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How the Christian Right Won the Culture Wars

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The likely appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court may mark the end of this round of the culture wars. For half-a-century, the U.S. has been a battleground over “moral” and sexual values. Key issues like abortion, health care (i.e., the ADA), gay rights and the meaning of “family” have been contested. With Barrett’s appointment, further restrictions of these and other rights can be expected.

Americans have never been comfortable with sex. The notion of sex as a sin, something forbidden, has been an aspect of American social life since the country’s founding four centuries ago. The Puritan minister, Samuel Willard (1640-1707), once observed, “… in nothing doth the raging power of original sin more discover itself … than in the ungoverned exorbitancy of fleshly lust.”

The Puritan’s moralistic legacy drags on. In the last two centuries, the nation witnessed four “culture wars” – in the 1840s, accompanying the Second Awakening; in the 1910s, culminating in Prohibition; in the 1950s, reflecting Cold War McCarthyism; and in the 1970s, a rejection of 1960s counterculture.

In a speech before the 1992 Republican National Convention, Patrick Buchanan warned, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” However, as the conservative commentator Irving Kristol retorted, “I regret to inform Pat Buchanan that those wars are over and the Left has won.”

Now, three decades later, Buchanan’s words have come back with a vengeance. Until Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the culture wars appeared to be contained, it’s scope of struggle narrowed, increasingly focused on two issues – abortion and gay rights. While Roe remains the law of the land, Trump’s election permitted the religious right to gain federal power — over the Senate and, initially, two Supreme Court seats and, now, likely a third — and aggressively move to impose its moral dictates as national social policy.

***

The culture wars were launched in August 1971 when Lewis Powell, a Virginia attorney, tobacco-industry lobbyist and future Supreme Court Judge, released a secret study for the Chamber of Commerce entitled, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” As Ben Waterhouse observed, Powell articulated a deeply shared belief among “anti-capitalist forces — from the universities to the pulpits to public-interest law firms — were waging a cultural assault on business, and that groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had no choice but to become politically active.” Powell argued that, as Waterhouse, notes, “Business-people had to become more involved in national politics.”

Influential Americans took Powell’s warning to heart. In February 1973, three of the nation’s richest conservatives – Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and H. L. Hunt — backed Paul Weyrich and the creation of the Heritage Foundation. In May ‘93, the National Council of Catholic Bishops spun off its National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) into a separate, activist anti-abortion organization. In September, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators.

In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative lawyer and writer, launched a successful counteroffensive to block the adoption of the ERA. Schlafly, a devoutly Catholic and rightwing activist, was a militant anticommunist long affiliated with the John Birch Society. Often unappreciated, her “STOP-ERA” campaign became more than a single-issue “war,” more than an effort to block a proposed constitutional amendment in the wake of the Roe decision.

Richard Nixon was inaugurated for his second term on January 20, 1973, and, two days later, the Supreme Court issued its momentous Roe v. Wade decision. Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….” The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws and – while on life-support — remains the defining issue of the culture wars.

Two additional developments in ’73 further intensified the culture wars. First, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) began the procedure to remove homosexuality” from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Shortly thereafter, other medical, religious and civic groups formally ending discrimination against homosexuals, sodomy laws were dropped in more than a dozen states and cities across the country passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Second, in ’73, Marabel Morgan published The Total Woman, a self-help guide to a healthy marriage for evangelical women. She quoted from the Bible: “You wives must submit to your husbands’ leadership in the same way; you submit to the Lord.” Going further, she added: “It is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him, and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.” Morgan offered Total Woman course throughout the country and, according to one report, by 2018 the book had sold more than 10 million copies.

The “family values” movement of 1970s congealed over four critical issues:

(i) opposition to the ERA,
(ii) opposition to the Roe decision,
(iii) Anita Bryant’s 1977 the Save Our Children campaign to ban gays in Miami (1977) and
(iv) Christian schools losing their tax-exempt status due to a court decision against Bob Jones University (and other Christian school) that barred Black students.

These distinct issues aligned with conservative economic policies and the racist “Southern Strategy,” developed by Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan and implemented as part of Nixon’s ’68 presidential campaign. Together, they remade the Republican Party and social struggle for decades to come. The “family values movement” was launched in 1979 when evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Charles Stanley and D. James Kennedy formed the Moral Majority. Over the next decade, it morphed into the Christian Coalition, taking on an even more purely political agenda until, by the 1990s, it came to dominate the Republican Party.

Parallel to the conservative right’s religious and political organizing efforts to capture the Republican Party, some within it moved strategically to take control the U.S. court system. Conservatives invested heavily in organizations that would nurture and support lawyers and justices who stuck to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. And none was more important than the Federalist Society, founded in 1982. As one report notes, “It offered a social-professional network to connect young law students with influential senior mentors, such as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” (Barrett clerked for Scalia.) During President Reagan’s administration, 400 federal judges were approved through a process of “ideological profiling”; Trump has appointed 194 Federalist-approved judges so far.

Att. Gen. Bill Barr strongly backs the Christian rights campaign to capture political power and the judiciary, splitting American society between the religious and the secular. In a 2019 speech at the Notre Dame University (at which Barrett had been on the law-school faculty) he argued:

Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.

Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.

Barr concluded by warning: “We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forced of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free exercise of our faith.”

***

The likely appointment of Barrett to the Supreme Court will represent a successful effort to turn back the clock to the good-old bad days of the post-WW-II Cold War era. As the social and sexual “values” of Americans changed, including among evangelicals, the hardcore Christian right has moved ever more aggressively to deny these changes and impose a fictitious moral order imagined from an earlier period of U.S. history.

Perhaps most critical for Christian fundamentalists who champion the supreme importance of “family values” is the sex life of the adults who constitute a “family.” Over the last half-century, the meaning of the “family” has profoundly changed. Steven Tracey defines the “traditional family” in the following terms: “a family unit composed of a monogamous, legally married man and woman and their children …” He notes, “cohabitation before marriage rose from only 10% of couples cohabiting between 1965 and 1974 to over 50% of those marrying between 1990 and 1994.” He adds, “cohabitation rates for those remarrying are even higher.”

Tracy also notes that evangelical youth begin having sex at a younger age than their liberal Protestant peers and are far more likely to have had three or more sexual partners than their non-evangelical peers (13.7% versus 8.9%). In addition, he finds there is no difference evident between “born agains” and “non-born agains” when it came to the likelihood of viewing pornography. Lastly, with regard to divorce rates – which he calls “acid test of the effectiveness of family values efforts” – he finds Christians similar to non-Christians.

Jean Calterone Williams, a political scientist, compares the “values” shared by evangelicals and the American public at large. She finds that only a third of the public (33%) believes that premarital sex is immoral while over four-fifths (81%) of evangelicals say that premarital sex is immoral. Similarly, while less than half (46%) of the public believe that premarital sexual activity leads to harmful psychological and emotional consequences for the unwed, nearly four-out-of-five (78%) evangelicals believe it. Williams reports that 82 percent of adults favor comprehensive sexuality education that encompasses abstinence, contraception and broad discussion of human sexuality and notes that two-thirds of respondents (67%) support distributing condoms in schools.

Unknown to many, “passion parties” are discreet, women-only get-together, often involving strongly religious-identified evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish women where sex paraphernalia, including toys, lubricants and costumes, are sold. A local “host,” “consultant” or “sales rep” organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales.  The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex-toy providers.  The industry even has a trade association, Certified Adult Home Party Association, representing companies including Athena’s Home Novelties, Fantasia Home Parties, For Ladies Only, Party Gals and Temptations Parties.  In 2018, Pure Romance revenues hit $250 million and had 30,000 consultants. These get-togethers are rationalized as a way to enhance marriage.

Since the launch of this round of the culture wars in the 1970s, the sexual life of women and the nature of the family have profoundly changed. In 2016, the Guttmacher Institute reported that among women who turned 15 years-of-age between 1954-1963, one quarter (26%) had premarital sex by age 18 and the median age of premarital sex was 20.4 years. However, for those who turned 15 years four decades later, between 1994-2000, more than half (54%) had premarital sex by 18 years and the median age of premarital sex was 17.6 years.

The most recent data from the CDC substantiates this insight. It finds that as of 2015, 89 percent of ever-married women aged 15-44 years of age and 90 percent of men 20-44 years of age had engaged in premarital sexual intercourse. In addition, it found that nearly two-thirds (62%) of all women of reproductive age used a contraceptive and nearly all women aged 15–44 who had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method.

Guttmacher also found that, between 1991 and 2014, the teen birthrate fell by nearly 40 percent to 24.2 births per 1,000 females from 61.8 births. It attributes this significant shift in the teen birthrate to sex-ed programs and the use of contraceptives. Between 20011 and 2017, abortion rates fell by nearly 20 percent – from 1,058,000 abortions in 2011 to 862,000 in 2017.

Barrett’s likely appointment to the Supreme Court represents the Christian right’s symbolic victory in the culture wars. It will serve to impose a Christian moralistic values system that an increasingly number of Americans have left in the dustbin of history. It represents a victory that the Christian right couldn’t win through the lives of Americans.

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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