this case; people aren’t being required to write detailed analyses of gender theory, they’re just being asked to not derprive students of their equal rights.

    To be fair, you’re using this as an illustration of a broader concept; still, as someone who’s living in a rather conservative state in the U.S., I don’t find the left to be the driving agent in the culture war.


    1. Whether there is a “right” to decide you’re born in the wrong body and then compel everyone else to agree with and accommodate you is the question at issue. Framing it as “just fighting for equal rights” is assuming the conclusion.


  4. […] Samuel James takes issue with David Brooks’s idea that because social conservatives have lost the culture war over the Sexual Revolution, they ought to make peace with this fact and change their focus. Brooks wrote in a post-Obergefell column last summer: […]


  5. I think it’s hysterical that you’ve chosen to use a photo of anti-gay Culture Warrior and Florist Martyr Barronelle Stutzman to illustrate this silly article.


  6. Concerned Baptist May 19, 2016 at 7:38 am

    In one paragraph you claim that this “decree” “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.” Actually, the North Carolina General Assembly called a special session back in March, some two months before this decree, in which they introduced House Bill 2–the “bill” you reference–and voted it into law after allowing only 30 minutes of public debate. Most Democrat legislators had not had time to read the bill before they had to vote on it and all of the Democrat Legislators in the Senate refused to vote in protest. House Bill Two also bars any NC Municipality from raising the minimum wage above the state level of $7.25 and it bars employers right to sue in State Courts for discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, or sexual orientation. The people of North Carolina never got a “vote” on House Bill 2.


  7. […] friend and colleague, Samuel James, has a brilliant piece (you should read the whole thing) on why the culture wars are […]


  8. The North Carolina anti-trans bill is what set this off. The federal government is simply responding to this kind of anti-LGBTQ insanity.

    I have my doubts about transgenderism. Even so, I don’t see how it harms me, so I’m content to mind my own business. Is there some reason why Culture War types have difficulty doing the same?


    1. The “who started it?” question is generally fruitless. The NC law was in response to the city of Charlotte’s ordinance. I imagine that someone in Charlotte would have an idea of why that city decided to enact the ordinance, and would then say that the city ordinance was just a response.
      Pretending that only one side is fighting and the other is just “responding” is disingenuous or just downright stupid.


  9. “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.”

    This sentence displays exactly the problem with culture war conservatives. This bill was overruled the local will of the people of a city for the purpose of being directly antagonistic to a population of people with a certain set of beliefs about gender. Then you attack the federal government for doing essentially the same thing. can’t you see the hypocrisy? The fact that you are losing the war doesn’t change the fact that you fired the first shot.

    What Brooks is suggesting that conservative stop this obsessive insane need to legislate against people minding their own affairs and then play victim when those attacked fight back.


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