An Illusory Peace: Why even Obama cannot bring an end to the culture wars
During the early months of the Obama administration in Washington, there were persistent rumors of a ceasefire in the nation’s notorious culture wars. One writer hailed “the coming end” of these furious battles over abortion, gay marriage and the like, a demise that would be ushered in soon by greater attention to such bread-and-butter concerns as work and wages and by President Obama’s agreeable style. The rumors were circulated mostly, and wishfully perhaps, by liberals who hoped to take the steam out of conservative social crusades. It seems that word never reached the people who fly the flag of traditional moral and family values.
While some people were counting down the days of the culture wars, many of the staunchest soldiers in the wars were pressing their uniforms. Gary Bauer, a onetime Republican presidential hopeful and a leader of social conservatives, opened fire directly on Obama. The former head of the Family Research Council, a nonprofit public policy organization, declared that the president, then barely 100 days in office, was rolling back “a generation [of]...small, incremental advances in promoting pro-life, pro-family policies.” First among those Bauer cited was the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal statute that defined marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman. Bauer alleged that the Obama White House was scheming to repeal the act, known as DOMA. Not long after, the Justice Department filed a brief in support of the law.
More Conservative Than Social
At the time of Bauer’s assessment (published in Human Events on April 29) many observers believed the opposite—that Obama seemed to be soft-pedaling social issues like gay marriage or was reaching for common ground, notably on abortion. That still seems true enough, but the most telling part of Bauer’s early call to arms is that it was issued before he and other social conservatives really got angry.
That began a month later when they were infuriated by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Although a pro-choice president could hardly be expected to seek out a pro-life nominee, there was scarcely a hint of abortion partisanship in her judicial record and more than a hint of moderation on the issue. Still, the opposition of pro-life groups was adamantine. They seized on her role as a board member of a multi-issue, Puerto Rican legal advocacy organization that filed briefs in favor of abortion rights, but they pointedly ignored the most notable abortion-related case she actually ruled on as a federal appeals judge. In that case, involving the use of U.S. aid to family-planning agencies abroad, Sotomayor ruled against pro-choice groups.
Then came the health care shootout. Pro-life groups assailed proposals that would, in their contesting view, lead to government-funded abortions. Fair enough. But they also did their part to credit fantasies about “death panels” that would somehow emerge from the optional end-of-life counseling proposed as part of Obama’s health care overhaul. Next they helped scare up protestors who shut down discussions of the president’s initiative at numerous town-hall meetings. But, for those who wondered what social conservatives were really up to, more revealing was the message that pro-lifers should derail health care reform, abortion aside.
Case in point, a mass e-mailing this past summer from a regional pro-life organization, Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Its redoubtable president, Anne Fox, commented in the action alert that even if it were possible to remove what she insisted are the “anti-life underpinnings” of the reform push, “as individuals we would have to be scared by this bill for other reasons.” Those other reasons had everything to do with the financial costs of what Fox indicted as “universal health care.” This is an arguable point, but it is not a pro-life or family-values argument. It is a Republican National Com-mittee argument.
And that is the trouble with social conservatives or at least many activists who most visibly wear that label. They often seem more conservative than social, more devoted to the political conservative movement than determined to address the roots of contemporary U.S. cultural challenges, like family implosion and widespread abortion.
At times during the deliberations about Sotomayor, the pro-family movement seemed oddly preoccupied with the judge’s views on firearms. Within hours of the nomination, Ken Blackwell, the Family Research Council’s “senior fellow for family empowerment,” cranked out an opinion piece carried by FoxNews.com: “Obama Declares War on America’s Gun Owners With Supreme Court Pick.” Even the president of Americans United for Life, Charmaine Yoest, managed to highlight that issue (together with abortion) in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The pro-life leader remonstrated that Sotomayor had “failed to recognize the Second Amendment right to bear arms.” Such worries throw light on a dance taking place between moral-values conservatives and other segments of the conservative movement, in this case the gun lobby. There is very little daylight between these ideological partners.
Kept Off the Agenda
Just as revealing is what these advocates of traditional values are not talking about—anything that suggests a place on their agenda for economic justice. Other social trends that would appear to be of concern to social conservatives do not seem to have captured their attention of late.
Recent research finds, for instance, that divorce rates in the United States have tapered off, but that is because of a steep drop in divorce among the college-educated middle class, especially the affluent. Family breakup is in fact plaguing poor and working-class communities, creating what some researchers have dubbed a “divorce gap” along socioeconomic lines. In his new book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out, “The tensions in the marriages of the non-college-educated reflect, in part, the declining job prospects that husbands face.”
A similar picture is developing with regard to abortion. U.S. rates have fallen off significantly, except among women with low incomes. Three-quarters of the women who responded to one survey cited “economic hardship” as their reason for getting an abortion, and studies sponsored by groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have concluded that social and economic supports correlate significantly with lower abortion rates. Unwanted pregnancies, meanwhile, have been surging among women with low incomes and waning in middle-class suburbs.
If standard-bearing social conservatives are speaking of these trends, they are doing so in a whisper. It is possible that some of this may strike a little too close to home for a movement that is disproportionately southern and evangelical.
Southern states are known to be the most divorce-prone in the country, followed by states in the West. The regional pattern looks roughly the same when it comes to teenage pregnancy and birth. Mississippi is a leader in abstinence education, but it is also the state with the highest teen birth rate, having recently relieved Texas of that distinction, according to figures released earlier this year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin (himself an evangelical Protestant), relates that evangelical teenagers on average make their “sexual debut” at 16.3 years old. Teenagers in no other major religious group besides black Protestants have sex for the first time quite so early.
For many pro-family crusaders, these are not just social issues. They are notably backyard problems, which can be the most discomforting. But there is a better explanation for the lagging interest of social conservatives in such findings as the divorce divide, and it has less to do with geography than with ideology.
Ignoring Economic Inequality
The demographics of these trends are complex, but one common thread is the effect of income and education on whether a family stays together, a woman chooses an abortion or a 16-year-old becomes sexually active. The problems may not always call for lunch-bucket liberal solutions like larger, refundable tax credits for working families or a more generous federal grant program for college and vocational education. But they do call for discussions, in which many social conservatives would be less than eager to engage, tending toward the question of economic inequality. Some of this disinclination goes back to the beginning of the post-World War II conservative movement, which joined together libertarians, like the economist Milton Friedman, and moral conservatives, like the political theorist Russell Kirk.
Writing in the August-September edition of Policy Review, published by the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford, Peter Berkowitz noted that the disparate elements of this new conservatism had been “united in thought by opposition to the New Deal” as well as to Soviet Communism. The Hoover senior fellow suggested with approval, that opposition to New Deal-style liberalism and egalitarianism remains the warmest bond of conservatives today.
On the part of pro-family conservatives, this would make a fair measure of sense if the New Deal had been an anti-family project. But that would be a decidedly unhistorical view of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies. Concepts like the family wage were championed by so-called “maternalists,” reformers who believed social policy should bolster the traditional family by enabling the companionate roles of breadwinner and homemaker. They included personages no less than Eleanor Roosevelt and the president himself, not to mention his visionary labor secretary, Frances Perkins. As Allan Carlson points out in his underappreciated 2003 book The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of American Identity, they were resisted most pointedly by two forces that converged: the National Association of Manufacturers, which coveted women’s labor, and the National Women’s Party, which crafted the Equal Rights Amendment and disparaged the homemaker role for women. F.D.R.’s maternalists carried the day.
In a lecture back in June 2002 in Washington, D.C., Carlson, who is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Ill., explained that the New Deal’s family-support system (featuring lush working-class wages and a fixed work week) reigned for four decades. It unraveled as the real wages of men sank in the 1970s and ’80s, eclipsing the era of what Carlson describes as the “breadwinner/homemaker/child-rich family.”
That family-values conservatives today would still identify themselves, even in part, as against the New Deal, is something of a historical irony. It is also a tribute to the not-so-invisible hand of people like Milton Friedman in the wider conservative movement. This case, however, should not be overbuilt. After all, the American Catholic hierarchy is socially conservative on many questions, but New Deal-oriented. Carlson himself is a credentialed social conservative whose talk in Washington was delivered as the annual Witherspoon Lecture, sponsored by none other than the Family Research Council. Social conservatives may not be as unswayable as they seem.
No one expects these culture warriors on the right (and there are plenty on the left) to begin chanting for health care reform and subsidized housing. But if they could see their way to acknowledge that economic insecurity is a pro-life concern, and other similarly sensible propositions, it would be a shift in a more interesting and peaceable direction.