The once-powerful Christian Republican movement is in retreat. After more than a quarter-century of growing influence and power, the fierce rightwing assault on popular values, especially sexual freedom, is in eclipse. This round of the culture wars seems over.
For the last three decades America has been terrorized by a false war on sexuality. The Christian-Republican alliance turned a host of important personal and social issues into a moralistic nightmare. Family life, sexual relations, scientific knowledge and what adults can watch on a TV or a computer screen became battle grounds of the culture wars.
The culture wars were a conservative counter-revolutionary rebellion against the ‘60s. The conservative religious-political alliance emerged with Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential run, gained momentum with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, reached its zenith with the 1998 revelations about Bill Clinton’s illicit liaison with Monica Lewinsky and achieved state power with George Bush’s victory in 2000.
The rightwing populist rage, yet another Christian “great awakening”, that propelled the culture wars played a pivotal role in the 2000 and 2004 elections. However, it was eclipsed in the 2006 Congressional elections, its moral fervor spent. “Hot-button” sex issues have all but disappeared from national debate in the 2008 presidential campaign, replaced by immigration as the “red meat” issue. Today, it’s the economy, along with the Iraq war and health care, stupid. The era of cultural counter-revolution has ended.
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The cultural upheaval of the ‘60s terrified many conservatives. A sizeable social movement grew out of the New Deal, World War II and the promise of the post-War consumer revolution. It dates from the Supreme Court’s 1954 “Brown” decision and ran through Nixon’s abdication in 1974.
The ‘60s partially fulfilled a progressive social agenda by promoting a series of major reforms. It helped secure the passage of groundbreaking civil rights legislation; forced an end (however delayed) to American imperialism in Vietnam; fostered a feminist movement that demanded a woman’s control over her reproductive life; and cultivated a new cultural sensibility based on sexual freedom, mind-expanding drugs, rock-and-roll and egalitarian values. This progressive movement, along with the post-war economy that underpinned its ambitious vision, was in disarray by the mid-‘70s.
Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign launched the era of mean-spirited politics. He introduced a generation of electioneering grounded in exploiting “cultural” differences and advanced a successful political strategy based on divide-and-conquer. Nothing, including what ultimately turned out to be illegal, was illegitimate in the battle for political power. This is a lesson well-learned by Reagan and Bush-the-Lesser.
Nixon (with much help from Pat Buchanan) promoted the cultural counter-revolution against the ‘60s. He drew inspiration from Joseph McCarthy who, a generation earlier, assailed “egg-headed, homosexuals, left-leaning financiers”. He perceived the most bitter Americas as Southern white (particularly male) voters and targeted his campaign to them. He promoted devisive issues like regionalism, religion, music, manners, sexuality and, most importantly, race. While Nixon was forced to abdicate in 1974, his strategy, especially the race card, bore fruit in Reagan’s appeal to working-class Democrats who won him the presidency in 1980.
Three intimately linked developments took place during the ‘70s that framed the culture wars. First, the Republicans shifted from a party of the high-born and social worthies, of the northeast, to a more inclusive white, Christian organization of conservative patriots, of the south and southwest. Second, Christian evangelicals and other fundamentalists reemerged as a forceful, and very sophisticated, social movement. And third, there was a significant increase in non-religious conservative organizations (including think tanks, foundations and lobbying groups) and secular intellectuals challenging what they lambasted as the liberal establishment.
The newly constituted Republican party, the first religious party in American history, embraced an unstated belief in the superiority of men, the white race, the Christian god, the dollar and the glory of empire. (And, as evident with McCain, they still do.) The coming together of a repackaged Republican party, a reinvigorated evangelicalism and well-funded conservative influencers changed the face of American politics for the rest of the 20th century. And it leaves us in the fix we are in today, a nation confronting the enormous domestic and global consequences of a corrupt, immoral Christian-Republican Bush era.
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Often forgotten, the Christian right attempted to impose its morality on Americans at other times in the nation’s history. Most recently was during the period of the late-19th and early-20th century. It was a disastrous experience.
During the latter-part of the 19th century, evangelicals built a powerful social movement opposing alcohol consumption, prostitution, sex education, pornography and evolution. Their efforts culminated in the closing of more than one hundred “red-light” districts, the passage of the 19th Amendment which launched Prohibition (the only Amendment to be repealed), the enactment of white-slavery laws, the rise of the Klu Klux Klan (it had 5 million members by the mid-‘20s) and the 1926 Scopes trial. With the onset of the Depression, evangelical Christian moral policy was revealed as a failure, the movement in retreat.
A half-century later, during the ‘70s, a new generation of evangelicals came of age and redefined their movement. First and foremost, the center of gravity shifted from the rural south to the cities and suburbs of the south and southwest. Second, the movement benefiting from the increased socio-economic status made possible by the very Democratic policies they came to oppose. These developments helped launch a generation of religious leaders who were not only bolder, but knew how to take advantage of modern advertising, marketing and outreach techniques to achieve their divinely-inspired goals.
Christianity, like Islam and Marxism, is a deeply ideological movement, repeatedly split over interpretations of sacred texts. Evangelicals, like the divide between Sunni and Shia, Catholics and Protestants, and Stalinists and Trotskyists, have sustained their own battles over ideological purity. The greatest purity purge within the modern evangelical movement took place within the Southern Baptist Convention and culminated in the conservative takeover in 1979. This organization change remade evangelism into a more orthodox or formal religious practice, while rendering it more political, combative religious movement. A new Christian fundamentalism was consolidating power.
The religious leaders who emerged during this period changed the role of the church. It went from being a traditional place of worship and charity to a commercial, social-service enterprise. Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberson and others built complex operations that integrated a vast membership. They accomplished this by running well-oiled organizations, “non-profit” businesses, that linked local churches (and, in time, mega-churches), religious- and home-schools, youth bands and concerts, direct marketing campaigns, publishing houses and broadcasting networks, and civil groups and lobbing organization. Their operations became powerful social forces as well as impressive business ventures.
As the Christian Republican movement gained momentum during the ‘70s, sex-related “hot-button” issues began to bubble-up as skirmishes of the fledgling culture wars. Abortion rights, same-sex relations (and then marriage), stem-cell research, teen sex and sex education, prayer in school, evolution, pornography and sexual crime increasingly started to appear in public discourse. They formally emerged as campaign issues during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential run and played a pivotal role in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
It should not be forgotten that this powerful grass-roots religious movement was buttressed by the growing legitimacy of secular conservative intellectuals. William Buckley launched the “National Review” the year after the “Brown” decision. Milton Friedman won the Noble Price in 1976. Sidney Hook and Leo Strauss championed a new vision of America not only of unrestrained free-market capitalism but uninhibited military might. Together, they reinvigorate conservatism and set the stage for the neo-con takeover of the White House.
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The 1992 presidential election is noteworthy for two occurrences. First, the culture wars were formally launched at the ’92 Republican convention. Drawing upon James Davison Hunter’s recently published sociological study of religious politics in American, “Culture Wars,” Buchanan lamented before a national TV audience: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a culture war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the Cold War itself. …”
Second, Clinton’s victory was an electoral anomaly, reflecting the unpredictable role of a well-funded third party candidate rather than a true Democratic challenge to Republican power. Had not Ross Perot won nearly 20 percent of the popular vote, Bush-the-Elder would surely have been reelected.
The 1998 revelations of Clinton’s illicit liaison with a 22-year-old intern marked the zenith of the culture wars. His affair, which lasted for more than two years, confirmed the Christian right’s worst fears of secular, baby-boomer liberals. Republicans, religious conservatives and other rightwingers had been gunning for Clinton since his dubious ’92 victory. They struck back in their ’94 Republican “revolution”, capturing both houses of Congress. They believed that Clinton’s compulsive desire for sex in the White House Oval Office indicated that America needed to be cleansed of its moral rot.
Clinton’s impeachment was but the first of three significant developments that fundamentally changed America during the first years of the new century. The Christian right’s efforts to restore the nation to moral purity led many evangelicians to vote for George Bush in the 2000 election. His victory demonstrated the effectiveness of its political muscle, that it could bring to power the nation’s first radically-conservative “born again” Christian; his victory put the final nail-in-the-coffin of the liberal wing of Southern Baptism represented by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Finally, the 9/11 attacks codified not simply a new era of international warfare, but represented a prophetic expression of a “clash of civilizations”, a religious (in Bush’s word) “crusade” in which the future of America and Western Civilization were allegedly at stake. This historically unprecedented trifecta provided the rationale for America’s great culture wars.
As a nod to those who brought him to office and of things to come, on Bush’s first business day in office, January 22, 2001, he signed the Global Gag Rule on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) population program. The rule extended the 1973 Helms amendment (which barred recipients of federal monies from talking about abortion) to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that received USAID support from using either US monies or their own, non-U.S. funds to provide, advocate, counsel or inform patients about abortion. Ironically, Bush signed the gag rule on the 28th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Over the following eight years, the Bush administration, working closely with Congressional Republicans, sought to implement the Christian right’s culture-wars agenda. Two “hot-button” issues framed the agenda: reproductive freedom (i.e., abortion) and sexual partnering (i.e., homosexuality). They could not overturn “Roe”; and Supreme Court (“Lawrence”) and state court (e.g., Massachusetts and California) decisions halted the anti-gay crusade.
The right’s efforts to restrict sexual experience were part of a futile attempt to preserve a modern-day version of patriarchy. However, under the glair of public scrutiny, many champions of this moral hysteria were undone in sexual scandal. Bush administration’s profound failures, whether in Iraq, with Katrina or its abstinence-only policies, further discredited the Christian agenda.
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The U.S. is slowly recovering from the culture wars. For three decades, champions of moral rectitude, including priests, politicians and pundits, fought to restrict sexual experience. The Christian Republic alliance seems to be splintering, one more casualty of the mounting economic crisis gripping the nation. The more hardcore, evangelical “foot soldier” is getting pummeled by the recession; the more traditional country-club Republican still drives a Benz. And now, as election fever heats up and a new Democratic administration may assume power in 2009, the culture wars seem spent.
Nevertheless, according to Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the right’s campaign against abortion and same-sex marriage continues to anchor their on-going efforts in states throughout the country. However, the scale of state ballot measures has dropped by nearly 50 percent since ‘06, down to 108 from 204. Other galvanizing issues of the culture wars, like teen sex, fetal personhood, prayer in school, evolution, pornography and sexual crime, no longer seem to motivate people the way they did a decade ago.
These ongoing conservative campaigns, especially the anti-abortion efforts in California, Colorado and South Dakota and the anti-gay initiatives in Arizona, California and Florida, need to be defeated for the good of all Americans.
For all of the Christian right’s long war against sex, a secular sexual culture and marketplace continues to define America. Most importantly, “Roe” is still the law of the land; gay marriages and/or civil unions are legal in a growing number of states; consenting adults are free to engage in any noncommercial sexual activity; abstinence, the corner-stone of the Bush-Christian sex agenda, has proven a failure with teen pregnancy on the increase; adult entertainment (including gentlemen’s clubs, strip joints, sex-toy shops, TV and internet porn, and out-call services) is booming; and adult couples are partaking in a fuller palette of sexual practices than anytime in the nation’s history.
The culture wars were a religiously inspired counter-revolutionary movement that failed. Its moralistic hypocrisy inflicted, and continues to inflict, suffering and ignorance throughout the country. The movement was checked, in part, by the incompetence of the Bush administration as by important federal and state count decisions.
More importantly, the culture wars were stopped by the deeper humanity evident among a growing majority of American people. These people know that among consenting adults, shame and guilt have no place in 21st century sexual life. Let’s hope the next administration listens to these Americans rather then those seeking to preserve modern patriarchy.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.