No, the Culture Wars Aren’t Over

Regular readers know one of my regular rants is about secular journalists who are so baffled by religion that they are forever projecting the death of the Christian Right or the end of the “culture wars,” basically because they don’t want to deal with any of that weird, superstitious stuff.

Well, I can’t use that argument about TNR’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, the prodigiously productive writer whose column today on Huckabee’s candidacy is largely based on her own belief that the culture wars are over. Bruenig is a believer herself, albeit a Catholic of Christian Socialist leanings, best as I can tell. But she clearly thinks people like Huck represent the north end of a south-bound Apatosaurus.

Now for all I know, Bruenig has a different definition of “culture wars” than mine. Maybe for her it means full-on combat against secularism, or conversely, something very narrow like the failing fight against marriage equality. But the faith-based fight against reproductive rights sure isn’t over, by any stretch of the imagination; you can make the argument the bad guys are slowly but surely winning, as a matter of fact, and if a Republican wins the presidency next year, Roe v. Wade will hang by a thread. And if that transpires, and abortion policy is again set at the state level for the first time in more than four decades, we will see “culture wars” sho nuff in pitched battles all around the country.

Now perhaps Bruenig’s conviction about the culture wars is the product of a justifiable if not self-evident interpretation of the sudden focus of political and culture conservatives on “religious liberty” laws as representing a radical retreat into self-defense, as she suggests today:

These laws aim, in effect, to create enclaves of protection for the practice of conservative Christianity, a far cry from the aspirations of the evangelical politics of yesteryear, which generated enthusiastic support precisely because they sought to rescue America wholesale, and to stop the evils that begin with the cultural ruptures of the 1960s.

As is clear from the immense controversy over such laws amid claims that their proponents are seeking to turn the “shield” of self-protection into a “sword” against other people’s rights, it’s not at all clear they are defensive in intent or effect. They could, moreover, serve as a strategic position from which to continue to contest “secularist” laws and practices by denying their applicability in broad areas of American life, and thus challenging their acceptance.

Whoever is right or wrong about that–and it’s likely there are elements of truth in both interpretations–what strikes me as oddest about Bruenig’s take on Huck and the culture wars is that she treats him as unique, a sort of anachronistic figure running for president in a Republican Party that has largely moved on.

The fact is that Huckabee is a candidate who has outlived his time. The days of just kings and their trusty prophets have passed, as has the era of TV pastors achieving influence beyond the (admittedly daunting) reach of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Evangelicals are frightened and angry and looking for the sort of president who will protect them from the onslaught of the world around them, which is still rapidly changing. Huckabee, with his folksy charm and church basement coffee-talk demeanor, was their preferred protector in 2008, and perhaps always will be. But he won’t get anywhere near the White House.

Perhaps there was a slight difference in tone between Huckabee and the other Republican presidential proto-candidates at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition cattle call in Iowa. But devotion to cultural warfare, in both its defensive and proactive modalities, was strongly evident in remarks by nearly all the contestants (other, ironically, than Rick Santorum, who appealed to much the same constituency as Huckabee in 2012). And a candidate not present, and who is supposed to embody the post-culture-war GOP, happens to be the pol who launched what remains the most startling extrusion of culture-war politics into day-to-day politics and governing, the Terri Schiavo saga of 2005.

Maybe Bruenig means the particular kind of appeal Huck offers as an embodiment of Old Time Evangelical Christianity and the era of a confident Moral Majority has come and gone. We’ll see. But even if the culture wars have entered a new phase with the shocking success of the marriage equality movement, the idea that they are “over” strikes me as still quite premature.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.