A culture is a way of living, a system of habit and attitude, an orientation toward life and the world, that is shared and basically taken for granted within a community. It arises naturally when people live together, since we are social beings who need common habits and understandings to live together happily and productively.
That makes the idea of a “culture war” seem rather odd. How can there be a war over what is shared, habitual, taken for granted, and basic to social functioning?
The answer, of course, is that nothing human is automatic. Culture involves difference as well as agreement. Any moderately complex society has regional, class, and occupational variations. It has city people who differ from country people, and often migrants from elsewhere.
Most cultural differences reflect the fact that people live somewhat separately, a situation that reduces practical problems. When they do arise, something usually gets worked out through assimilation, accommodation, and sometimes mutual avoidance. A functional society is in everyone’s interest, so people normally adopt habits and understandings that keep their dealings reasonably amicable. Such things might involve standards like taking responsibility for one’s own, dodges like avoiding “hot button” issues in company, or acceptance that people differ in their virtues and vices, and find somewhat different ways to a good life.
A culture war arises when such habits and understandings break down, so that people constantly offend each other, points of contention cannot be negotiated, the limits of toleration are reached, and the society ends up in what amounts to a low-level civil war. Usually that happens when a new outlook and way of life arrives that’s at odds with the old on basic issues regarding what life is about and how we should live.
Culture pervades every aspect of human life, including our deepest concerns. Every culture has an orientation determined by basic commitments and views on what is most important and therefore sacred. A society needs to hold such things in common if it is to survive and remain functional in times of stress. They differ from society to society: Soviet culture was based on the sacredness of the Party, Catholic culture on that of Christ and the Church, and revolutionary French culture on that of the Nation and the Rights of Man.
The need for a sacred focus that all members of a society are expected to accept and defer to makes culture war inevitable when there are enough people who disagree strongly on what that focus should be. Examples of such situations include the struggle between prophets and polytheists in ancient Israel, and the struggles between Christians and pagans in the Roman Empire and early medieval Europe. Those struggles included violent episodes, but they were mostly carried on by other means while daily life went on more or less normally. Other examples include the non-military phases of the struggles between Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe, and between modern secularists and everybody else since the Enlightenment.
That last struggle continues into the current culture war, which is the battle between an older view that accepted God, country, and family as sacred, along with certain individual rights such as conscience and freedom of opinion, and a newer view that makes the I AM THAT I AM of each individual the standard by reference to which all law and social relations must be judged. Present-day America is coming to be based on the unique sacredness of the individual just as he is, with his feelings, dreams, and self-proclaimed identity, and not everyone agrees with the transformation.
Whenever and wherever carried on, a culture war is likely to involve the same sorts of tactics. The side in a position to do so can be expected to use the educational system and media of public communication to present its view as simple reality. In response, the other side is likely to establish its own means of education and communication. It is also likely to adopt a tone of sweet reasonableness to argue for toleration and at least some degree of inclusion. All we want, they are likely to say, is to live by our ideals and be able to present our thoughts, so let’s live and let live, look for common ground, and discuss what view makes most sense. That’s what early Christian apologists said, it’s what many liberals have said when living in a nonliberal environment, and it’s what serious Catholics tend to say today.
The struggle is not likely always to be so high-minded. As it heats up the party in control of public discussion is likely to depict their opponents as crazy, evil, or contemptible. The party that’s on the attack may try to unsettle the assumptions and attachments that give their opponents strength through transgression and provocation. In ancient Israel and early medieval Europe prophets and missionaries attacked paganism by destroying images, desecrating shrines, and cutting down sacred groves. Revolutionaries did the same sort of thing to Catholics and eventually to all Christians during the Protestant revolt and the French and Russian revolutions. More recently secularists have used satire, obscenity, and other forms of abuse as a way of dislodging traditional understandings of what is sacred.
A still more aggressive tactic, adopted when one party feels strong enough to roll over the other completely, is to impose obligations that conflict with the other side’s principles. The Romans tried to force Christians to sacrifice to Caesar, the English imposed criminal penalties for recusancy on Catholics and dissenters if they didn’t attend Anglican services, and secularist Americans are now trying to force conscientious objectors to collaborate with gay weddings, contraception, sterilization, and abortion.
And then, of course, there is outright use of force: the Roman persecutions, the Muslim invasions, the various crusades, the military phases of the Protestant revolt, and the persecutions and martyrdoms of this century and the last. And that leads us to concerns raised by the very concept of a culture war. Wars of religion have a bad name. They are fought over the most basic issues, so they easily take on an unlimited quality and destroy the goods they intend to advance. Even so, there is nothing odd about a struggle over what basic conception of man and the world should orient our life together. Such struggles, however dangerous, can’t be abolished without abolishing man.
Liberalism claimed it could do so by separating politics from religion. We could all follow our own opinions and engage in mutual persuasion while joining together in support of a political system that put ultimate issues aside and concentrated on practical matters on which all could agree. The claim hasn’t panned out, since ultimate issues matter practically. Liberal societies, like others, have a conception of the sacred that they promote through official catechesis and propaganda on the one hand and suppression of dissident views on the other. The forms of suppression are mild, in line with the general mildness of modern social disciplines, but they make up for that with a comprehensiveness of application made possible by modern social organization. So instead of laws against blasphemy and religious tests for office we have laws against what is called hate speech and politically correct demands such as compulsory “celebration of diversity.” The purpose and effect are the same.
People disagree about ultimate issues, and find it difficult to live together without sacred reference points. It follows that there will be sporadic culture war until the Second Coming. We may want to avoid such conflicts, but they may not always avoid us, so we should be prepared to take a stand when justice requires. Success and failure are likely of course to be limited and ambiguous. The blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church, while her prosperity has often been her downfall. For that and other reasons, victory should never be pursued by unjust means. There are nonetheless real goods and evils at stake, so we cannot pretend to be above the fray, and whatever the reverses should remain confident that the gates of Hell will not prevail and never accept defeat.
Editor’s note: The above column first appeared October 29, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.