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The Culture Wars

By: William Voegeli, Joseph Bottum, Andrew Hartman
October 9, 2015

The Summer 2015 CRB includes an essay by Senior Editor William Voegeli, “That New-Time Religion.” It discussed two books whose authors have kindly agreed to pursue some of the essay’s questions about the culture wars. Joseph Bottum, author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, is the former literary editor of the Weekly Standard and former editor of First Things. His work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, is associate professor of history at Illinois State University. His previous work, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, was published in 2008.

Bottum: It would be churlish to do much else than thank William Voegeli for his account of recent books on the political sociology of contemporary America—a difficult genre about which to write. Most of our national sociology, Norman Mailer once quipped, is the desperate attempt to find something to say about America that Alexis de Tocqueville hadn’t already said back in the 1830s, and Tocqueville was as prescient about the topics I cover in my book, An Anxious Age, as he was about everything else.

Still, I have to object when Voegeli writes, “A Roman Catholic with a doctorate in medieval philosophy, [Bottum] considers mainline Protestantism’s intellectual ambitions and accomplishments modest.” There’s a certain irony here, since Voegeli’s phrase “Roman Catholic” is itself a remnant of the old Protestant ascendency—a (mostly) Anglican effort to signal rejection of the universalist claims of the Catholic Church by insisting on its sectarian nature as Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, some Catholics accepted the English phrase, in the same get-along-with-the-Protestant-majority spirit that led them to accept the Protestant clerical substitution of “Reverend” for “Father.” In language, at least, we are all the unwitting children of times gone by, and even as we marvel at the collapse of the mainline churches that once defined the American experiment, we still speak the words they gave us.

More to the point, the simple truth is that those old mainline churches have no greater cheerleader in America than me. Some Protestants may not much want my cheering for their denominations (I’m thinking here of, say, my brilliant friend Alan Jacobs). But since I’m on record as ascribing to the Anglosphere forms of Protestantism huge portions of both modern political history and modern art, it’s hard lines to accuse me of Protestant bashing. Since I’m on record as arguing both the Protestant roots of the American Founding and the Protestant roots of the literary form of the novel, the central art work of modernity, it’s disheartening to find myself lumped with the disdainers of Protestantism. The intellectual coherence of American Christendom was weak, as Tocqueville saw, but the faith and the accomplishments of American Protestantism were far, far from modest.

I mention this not because my reputation as an admirer of historical Protestantism particularly matters, but because America’s theo-political situation proves more of a puzzle than it needs to be for Voegeli in his review-essay. Discussing what I called “the Poster Children,” the post-Protestant grandchildren of the once-dominant Mainline churches, for example, Voegeli writes of liberals holding “a belief system that is simultaneously latitudinarian about some questions, and righteously intolerant about others.” That’s right—but it’s not necessarily a raw contradiction, any more than any other of the badly sewn seams in the liberal agenda are.

They derive, in fact, from the multiple paths down which Protestantism moved in America. History is important here, and we shouldn’t erase the difference between the Puritans of New England and the Protestants of upstate New York, ignoring the systematic assault An Anxious Age was attempting to make on the centrality of Boston in the standard college courses offered as “American Studies.” The text of my “Erie Canal Thesis” is that American history is Protestant history, but the subtext is that the Puritans were only one strain of American Protestantism, and not the most important after the 1830s, however much Nathanial Hawthorne stuck the idea of the Puritans in our heads.

It’s a notion I got in part while thinking about Whitney Cross’s classic 1950 historical study, The Burned-Over District—and in part from recognizing that the real importance of the sadly faded sociologist Digby Baltzell (coiner of the term “WASP”) lay in his recognizing multiple streams of Protestantism in the founding culture of America with his 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics. This is something that Tocqueville missed, even while he traveled along the banks of the Erie Canal. Just from the Burned-Over district of Upstate New York, font of 19th-century religion, other streams beside the Social Gospel flowed out to the nation. I actually had a section for the book that read the Romney/Obama election cycle as two branches of wild upstate religion in battle with each other, Romney as the Mormon heir of Joseph Smith, vs. Obama as the liberal heir of Walter Rauschenbusch, but it got so deep in the weeds of the trivial and ephemeral details of the 2012 campaign that I cut it from the book in exasperation. A mistake, probably.

Even the revolutions against the perceived conformity of the 1950s that Voegeli cites had their radical Protestant elements—like “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus,” somehow mixed among the rebellious truckers in C.W. McCall’s hit 1975 anti-government convoy song. The Jesus Freaks were countercultural, yes: “The intelligence that one’s runaway daughter had given her life to Christ, been baptized in a bathtub, and taken up residence with a bunch of barefoot, long-haired, guitar-strumming, tongues-speaking twenty-year-olds in a place called Maranatha House,” as the wonderful writer Sally Thomas once observed, “was only marginally less disturbing to the average Methodist mother than the news that the same daughter had moved in with a professional tabla drummer and changed her name to Windflower.” But they were looking not for political change so much as personal, individual, ontological change. They were hunting for their salvation and for certainty about that salvation.

That hunger for certainty about salvation has always had cultural consequences, as Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the lodestars for my own work in An Anxious Age. But those consequences are effects, unintended results flowing from a prior commitment to metaphysical claims about the universe—and it’s here that we find the real problem of political science’s approach to the puzzle of national religion.

These days, in our Church of Christ without Christ, the problem is not morality. The problem is ontology. The tide of dissociated Christian ideas that washes our culture comes from the desire of people not to do good but to be good. The Poster Children have inherited from Protestant America a hunger not for virtuous deeds but virtuous existence: the fellowship of the redeemed. This is why I suggest they are better understood as “the elect,” rather than “the elite.” No moral contradiction can touch them, because the point is to find a being of goodness, confident in itself.

And that metaphysically aware analysis, as a kind of sociology of soteriology, helps us understand, I think, our culture’s current obsessions with race, with gender, with our symbolic and deadlocked politics, in ways than political theory cannot do. We live in a spiritual age, I argue, when our ordinary political opponents seem not merely mistaken, but actually evil. We dwell in mystical times when we expect our attitudes toward social questions to determine our goodness and our salvation.

Hartman: I am heartened that Dr. Voegeli included treatment of my book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, in his thoughtful and provocative essay on the tropes of what we now call liberalism. I am also encouraged that even though I make no bones about being a left partisan, Voegeli calls attention to the fact that my book “offers narrative and analysis with limited polemic.”

It is my hunch that some conservatives may appreciate my history of the culture wars because I rather agree with how they characterize the cultural history of the United States since the 1960s. Indeed Voegeli and I agree with Mark Lilla and Robert Bork that the ethos of the ‘60s liberation movements—the ethos that has seemingly revolutionized American culture—was baked into the cake of American democracy. As Bork argued in rather heretical terms, the individual freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence set into motion a society dedicated to permanent cultural revolution.

How does one set limits on the proposition that “all men are created equal”? Against the assumptions of those who signed the Declaration, “all men” eventually came to include, in fits and starts, non-property holders, slaves and former slaves, blacks and other people of color, immigrants from strange lands, Catholics, Jews and other non-Christians, atheists, women, gays, lesbians, the disabled. Viewed in this way, the ‘60s liberation movements made manifest an ethos that dated to the nation’s founding.

So Voegeli and I agree in our description. We also both agree that it would be better to live in a society grounded in foundational norms that define what it means to be a “good person.” Where we disagree is in prescription. Voegeli implies that such norms can only be found in the moral certainties of the type of religious faith that dominated American culture for the good part of its history. I find this stance problematic in at least two ways.

First, to the millions of Americans who find the new dispensation more liberating than the old one, such a sensibility often has less to do with liberty in its narrowly individualistic sense and much more to do with the ways in which pre-1960s normative America was discriminatory. No amount of complaining about the undeniably shallow shaming proclivities of those who currently preach the anti-racist creed will change this fact. Thus the burden is on those who would return to a religiously infused normative America to prove that such a society would not once again be sadistic.

Second, if we are indeed to reconstitute American society based on shared norms we must recognize that the most powerful antinomian force working against such an objective is capitalism. Even though conservative culture warriors often couched their critique of liberalism in anti-statist terms—such as when Christian Right leaders like Phyllis Schlafly contended that public schools and welfare agencies, in league with feminists, weakened the traditional family structure—it has become increasingly clear that capitalism has done more to pitilessly destroy the values they held dear. Capitalism, more than the federal government—Mammon, more than Leviathan—has rendered tradition passé. Capitalism sopped up ‘60s liberation and, in the process, helped dig the grave of normative America.

Thus I would argue that the two people who have the best handle on how to reconstruct shared values are Pope Francis and Bernie Sanders. Their focus on the immorality of economic inequality shows that common ground can be found in timeless values like fairness and dignity. But given that Voegeli introduces his essay by celebrating the fact that the right has the upper hand in economics even as it is losing the culture wars—given that he counts the existence of the Tea Party as consoling—I am certain that we disagree on this matter.

Voegeli: An Anxious Age and A War of the Soul of America are valuable, stimulating books, and I appreciate their authors’ participation in this forum. For this reason I, too, don’t want to be churlish, and will endeavor to make “That’s not what I meant!” a minor motif in my response to them.

For the record, I don’t believe that Joseph Bottum bashes or disdains American Protestantism. I do believe, still, that the characterization of it in An Anxious Age as “all the Christendom we had in America” and the source of a “vague but vast unity,” sounds closer to two than three cheers. That ours might be a less anxious age if America had had a less vague, more robust Christendom seems likes a reasonable inference.

Similarly, I feel that Andrew Hartman overstates the congruence between my essay’s arguments and his book’s. Setting limits on the proposition that all men are created equal is indeed a problem, but not setting limits on it is an even bigger one. The signers of the Declaration of Independence “did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1857. “They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” The core of equality, he continued, is the belief that people are equally possessed of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This interpretation argues that for the journey begun at Independence Hall to arrive at Woodstock Nation was more detour than destiny. If the happiness we pursue is understood as the satisfaction justly derived from a life well lived, one constructed in accordance with our natures, then the truth that all men are created equal excludes rather than validates the assertion that all lifestyles are created equal. It follows, contra John Rawls, that the adherents of each lifestyle are not equally entitled to receive material support and nonjudgmental encouragement from a just society.

As Hartman expects, I will also decline his invitation to join the ranks of capitalism’s opponents. For one thing, the weakening of shared norms about what it means to be a good person is a challenge not just for those who want to sustain capitalism, but for those who want to reform or replace it. The final pages of Hartman’s recent book make this point explicitly. “[W]ithout a common culture, it is extremely hard to build the solidarity necessary for social democracy,” he wrote. “Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the modest American social welfare state—the New Deal state—was constructed during an era of unusual cultural stability.”

Others who would like to rely on markets less and government have a similar lament. In the “presence of diversity,” sociologist Robert Putnam told an interviewer in 2006, “we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined.” The Bruce Springsteen song “We Take Care of Our Own” was played at the 2012 Democratic convention, and at campaign events for President Obama. Few noticed the implications: we don’t take care of those who aren’t our own; and we reserve the right to specify and apply the criteria that determine which people qualify as our own. Communitarians exhort us to fortify our communities’ interiors, but communities can’t have interiors unless they have exteriors. This boundary need not be defended sadistically, but does need to be established clearly and resolutely.

There’s a second difficulty. Those who want to reform or replace capitalism need social solidarity, but also to offer a plausible alternative. Capitalism’s defenders, conversely, do not need to demonstrate that relying on markets is the best set of economic arrangements imaginable, just that it’s the best available. As one leftist philosopher, Richard Rorty, wrote in 1998, the Left has never settled or said “what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution.” The “voting public,” he argued, wants to know “how things are going to work after markets have been put behind us,” and capitalism’s adversaries can’t or won’t answer this basic, legitimate question.

Two other philosophers who describe themselves as leftists, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, made the same point in Nation of Rebels (2004). “The amount of intellectual energy that has been dedicated to the task of searching for an alternative to the market in the past century is staggering,” they wrote. “And yet no matter how you run the numbers, the answer always comes out the same. There are essentially two ways of organizing a modern economy: either a system of centralized, bureaucratic production (such as was found in the former Soviet Union), or else a decentralized system, in which producers coordinate their efforts through market exchange.” The policy alternatives that result from this dichotomy are constraining: “Central planning works fine for the military, or some other organization where members are willing to accept a standardized allotment of clothing, food rations or housing and to be assigned specific jobs to perform. But in a society where individuals hope to pick and choose among a range of lifestyle opportunities, there is no getting around the need for a market.”

The notion of pushing a shopping cart down the lifestyle aisle, picking and choosing from the available options, brings us back to Joseph Bottum’s point about ontology. In fashioning a life, the gratifications we seek include holding a good opinion of ourselves with confidence. I agree with Bottum that the desire to be among the elect—the redeemed—is as powerful in societies where religious attachments are weak as in ones where they’re strong. Holding and vigorously expressing the right political opinions and social attitudes becomes, for many, the outward sign of an inward grace.

This is a more serious matter than what Harman describes as “the undeniably shallow shaming proclivities of those who currently preach the anti-racist creed.” It’s a problem when the Left defines social justice in ways so exacting and urgent as to rule out the possibility that decent, reasonable people might be opposed to, or merely skeptical about, the leftist project. Better manners by the anti-racist creed’s preachers are unlikely to solve this problem.

But it’s also a problem for the Right when, as I noted in “New-Time Religion,” liberal democracy depends on cultural capital it consumes but does not replenish. If we assess this problem with maximal pessimism, we’ll follow Christopher Lasch and Daniel Bell in concluding that an irresolvable cultural contradiction besets modern, liberal, pluralist, secular democracies. We would expect such societies to collapse under the weight of this contradiction, even if no one offers a more appealing alternative set of arrangements.

I’ll conclude this post, as I concluded the essay, with the suggestion that the situation may be serious rather than dire. This would be the case if the cultural contradiction were nothing more severe than a tension, challenging rather than dooming the American experiment. This possibility is consistent with the late Harry V. Jaffa’s belief that “the American founding was dominated by an Aristotelian Locke—or a Lockean Aristotle.” If so, freedom and virtue fortify rather than attenuate one another, and properly constituted liberal societies are well disposed to the religious beliefs and practices that make freedom and virtue practically possible, and ontologically grounded.