By David Gushee
Over the last ten years I have written two books and countless articles in which I suggested and hoped that the culture war between cultural conservatives and cultural liberals would — and should — end. I now wave the white flag. I now say that America’s culture war appears to be endless, and our culture warriors appear to have an endless appetite for conflict. I say this with reluctance and a measure of despair.
By “culture war,” I mean the conflict over American moral values and public policy on such issues as sexual morality, abortion, and homosexuality. On one side are the traditionalists, largely motivated by religion; on the other side are the liberals, either motivated by a different version of religion or by other moral commitments such as personal autonomy or keeping religion out of the public square.
All one really needs is the abortion issue to enjoy a fresh batch of culture-war skirmishes each week. The opposing sides are more deeply entrenched than the French and the Germans at Verdun. The lobbyists are funded by zealots on both sides and are always ready with fresh, angry press releases. The slightest movement on any one of a thousand fronts is enough to send paroxysms of anger through the side that disagrees or feels threatened, to be followed by counter-paroxysms in response by the other side.
This week the question is whether President Obama should speak at Notre Dame. Last week it was whether Kathleen Sebelius should become the Health and Human Services secretary. The week before that it was over health-care workers’ rights to refuse to offer services they consider immoral. Next week it will be over … something else. There’s always something else.
The culture wars are exacerbated by their connection to both political and religious divisions. The fight over abortion is not just over abortion; it is a proxy for the battle between the pro-choice Democrats and the (half) pro-life Republicans, with another election always just around the corner and positioning for that election always a factor. And the fight over abortion is also a proxy for the divisions within religious communities. The culture war is not just between religious folks and secularists, but also between different factions within religious communities — where, if anything, the conflict is at its most intense.
Take the issue of President Obama giving a commencement address at Notre Dame. I was just there this week, and the issue headlined each day’s newspaper. Whether Obama speaks at Notre Dame is not really, or certainly not solely, a political issue. It is the latest skirmish in an intra-Catholic conflict over abortion, an issue that divides conservative and liberal Catholics. And it’s messier than just pro-life conservative Catholics versus pro-choice liberal Catholics. I know several pro-life Catholics who disagree with the president on abortion but also disagree with other Catholics who think that his position on abortion makes it inappropriate to allow him to speak at a Catholic university. At that point the issue is not abortion, but about how the Catholic Church best bears faithful Christian witness to its values in contemporary society; or, more precisely here, how a Catholic institution of higher education conducts its particular mission. It’s also about the knotty question of whether the abortion issue is so grave that being wrong on it makes one a moral scoundrel with whom committed Christian people must not enter into fellowship of any sort.
It has been my (apparently quixotic) conviction that Christian ethics is measured not just by the correct substance of one’s moral beliefs, but also by the respectful way they are communicated. I have believed it better to remain in conversation with people with whom I sometimes disagree rather than writing them off. And I have likewise believed that the quest for possible common ground on contested issues is a Christian moral responsibility, especially in a fiercely divided society. These convictions undergird my own efforts to work respectfully with pro-choice people, for example, on abortion-reduction initiatives — even while holding fast to my pro-life stance on abortion. I believe that abortion is a great moral evil; I believe access to abortion should be legally restricted. But, meanwhile, I think it best to work to reduce the demand for abortion even if the overall structure of abortion law does not yet change.
Let’s just say that my mail demonstrates quite amply that respectful dialogue and the quest for common ground even amidst unresolved differences is not popular with culture warriors.