Just when we thought the culture war was dead, new battles are cropping up. In recent years, 400 state laws have been passed which, in the name of protecting women’s health, restrict access to abortion.Conservative activists recently managed to defeat Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance by inciting fears of transgender women.
Twenty years ago, Christian conservatives reframed equal rights as “special rights,” convincing many voters that their own hardships were caused by gays and lesbians’ growing influence in society. By denying rights to sexual minorities, they believed they could improve their own lives.
I spoke with individuals in a small town in Oregon to try to find out more about the appeal of such campaigns, and wrote a book about what I found. Folks I met believed they were taking a much—needed stand. Precisely against what, however, few had any idea.
Ultimately, many of these campaigns failed at the polls. Afterwards, the moral entrepreneurs who led them went home, licking their wounds. Over time, the accumulation of many such defeats nationwide have prompted some observers to proclaim that the culture war, and by implication, the religious right, is dead.
Nationally, Christian conservatives are certainly in a state of transition. The old guard, men like Jerry Falwell, are for the most part gone. Opposition to gay/lesbian rights, once a reliable wedge issue, has collapsed under the weight of shifting public opinion, and the Supreme Court ruling granting marriage equality.
It’s important to acknowledge that the organizing we’ve done has made a huge difference. And Christian evangelicals have changed, to a great extent. Younger evangelicals are more interested in climate change than gay rights. And Americans, on the whole, are more secular than ever.
And still, the claim that the culture war is dead is somewhat premature. For even as particular issues and organizations come and go, a significant percentage of Americans continue to believe in the superiority of the old America: before radicals, feminists, gays and lesbians, and others mounted a frontal assault on traditional values. They hold tight to their belief in God, hard work, and national exceptionalism.
That’s why culture war rhetoric, a series of tropes, or themes, continues to make its way into different political clashes, and is reignited today. What are these themes?
—First, is the claim of a world gone awry, or moral decay, linked to an appeal to nostalgia. Things were great in the old days. Then one could separate the men from the boys, the men from the women. The gays from the straights. Then the world made sense. People took care of one another. Now there’s no difference between right and wrong. Anarchy reigns.
—Second, is the targeting of certain groups as the alleged agents of these changes. Secular humanists are destroying the schools. Uppity women are having indiscriminate sex and seeking free access to abortions. Homosexuals are preying on young children. And now transgender people.
— Third, is the theme that white, Christian Americans are victims. America is a Christian nation. We are the true Americans. They have taken our nation from us. We need to take it back.
—The fourth theme is a call to act: to pass legislation, to roll back rights, punish the offenders. We can preserve the social order by fighting against sexual anarchy in the bathroom. By punishing the offenders, we can restore community, order, and hierarchy.
These four tropes imagine a battle of good against evil. They demand simple answers to difficult problems. Even as they seek to influence policies, they are suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. And they use fear to sow the seeds of division.
In its most extreme version, such rhetoric is amplified by claims that the country, or at least its decent majority, is facing imminent ruin and therefore extreme action is required. As we know all too well from the recent murders at abortion clinics, apocalypticism mixed with lax gun laws– and a dose of mental instability –can be a lethal mix.
Because culture war rhetoric paints in broad strokes, it can easily take on new issues, inciting new conflicts. For example, Zakia Salime and I have written about the ways Islamophobic rhetoric on the right today often takes a page from the playbook established by 1990s campaigns against gay and lesbian rights. The pseudo-documentaries “Obsession”and “The Third Jihad” draw upon many of the same films as “The Gay Agenda” before it, or –even earlier– “The Eternal Jew.”
Even if these and other campaigns end with little to show for them, they can still feed conservative interests by fanning the flames of mutual distrust. And fear is infectious.