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Rise of culture wars has meant ignoring the common good

Few Americans knew much about (or had even heard of) Burwell v. Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court ruled June 30 that the religiously devout owners of the Oklahoma-based arts and crafts retail chain didn't have to pay for four kinds of contraceptive care for female employees under the Affordable Care Act.

In the end, what the Supreme Court dropped was a culture war bomb. America has been in the throes of the culture wars since 1970s, says Vince Miller, the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. NCR interviewed Miller to learn more about the culture wars and the effect they have on American society.

NCR: What are the culture wars, and how do they work?

Miller: Culture war politics focuses on what can divide groups, polarize them and then mobilize them against each other. Part of what defines the culture wars is rhetoric: using language that portrays the opponent as not simply wrong, but morally depraved. Politically, it seeks policies and legislation that do not appeal to the majority. It aims to mobilize the base, but not broad coalitions. It's always about getting 51 percent.

How did they start?

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I think in the form we have them now, they clearly begin in the early '70s. Historically, they were wed to two things that were going on at the time, one of which we pay attention to and another we usually ignore. 

The first is that the culture wars developed out of a political strategy intended to mobilize conservative evangelicals and other conservative Christians in opposition to the cultural changes of the 1960s -- the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the women's movement. It wasn't just a grassroots backlash; it was a political strategy designed to mobilize a backlash. It turned those moral issues into political issues, and in so doing, it dissolved complex constituencies and communities. It sorted America out along the lines of the culture war. Prior to that, political affiliation was a more complex mix of class, ethnicity, religion.

What's the second part?

The second part, which is generally ignored, was the economic crisis of '70s and the decline of American manufacturing, both of which were only accelerated by the rise of neoliberal economics, globalization and the free-trade agreements like NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. What that economic crisis and those major policy choices did was take the domestic economy out of politics. For much of the 20th century, any serious candidate for national office had to have some reasonable policy that would address the needs of the working class and the middle class -- that would ensure full employment and economic stability. That was replaced with wars over sexual morality and various other things connected to it.

What role does technology or media play?

Technologically, it dates back to the rise of direct mail political campaigning. There's a video on YouTube of Dan Rather interviewing a young Karl Rove. It describes how in 1972, the Republican National Committee raised money by targeting people who subscribed to conservative magazines or mail-ordered steaks from Idaho. That kind of digital technology that sorts us by our preferences has only grown. It's built into the very structure of cable television. Fox [News] isn't just an example of a partisan news source; it's an example of a new form of media that is concerned only with its homogenous target audience. This sorting only accelerates with Internet blogs and social media. 

The Internet is basically structured around choice. Some of the old big media sites are still there, but all of the new media is precisely about finding a niche or a particular voice. At the same time, you have all sorts of political Internet-organizing efforts. They aren't designed to reach people in their own geographical communities or complex lives -- instead, they're designed to sort them out in terms of whether or not they agree on a certain issue. You get these emails sent out by folks on the left and the right that say, "Here's this horrible thing that this horrible person did. These people are trying to take away so-and-so's rights. Click here to add your name to protest this injustice." That doesn't build community. It doesn't build a coalition. It just builds a big list of individuals who are willing to click on that issue.

Politically, do you think it operates much differently today than it has in the past?

I think the big change hasn't been in the form of the culture wars but in the demographics surrounding it. After 50 years of reorienting politics around culture war issues and 50 years of success, the conservative side of the culture wars -- the Republican Party -- now finds itself in the situation where the [baby] boomers who made that work are retiring and being replaced by millennials. Millennials are used to politics in the culture war mode, but they come down on the opposite side of the issues, and now the political left sees the culture wars not as something they need to avoid, but something they can win. Studies have shown that younger voters and younger Christians aren't interested in the culture wars. But really, what I think they show is that they're not interested in the right-wing side of the culture wars.

What have the culture wars done to Christianity?

The religious right was enormously well organized and enormously well funded. And for my entire generation, they were the public voice of Christianity. For people whose access to Christianity is largely what they see on television or in the news or in the paper, they got to define the public face of Christianity. And study after study has shown that the millennial generation has gotten that message loud and clear, and they don't find it interesting at all. They find it repugnant. In 2007, a Barna study showed that among non-Christians under 30, only 15 percent had a positive view of Christianity. When they were asked to describe Christianity, the words they gave were judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, and too political.

I'm 32, and sometimes when I mention I'm Catholic, I get a look.

Right, and if people don't know that there's something else that Catholicism represents -- if they don't already know about Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, or Sr. Dorothy Stang, about the church's concern for justice and peace -- then there's no way they would ever learn about any of it in the broader media. 

If the culture wars work through division, where does that leave the common good?

The common good is the basic goal of politics -- to ensure the just flourishing of every member of society. There are questions in the culture wars that unavoidably touch on the common good. There's no real way, for example, to ignore the question of abortion if you want to talk about the common good from a Catholic perspective. But the difference is in how you address these issues. Do you address them in a way that polarizes, that says there's only one legitimate set of concerns about this issue and everything else is completely immoral? Or do you try to find some way that recognizes the concerns involved -- in no way is this easy -- and seeks to find common-ground policies? Do you pursue a politics that lets people look into the moral gray areas of their own positions, or do you pursue a politics that insists everything is black and white?

How much longer can we keep going like this? Could the trend ever be reversed? 

I think it could turn around if we understand the dead end that this style of politics is. And that's the work of journalists, that's the work of politicians, to say how fruitless it's been and to point out what's been taken off the table in the process -- to point out that this kind of politics has not led to a more just and flourishing society, but to a society where people are more vulnerable and more on their own. My greatest fear is that the next step will reject the culture war morality but simply slide into a complete libertarianism, where there's no moral obligation of society to anybody, where government shouldn't be involved in any kind of moral question. And we'll just continue on with Republican economic politics. My fear is that we've really been set up for that move. What we have to do to avoid it is argue clearly that what we've been ignoring is the common good itself.

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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