Have Conservatives Already Won the Culture War?

No. No, no, and no. The argument in today’s Washington Post that American conservatives have a “huge, long-term advantage” in our long-simmering culture wars can only work if we water down our definition of “conservatism” to be entirely meaningless. I’m no conservative, but if I were, I would horrified not encouraged by the implications.

is segregation scriptural

Are conservatives winning? No. They often don’t even want to remember what they used to fight for.

David Byler doesn’t want conservatives to panic. He admits conservatives have lost the long-term battles over the definition of marriage, gender, and proper sexuality. But he thinks that conservatives have a huge—ahem—trump card up their sleeves, one that too many of them don’t recognize. As Byler puts it,

Despite the perception that institutions that conservatives hold in high regard — the military, police, the two-parent nuclear family and religion — have taken hits, the public has a high level of trust and attachment to them. And that faith gives conservatives a huge, long-term advantage.

It doesn’t take much of an expert in the history of American conservatism to see the big problem in this argument. Namely, if conservatism today means only a defense of the military, the police, the family in general and religion in general, then it has become a wispy half-memory of what conservatism meant in the recent past.

After all, not very long ago, American conservatives fought for things (and lost) that might seem to today’s conservatives either a fanciful dream or an embarrassing reminder of their real past.

To pull just a few examples from my research into twentieth-century conservatism, twentieth-century conservatives fought for nothing less than evangelical dominance of the public square, forcible racial hierarchy, and total male dominance of political life.

Example #1: In 1922, Kentucky’s legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill. The bill would have done far more than ban the teaching of evolution from the state’s public schools and universities. A Senate amendment would have forbidden any public library in the state from owning any book that would

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

Example #2: In 1928, the conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution explained her vision of the proper role of women in public life. As she put it without apparent irony,

We need some cheer leaders for America; we need some fearless citizens to sit on the side lines and do a little talking in the interest of this country.

Example #3: Jumping to 1960, fundamentalist stalwart Bob Jones Sr. published his thoughts on race and religion. His sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” offered his thoughts on the dilemma of racism among white conservative evangelicals. Did Jones think segregation was a Christian necessity? Short answer, yes. Why? It was not because non-white people were inferior. It was not because they were any less Christian. Nevertheless, Jones insisted,

Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble. . . . God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations.

What’s the point? The point is NOT that today’s conservatives secretly want to bring back racial segregation, male-only politics, or evangelical control of public institutions. Some of them might think that such things would Make America Great Again, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that many conservatives really want to return America to those old inequities.

The point, rather, is that conservatives have always fought a rear-guard action against cultural change in the United States. In 1960, some religious conservatives wanted to maintain racial segregation as a God-given right. In 1928, some patriotic conservatives wanted to keep women on the side lines, limited to cheering for good political ideas. In 1922, some conservatives hoped to impose a frank theocratic law on their state, banning any books that might challenge evangelical Protestant ideas.

Today’s conservatives are generally fighting for other things, such as reducing abortion rights, restricting LGBTQ rights, and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Even on those limited aims, conservatives are losing, just as their predecessors in the twentieth century lost their fights to keep public institutions Christian, to keep politics male, and to keep the races separate.

In order to make a claim that conservatives are winning, David Byler needs to water down conservatism so much that it becomes an awkward stand-in for society as a whole. Yes, conservatives tend to be fonder of the traditional family and of religion in general, but those things are not the province of conservatives alone. Plenty of people who consider themselves progressive also hold family and religion dear. And to say that conservatives are dominant because lots of Americans respect the army and police is almost beyond the need for refutation. Yes, lots of Americans—of all political opinions—respect the army and police. That is not a strength of conservatism but a strength of our society as a whole.

Byler concludes by insisting that “Conservatives have the winning hand. They just don’t know it—and that’s why they might lose.” It’s just not true. Conservatives have always had a losing hand, but they have managed to eke out temporary victories when they have played it well. Long-term conservative victories have come from conservatives’ impressive ability to reshape and reform what it means to be “conservative.”

Advertisements
Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. Things change over time. It is like the tide coming in.

    Conservatism objects to change. But it always fails because you cannot hold back the tide.

    Progressivism attempts to speed up the change. This usually doesn’t work. But progressives are seen as succeeding because the tide still rolls in.

    Reply
    • Agellius

       /  September 9, 2019

      Interesting analogy. But progressivism isn’t really about changing things per se. It’s about changing things from how they used to be, to how they want them to be (or at least, how they think they want them to be). But when things get changed to the point where progressives are satisfied, and further change would cause them to be dissatisfied, they will try to prevent further change like anyone else.

      In other words progressivism, contrary to popular belief, is not about openness to any and all ideas. It’s only about openness to the ideas they like. Challenge those and you’ll find out how resistant to change they can be.

      Reply
  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s