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End of the Culture Wars?

The reelection of President Obama represents not only the popular support by a majority of voters for a second Democratic administration, but the deeper crisis gripping the Republicans.  While 2012 was a significant victory, its real significance will only be fully evident in what happens in the 2014 Congressional elections.

An increasing number of mainstream commentators, most notably the Times’ David Brooks, have noted that Obama’s victory signals two structural problems confronting the Republicans – one demographic, the other ideological.  With regard to demographics, the Republicans have become the party of aging white folk, drawing less and less support from urban people, the young, women and minorities.  With regard to ideology, the party seems increasingly split between tea party militants, backed by the Koch brothers and others, and country club moderates who pushed the Romney campaign.  Like a scene out the Godfather, a Republican bloodletting is on its way.

However accurate this assessment might be, it ignores a deeper strain in American politics and society, one going back to the pre-Revolutionary era.  America was founded by, among others, religious fundamentalists and their mean-spirited moral absolutism continues to haunt the nation’s conscious.  Since before the Revolution, repeated waves of Christian moralistic intemperance have had profound, sometimes deeply disturbing, consequences for the nation.

Taking a step back from the recent election, one needs to wonder if the Christian conservative fury that has raged across the nation since the early-‘70s is finally spent?  Are we witnessing an historical moment not like similar periods of moral rage that preceded the Civil War and followed the 1929 Crash when earlier waves of Christian repression ebbed?  If so, what comes next?  Can liberal or progressive forces regain the moral or cultural high ground, especially at the state level where the right’s most insidious, vindictive actions have played out?

* * *

Over the last three centuries, America has been witness to repeated wave of Christian fundamentalism.  The First Great Awakening during the 1730s and ‘40s infused traditional Protestantism with a new spirit of revival and a belief in the supernatural, transforming the nation’s religious ethos from Deism shared by many of the Founding Fathers into more popular evangelical faiths like the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists.

The Second Great Awakening of the early- through mid-19th century fueled a new spirit of revival that spread from the “burned over district” of western New York through much of rural America.  It fostered religious movements like the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints (the Mormons) and the Seventh-day Adventist (Millerites) as well as “free love” communitarian groups like the Shakers and Oneida.

This spirit of revival gave rise to competing political currents, most notably abolitionism and nativism.  Nativism emerged as a political force in the Know-Nothing movement of the pre-Civil War era.  It drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the increasing number of European immigrants, especially Germans in the mid-west and Catholics in the east.

Most troubling, the Know-Nothings felt that Catholics, as followers of the pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country.  Religious intolerance led to numerous anti-Catholic attacks, including the burning of churches, random beatings and killings in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Louisville where 22 people were killed.  In 1849, a secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was formed in New York and spread to other cities.

However, during the 1850s, Know-Nothing supporters were emboldened and formed the American Party.  It championed restrictions on immigration, exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship.  By 1855, 43 Congressmen were American Party members; in 1856, it backed Millard Fillmore for president, who secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.  The growing battle over slavery led to its demise.

A third revivalist movement emerged in opposition to the profound social destabilization caused by America’s great industrial revolution of the late-19th century.  It drew together a diverse assortment of resentments, coalescing around the battle against alcohol (i.e., temperance) and illicit sexuality (i.e., abstinence).

This movement saw alcohol, and the saloon, as the root cause of all social ills and succeeded in having the 18th Amendment adopted, instituting Prohibition.  But these moralists also championed racial purity and sought to prevent the alleged “pollution” of the white Protestant American “stock” by freed slaves and immigrants.  They opposed science and the teaching of evolution, but embraced the pseudo-science of eugenics and engaged in a war against “feeblemindedness,” especially targeted at African Americans, immigrants and questionable women.  They opposed the “new woman” symbolized by the flapper, a modern, 20th century woman who was urban, held a job and had money in her pocket, had a basic education, some going to college, and (especially at night in speakeasies) liked to drink, smoke, wear makeup and dance to jazz. Perhaps most threatening, the new woman had access to birth control information, contraception, sex education – and sex.

The Christian right did support a women’s right to vote as a means to strengthen their electoral hand.  They drew together organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, the Immigration Restriction League and the Klan.  They not only captured the Republican Party, but used it to mobilize federal and state governments to impose their moral values on all Americans.

While this moralistic tendency found allies in the anti-Communist hysteria of the post-World War II era, the consumer revolution damped down its most virulent tendencies (e.g., John Birch Society).  However, the social tumult of the 1960s sparked the current wave of moral absolutism.  It was the era of sex, drugs and rock-&-roll, the wide-scale adoption of the birth control pill, the civil rights movement, the mass anti-Vietnam War mobilizations that culminated in the Chicago police riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, and a new, emboldened women’s movement.

Where once the flapper threated traditional patriarchal family morals, the new radical feminists pushed for more egalitarian social values.  Two federal actions galvanized the new Christian fundamentalists:  (i) the Supreme Court’s monumental 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and (ii) the apparently unstoppable effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  Diehard antifeminists led by Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant took up the battle against the ERA and, to the surprised of many, defeated it.  Borrowing tools of the civil rights movement, antifeminist women drew upon an extensive network of local churches to build a powerful grassroots movement that, over the last four decades, has fought Roe, especially at the state level.  Like prohibitionists before them, they turned to the state to police personal and social life.

Their campaign was aligned with Republicans opposed to the New Deal and the Great Society.  Pres. Nixon’s implementation of Pat Buchanan’s racist “Southern strategy” led old-line whites to flee the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, wholly recasting national politics.  This strategy culminated in Pres. Reagan’s capturing of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” white working-class men, often with blue-collar jobs and trade union membership, many of the Catholic faith and beneficiaries of FDR-inspired programs.

For much of the 2nd-half of the 20th century, mainstream or centrist Democrats repeatedly sought – and failed! – to win back this prized electoral constituency.  As the party sought to appease the Christian right, the defeats piled up.  This was evident in Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 reelection campaign as well as the unsuccessful presidential runs by Walter Mondale’s in 1984 run, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.  It was only when Dems abandoned this strategy, as Bill Clinton did in ’92 and Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, that the party was able to appeal to a broader base and achieve victory.

* * *

Pres. Obama’s reelection may signify a bolder Democratic Party, especially at the state level, and foreshadow an end to the current wave of Christian revival.  The moralistic right has lost much ground with regard to homosexuality, in particularly their service in the military, their right to marry and to adopt.  Recent Supreme Court rulings (e.g., over “fleeting expletives,” words like “fuck” and “shit” uttered by Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie and over ABC’s briefly showing a female actress’ nude buttocks during an episode of NYPD Blue) have neutralized efforts to restrict free speech on television.  The Supreme Court’s 1997 decision, Reno v. ACLU, invalidated provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that criminalized “indecent” and “patently offensive” forms of Internet communication.  In addition, a number of lower court rulings have maintained separation of church and state.

A deeper cultural shift is suggested by the integration of adult sexual commerce into the marketplace.  Today’s alternative sex scene is a $50 billion industry.  It includes pornography, sex toys (including Christian women’s “passion parties”), adult “entertainment” (e.g., gentlemen’s clubs), underground sex parties and prostitution at a Nevada brothel; revenue from the “legal” sex trade — consensual (i.e., prostitution) as opposed to less-than-consensual (i.e., sexual trafficking) — was estimated in 2011 at $7.3 billion.

This is the 40th anniversary of the Roe decision and, as a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed, 70 percent of Americans oppose overturning the decision while only 24 percent seeks its repeal.  Equally revealing, more then half (54%) reported that abortion should be legal either always or most of the time.

Nevertheless, as the Guttmacher Institute reports: 41 states prohibit abortions, except when necessary to protect the woman’s life or health; 39 states require an abortion to be performed by a licensed physician and 21 states require an abortion to be performed in a hospital; 17 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion; 26 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between when she receives counseling and the procedure is performed; 38 states require parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion and 22 states require one or both parents to consent to the procedure; and 19 states prohibit “partial-birth” abortion.

While much of the wind might be ebbing from the Christian right’s sails, it remains a powerful social force, especially at the state and local levels.  And its at these levels that the most bloody, hand-to-hand combat will be waged.

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” blog for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail.  For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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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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