Why Culture War is Unavoidable

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.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • You missed the obvions option to a culture war- monoculture ghettos with closed borders and trade limited to carefully negotiated treaties.

    • You’re right that good fences make good neighbors, that’s one reason for national boundaries, but the solution would be makeshift and temporary like every other. The same problems would reappear at the level of the individual ghettos, and in any event there would have to be some overall authority to enforce the system, which would have its own issues.

      • The assumption that there would have to be an overall authority seems not quite right to me. The traditional tribal method is simply kill the outsiders.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Does no one read Carl Schmitt anymore?

    Schmitt, a Catholic conservative, argues that every realm of human endeavour is structured by an irreducible duality. Morality is concerned with good and evil, aesthetics with the beautiful and the ugly, and economics with the profitable and the unprofitable. In politics, the core distinction is between friend and enemy. That is what makes politics different from everything else.

    The political comes into being when groups are placed in a relation of enmity, where each comes to perceive the other as an irreconcilable adversary to be fought and, if possible, defeated. “Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms itself into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively, according to friends and enemy.”

    Of course, he denies the possibility of neutral rules that can mediate between conflicting positions; for Schmitt there is no such neutrality, since any rule – even an ostensibly fair one –represents the victory of one political faction over another and is merely the temporarily stabilised result of past conflicts.

    “Once all social affairs become political, the existing constitutional framework threatens the social order: politics becomes a contest of organized parties seeking to prevail rather than to achieve reconciliation. The result is a state bound by law to allow every party an “equal chance’ for power.”: a weak state threatened with dissolution.” In other words, Weimar.

  • Dan Carver

    Great article! I am now 67, and I feel, see, and experience a difference and a serious “change.” It extends to popular music, the language in that music offered to me to enjoy, the popular TV shows on network tv, most of the movies offered , the courseness of language, lack of “peace” among folks. I see that “our side” never discusses it (except for excellent articles like this.) Mention of God or the Ten Commandments has not only been removed from school and public importance, but removed from court houses….even college graduation ceremonies and even pre-game football rallies in public schools. Our church has decided that anyone who wants to get into this country, by legal OR illegal means, from even nations that hate us, should be allowed, in spite of what the catechism says. I’m tired of sitting back and seeing this without a fight to change it. But, where do I go?? What do I do? I can’t “lead” a fight. Where are the sermons on Sunday that discuss something other than some scripture reading that never seems to relate to daily life, or that might criticize popular culture, and offer some suggestions,like Bishop Sheen did against spread of Communism? I see the sea-change as I look out. I don’t want my grandkids to live in it without me fighting it. Where do I go to join the battle?

    • AcceptingReality

      I agree, the vague feelgood fluffiness that flows from our pulpits is designed never to offend anyone’s sensibilities. It doesn’t challenge us to live the faith or be transformed in anyway. These PC homilies render the Church without influence in the culture war. My Catholic pastor recently quoted a New York Times article about a liberal rabbi in an effort to assert that religion should be inclusive not divisive. I naturally thought that contradicted what Jesus says in Luke 12. So much of what comes from pulpits is secular or liberal and not really a product of a supernatural Catholic faith. I pray for more Cardinals, Bishops and Priests with the courage to preach the truth without concern for their personal popularity or political capital.

      • Paddy

        We won’t win any culture wars sitting at a computer or watching TV. We have to physically retake the public square from the atheists, Marxists, pagans, Democratic Party apparatchiks ( including most judges), feminists and college professors.

        Instead, the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade is being taken over by them in the public square, with the blessing of Cardinal Timid Timothy.

        • St JD George

          Ha, Cardinal Timidity Dolan.

        • guest

          Ask yourself why you hate so much. That’s what causes real wars. I hear a noisy gong and a clanging symbol in your post, and those sounds don’t build up the body of Christ and can never please god.

          • guest

            Sorry, my last word should be spelled God, for our one true Father God of the universe!

    • Beth

      Dan–encourage your children to homeschool your grandchildren. It is THEE way to change the future. There are many solid Catholic programs available, at very reasonable costs. The enemies’ grip on education is no small matter–most Catholic brick and mortar schools are in that same grip.

      • St JD George

        I wish I had it to do all over again, I would have taken mine out of public schools too. I do believe that this is an area where we can make a positive difference. It’s sad to see the number of brick and mortar schools decline, in part due to cost and in part due to ambivalence, and I think we should continue to support them but also develop alternatives so more feel like they can if they want. I’ve seen some tremendously successful programs more heartily embraced by our protestant brethren, something we Catholics could learn to do better.

      • Major914

        And be proactive, plus prepared and waiting to fight for homeschooling rights–the secular left in the US will have this escape route increasingly in their sights for destruction or diminution if they can find any means…

    • guest

      You make some good points, but don’t forget that priests are required to interpret the Scripture readings at every mass during the homily. For too many Catholics that’s the only teaching of the Bible they get; and ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, as St. Jerome once famously said.

  • Paddy

    History is replete with examples of what happens when a nation loses its morality. The laws change to reflect the lack of morality and then the blood starts running in the streets. It happened in Russia and Mexico a century ago,the French Revolution and even here with moms murdering 55,000,000 babies. Of course there has to be a culture war between our Marxists and Chrsitians!

  • St JD George

    Well said Jim. I thought about it in the context of today’s liturgy from Revelations and the passage that he prefers either the hot or cold, but will vomit out the lukewarm. We may prefer comfort, but being overly comfortable is not our mission. Satan is quite alive and well and dare I say winning the battle for souls in our time. It’s high time we recognize it.

    • Paddy

      With what they’ve done to our country, I’m sure Satan is a registered Democrat these days.

      • St JD George

        As we’ve shared before, I know there are a lot who are: 1) still clueless because they don’t bother to stay abreast OR only learn that has been packaged for their consumption by the MSM, or 2) are sitting back in horror and disbelief at what happened to their once proud party.

  • clintoncps

    Thank you for this article. What could be more basic to the cultural cohesion of any society than agreement upon the very nature of the human person: man and woman, husband and wife, father and mother and child — even maleness and femaleness as such?

    The forces of contraception/abortion, LBGTQ sex mythology/religion, and euthanasia are all part of transhumanism, where nothing about the nature of man is seen as sacred except the desire to jettison anything that has been seen as definitively true of humanity – anything sacred – in order to pursue with a will to power and potent technological tools the illusion of “progress” through the Dr. Frankenstein-like re-engineering of man. Such an emerging “beast” will seek to put to death the human race as we know it, or as it has been known, and may attempt to do so by attrition as much as extermination.

    Let’s pray that a truly human spirit, informed by the Holy Spirit of God, will prevail over the current diabolical attack on God’s creation of humanity in these last days. And let’s focus above all on the eternal promises of Jesus, who mercifully warned us that in the world we would have tribulation and will accompany us through it. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

    • CR89

      Solid Catholic Truth, beautifully articulated; an excellent post. Thank you.

  • Major914

    An excellent article–much needed.

    One thought from among many: Somewhat analogous to the difference between rust and fire–slow oxidation or fast–and between a raging flood versus water slowly wearing away the stone…the inevitability of culture conflict in some degree or form precludes withdrawal as a widely available semi-permanent strategy.

    Conditions will worsen as one stands by; fuel will accumulate rather than be steadily spent in maintaining a lower level range of equilibrium–eventually something will set a spark to it all…

    It is worth considering the potential value of undermining the secularist-liberal PC ethos and its enforcement early and often, everywhere and always! Better to skirmish constantly on relatively good ground than to be compelled in the end to fight for existence after having been placed by a long series of events at a distinct disadvantage.

  • Is the glass half empty or half full?

    Is cultural conflict a sign of never-ending war between the forces of good and evil, or part of a natural dialectical process by which universal values and the principles of natural law become better understood?

    Perhaps it is up to us to decide.

    As you know, Pitirim Sorokin wrote a lot about cultural dynamics; and it was his view that cultural differences can be integrated harmoniously; and the path to that is: (1) Love; and (2) an epistemology based not on rationalism, but on something higher — the supra-rational.

    • Sometimes differences are one thing, sometimes another. That was the point of the opening of the piece. Which is which is for us to discern.

      One point that seems relevant is that it’s hard to aspire to an all-embracing unity with a movement springing from an epistemology based not on the supra-rational but on claims of pure rationality. Another is that the devil scores victories in a variety of ways, including wishful thinking and aversion to discomfort. Still another is that historical dialectic involves real conflicts.

  • DrollDog

    Awesome – Insightful and pointed without being “prickly” (Molotov Cocktail throwing). Kudos!