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The Culture War and the 2016 Election

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The blistering criticism raised by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a distinguished Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, about Donald Trump has once-again ignited controversy over the real-estate developer con-man’s likely role as president.  This only heightened the revelations in a recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer on Tony Schwartz, the author of Trump’s bestseller, The Art of the Deal, and makes it clear that the presidential candidate is an egomaniacal psychopath.

If Trump is elected president, secures a majority of Republicans in Congress and appoints conservatives to the Supreme Court, a new round in the culture war is likely to be ignited.

Like legendary zombies, Christian conservatives will again rise from the grave and wage campaigns against “unacceptable” sexual practices like abortion, homosexuality, trans bathroom access and teen birth control.  The 2016 Republican Party’s platform asserts:

Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.

While the culture war has lost much of its fury, it has morphed into a more reactionary movement, one reframed by white supremacy, Christian nationalism, evangelical zeal and fictitious free-market capitalism.  As the Christian right’s cultural ideology lost its edge, it was augmented by political concerns like immigration and Muslims, race relations, law and order, and taxes and government regulation.  Behind Trump’s campaign, a new and more vindictive reactionary right is congealing.

* * *

Four decades ago, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and lawyer, launched the current bout of the culture war.  In 1972, she spearheaded a campaign to block the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  Her “Stop ERA” movement defeated a women-driven struggle to secure constitutionally-guaranteed equality for women begun in 1848.

The early-‘70s was an era marked by calls for “Black Power,” mounting anti-Vietnam War protests and a counterculture movement celebrating sex, drugs and rock-&-roll.  Schlafly and other conservatives were infuriated by ‘60s political and cultural radicalism and their rage crystallized against the ERA.  They opposed the proposed amendment for a variety of reasons: it would eliminate the male-only draft and require women to register; it would open up military combat roles to women; it would support taxpayer-funded abortions; it would legalize homosexual marriages; and it would lead to unisex bathrooms.  Remarkably, what was sin in the ‘70s has become the new normal.

Schlafly was further incensed in 1973 when an all-male Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, that permitted “Jane Roe” to have an abortion.  It argued that Texas’ attempt to block the abortion was a violation of the plaintiff’s constitutional right to privacy.  The Roman Catholic Church and many fundamentalist Protestants shared Schally’s outrage.  Often forgotten, Pres. Richard Nixon was in favor of abortion rights and supported the Court’s decision, but only in limited cases: “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that,” he admitted.  “When you have a black and a white or a rape.”

Christian conservative rage mounted in the late-‘70s when Anita Bryant led the “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977-’78 to block Miami, FL, from extending its anti-discrimination law to homosexuals.  Collaborating with Jerry Falwell and other conservatives, she launched an anti-gay movement that swept through much of the country.  Bryant ultimately succeeded in having the Florida legislature pass a law prohibiting gays from adopting children.

Four decades later, we live in a very different America.  In 2010, a Florida court ruled unconstitutional the state law barring gays from adopt children.  Recent major Supreme Court decisions, including U.S. v Windsor (2013), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), ensure that abortion remains the law of the land and homosexuals can marry and receive other legal protections.  Key governmental policy changes like transsexuals in the U.S. military and the nation’s compassionate response to the Orlando, FL, massacre at a gay bar illustrate how the nation’s cultural landscape has evolved.  Cumulatively, these developments signal a significant erosion of the Christian right’s campaign to restrict sexual experience and expression.

* * *

Culture wars have been fought in America since the country’s founding.  For British colonists up and down the Atlantic Coast, sex set the boundaries of acceptable moral order.  Immoral sex involved premarital sex (fornication), extramarital sex (adultery), sodomy (homosexuality) and interracial sex (“miscegenation”).  Two offenses were particularly troubling to early white Americans: bestiality involving young men and sexual witchcraft among older women.  However, among New England Puritans sex with the devil was the gravest of all sins and a dozen or so women were hung for committing this shameful deed.

During the Civil War era, preachers and pundits campaigned to suppress the utopian movement, a popular movement symbolized by Oneida community’s collective living and free-love “complex marriage” that challenged conventional notions of family and sexual practice.  During the WW-I era, a mass Christian movement mobilized to stop “white slavery” (prostitution), impose abstinence (prohibition) and promote the “science” of eugenics; confronted by the “new woman,” jazz and speakeasies of the Roaring ‘20s, the Christian right’s campaigns failed.  In the ‘50s, the right’s anti-communist and anti-sexual subversion campaigns scarred the post-WW-II era, but failed to contain the consumer revolution.  Post-WW-II prosperity fostered suburbia and the counterculture movement of the 1960s-‘70s.

In 1990, Pat Buchanan, an ultra-conservative and former Nixon aide, sought the Republican presidential nomination and promoted a hardline stand. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” he proclaimed.  “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”  He failed to secure the nomination, losing to the more moderate, George H.W. Bush, who in tern lost the election to Bill Clinton, signally a shift in America’s political culture.  However, neoconservative Irving Kristol, looking deeper into the changing cultural landscape than Buchanan, observed, “I regret to inform Pat Buchanan that those [culture] wars are over and the left has won.”

Buchanan may have been deceived by the effective coalition of well-funded rightwing groups that kept fighting the culture war.  As Mark Shapiro notes in his comprehensive 1994 study, “Who’s Behind the Culture War,” “there is, in fact, a loosely defined division of labor among the major Religious Right groups.  As the Rev. Lou Sheldon, President of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, told me: ‘’Don’ (Wildmon) [American Family Association] has got pornography; ‘Randy’ (Terry) [Operation Rescue] has got abortion; ‘Phyllis’ (Schlafly) and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America have religious liberties; ‘Jim’ (Dobson, head of Focus on the Family) has family values; the Christian Coalition does candidates; and I’ve got the homosexuals.’”

Still other groups fueled the smoldering embers of rightwing rage, including: the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, Family Research Council, Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, National Association of Evangelicals and National Right to Life Committee.  This well-funded and political influential – and often-collaborating — coalition failed to suppress the changing sexual cultural climate.

Over the subsequent two decades, the culture war lost much of its steam.  Nevertheless, a peculiar sexual perversion marked George W. Bush’s presidency.  It began inauspiciously when Attorney General John Ashcroft draped two semi-nude statues, “Spirit of Justice” (female) and “Majesty of Law” (male), in the Justice Department auditorium.  Most troubling, conservatives gained control over teen sex education and the comprehensive program that included proper use of contraceptives was replace by one promoting “abstinence until marriage” and “virginity pledges.”  The Guttmacher Institute reports that federal data shows that the abstinence-only program, at a cost of $176 million, had “no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior.”

In 2003, the Bush administration was stunned when the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, reversed its earlier decision, Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), ruling that consensual homosexual sodomy was part of an adult’s fundamental right to engage in private sexual activity.  But the highpoint of the Bush-II culture war occurred during the now-infamous the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show when Justin Timberlake “accidentally” exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple to TV viewers.  The Christian right was shocked and flooded the FCC with angry letters, forcing a reluctant agency to stand up for moral rectitude.  It slapped a stiff fine of $550,000 against a contrite (if dumbfounded) CBS; on appeal, a federal district court eventually dismissed the case.

* * *

The U.S. is in the midst of a Fourth culture war, pushing further the revolutions of the 1840s, 1920s and 1960s.  Over the last four decades, the boundaries of the sexually “forbidden” have shifted.  Sexuality has shifted from a moral issue, “sin,” to a legal concern, “consent.”  Anything goes, including commercial sex, as long as it’s truly consensual and age-appropriate.  Today’s only true sex crime is the violation of consent, whether involving rape, pedophilia, child porn, sex trafficking, knowingly infecting someone with HIV/STD or lust murder.  Psychologists have reclassified long-labeled immoral or perverse sex practices as “deviance without pathology.”

The old-fashion culture war Shafley and other Christian conservatives launched four decades ago is essentially over.  As sex was integrated into the marketplace, the Christian right focused on two key issues — abortion and non-heterosexuality — and adopted a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy.  They sought to leverage their declining national influence with successful campaigns targeted at state governments.  As the Guttmacher Institute reports, in 2015 state legislations considered 514 measures regarding abortion and 396 sought to restrict access to abortion.  Lawmakers targeted their anti-abortion efforts under such nomenclatures as “partial-birth abortions,” “informed consent,” “20-week restrictions” and “parental notification”; they required abortion providers to adhere to the standards set for ambulatory surgical centers and to have admitting privileges at a local hospital; and they sought to close Planned Parenthood birth-control and health centers.   Federal and state courts have rejected many of these actions.

The 2016 presidential election is redrawing the battle lines of the culture war.  While calls to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion, fictitious notions of “family values” and anti-gay and anti-transsexual sentiments persist, racism in the form anti-immigration policies is the principle ideological weapon of the new culture war.  One can only hope that this new configuration of conservative repression will be defeated in November.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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