Culture Wars — Discussion and Resources


Welcome to the Culture Wars page!

We present this page, including discussion and resources, in hopes of helping clarify issues in a battle that often seems confused.

The issues presented here can be discussed in our forum. Your participation is welcome. You can also email the author, Jim Kalb, or add a comment at the foot of this page.

The Culture Wars

The culture wars are concerned with politics, morality and religion. What is at issue can be stated differently, depending on interest and perspective, but at bottom it is a single question: can men construct a rational social order by reference to their own knowledge and purposes, or should they accept the order given to them by God, nature or history? Is it the way things are that determines what is good for us, or do we decide that for ourselves? Or to put the matter in religious language, are we to treat God as a transcendent authority who reveals his will to us, or as a symbolic expression of human needs and experience that we can consciously reformulate in accordance with changing understandings and purposes?

The cultural war is a war because of the political issues that are indissolubly connected to the religious and moral conflict. Radical differences in the understanding of man, the world, and God have practical consequences. Whether government should oppose homosexuality or homophobia depends on what the social and moral world is like; since either choice has religious implications and involves supervision of daily life it does no good to pretend that one of them “establishes religion” or “imposes morality” while the other does not.

For conservatives, society is not something we make and remake at will. The function of government is to maintain respect for obligations that precede our choices rather than achieve whatever goals we happen to have. For example, conservatives understand the family—man, wife and children—as a natural institution blessed by God. They view customs and social attitudes that strengthen families and distinguish them from non-family groupings as necessary to a good society. Although they vary somewhat in different societies, those customs and attitudes are as natural as the family itself. They include expectations as to the specific obligations of husband, wife and children, and rules that limit permissible sexual relations. While government does not create the family, conservatives say, it should defend and support it, and certainly should not undermine it. Government should therefore respect accepted family roles and sexual morality and support them where appropriate.

In contrast, progressives understand government as the instrument of human desires, and families, as well as other social institutions, as contingent arrangements that arise to serve the purposes people happen to have. The family has no essential nature, and can change radically with changes in circumstances and purposes. There is nothing wrong with that; what is important is to promote the free and equal realization of human goals. Progressives therefore reject social understandings relating to the family that thwart the equal satisfaction of individual desire, such as limits on sexual expression, gender stereotypes, and the inequality of parent and child, and believe government should help change them.

The practical political consequences of the dispute between conservatives and progressives are obvious, and there is no neutral way around them. Nor do conservatives and progressives share a common method of deliberation and decision that would make discussion fruitful. Conservatives believe that desires and aversions must be judged by standards that transcend them. Good things are worth wanting because of their relation to an intrinsic goodness rooted in the nature of things. Morality and politics must begin with the knowledge and love of that goodness. The permanent things on which the good life depends are known with the aid of tradition, which accumulates the thought and experience of a people, clarifying, organizing and making usable hints and insights regarding moral realities that transcend the comprehension of a single man or generation. Respect for tradition is therefore fundamental to sound politics, morals and religion.

Progressives believe on the contrary that it is what we want that makes things valuable. Good and evil begin with our likes and dislikes. Action should be based not on tradition but on current views and circumstances, since it is the latter that are the ultimate standard. Tradition can be a source of suggestions but not an authority. Our moral life therefore becomes a matter of organizing available resources in an overall scheme that permits our desires to be satisfied as much and as equally as possible. Progressive morality thus reduces to progressive social engineering, which in the absence of an external basis for judgement becomes the ultimate authority.

Since the culture war deals with what is finally authoritative it is most fundamentally a religious struggle. The explicit religious thought of the opposing sides illuminates their general positions. Progressive religion looks to our present experience and needs, and treats creed and ritual as symbolic articulations of those things and our practical response to them. To be true to what made our religious heritage great, progressives say, is to articulate in religious form the aspirations of today, as saints and prophets did those of earlier times. Religion thus becomes progressive politics poeticized. In contrast, conservative religion identifies the content of our religious heritage as revelation with a fixed and determinate content. The understanding, expression, and application of that content may develop and vary somewhat over time, and a new revelation may establish a new tradition, but within a tradition the content of revelation remains unchanged.

The differing religious and moral understandings lead to differing understandings of freedom. Conservatives identify freedom with self-government in accordance with natural right. A free government is one that protects the self-government of natural institutions such as families and local communities, and of voluntary associations such as businesses. It respects private rights and property, and promotes the dispersion of power and authority among heterogeneous institutions. Progressives, who deny a natural moral order, identify freedom with the absence of obstacles to the individual will. Since particular obstacles to our wills arise most often from our immediate environment, and since a comprehensive program of removing such obstacles requires coordination, progressives in the end favor radical centralization of power.

These contrary understandings of freedom lead each party to consider the other tyrannical. Conservatives find it outrageous that central bureaucratic power should override the authority of natural and voluntary institutions, while progressives object vehemently to the traditional and private institutions that override the will of individuals.

Because the culture wars have to do with basic principles of social organization, the warring views draw support from different social groups. The conservative viewpoint gets support from those whose way of life is rooted in the institutions central bureaucratic rule supplants. These include family men not associated with national elites; married women, especially those with children; religious people whose faith stresses either tradition or local congregations and personal conversion; small businessmen; and people in small towns and rural areas.

The progressive view appeals to those who gain from central bureaucratic rule. These include the academically credentialed; social scientists and other “experts”; lawyers, especially judges, legal scholars and leaders of the elite bar; elite journalists, whose importance increases as more things are treated as national public policy issues; and religious leaders who identify with national elites and want to be respectable, comfortable, and also prophetic. They also include those with an uneasy relationship to the dominant traditional and informal institutions bureaucratic rule supplants—many blacks, secular Jews, recent immigrants, unmarried persons, artists, and also homosexuals and others unable or unwilling to live in accordance with traditional moral standards.

A strength of progressivism is that it can draw on the prestige that now attaches to technology. Since it makes the world a means for achieving desire through the application of know-how, progressivism is simply the technological view applied to society. Another is the importance today of the mass media and formal education, both dominated by progressives and both fundamental institutions of a technologically ordered society. Yet another strength is that progressivism increases the size and importance of the classes that support it. For example, it multiplies the power and numbers of “experts,” whose position depends on bureaucratized rule, and the numbers of single women with children, whose weak relation to traditional and informal institutions leads them to rely on bureaucratic support. A weakness of progressivism is that its attack on authority leads in the end to a rejection of its own authority and eventually that of reason. Its own success destroys it. Bureaucratic rule ends by destroying the social cohesion needed for rule of any sort to be effective, and is far more expensive and far less effective than traditional institutions when extended to the things that have traditionally been central concerns of family life.

The strength of conservatism is its ability to draw through tradition on enormous breadth and depth of experience, and its resilience—it provides standards and habits that enable ordinary people to manage their own lives and cooperate with others in community without much reliance on other social machinery. It can therefore draw strength from the increasing ineffectiveness and corruption of formal social institutions. Its weakness is that in a society that lacks a strong principle of moral authority and whose bureaucratic methods create rewards for effective political efforts its dependence on things that are difficult to articulate hurts its ability to defend itself against organized attack. In the long run it seems likely that the self-destruction of progressivism will lead to the victory of conservatism. For now, however, it is the former that triumphs everywhere. The culture war is quieter now than a few years ago because the progressives have won on all fronts. Indeed, our current situation is only the present stage of a turn away from tradition and the transcendent that has been going on for centuries. Nonetheless, in daily life and in the background of public affairs the war goes on and the issue is far from decided.

Resources on the Web

Here are resources on the web relating to the culture wars:


Religious perspectives

Progressive perspectives