America's Culture Wars Will Never End

Neither side will cease to exist anytime soon. They might as well learn to live with each other.

The United Methodist Church defrocked yet another minister for officiating a same-sex wedding, in this case his son’s. While some 70 Methodist clergy members recently vowed to defy their church’s teachings on marriage, the largest mainline Protestant denomination has been reaffirming them every four years by commanding margins.

In Utah, a law against polygamy has been weakened while judges struck down the state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. Or, to frame the issue as Utah’s Mormon majority might see it, the state’s reaffirmation of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

At times it seems impossible to escape the controversy over Duck Dynasty, with the protests and the counterprotests that were unleashed when GQ decided to ask one of its stars to share his deep thoughts on human sexuality.

Leon Trotsky, call your office. You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you.

The objectives of the culture warriors are clear. The right-most flank hopes that it can re-stigmatize homosexuality, nudging gays back into the closet. The left-most flank aims to reclassify traditional religious and moral beliefs about homosexuality as the equivalent of racism, to be stamped out by custom and law like Jim Crow.

Both of these goals bumps up against what Al Gore might call an inconvenient truth: neither gay people nor people with traditional sexual values are likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

With the possible exception of smoking, there is no issue on which the culture has changed so rapidly as homosexuality. Gay marriage has gone from unthinkable to inevitable. Less than a decade ago, even mainstream liberal Democrats opposed it (especially if they had national ambitions). Now even some conservative Republicans are declaring their support.

At the same time, the Christian churches that remain opposed are not small sects. They are the biggest religious denominations in the country, and in a few cases the fastest growing. The Protestant churches that are changing their positions on marriage and sexuality are, like the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ, usually small and shrinking.

In an odd way, both gay rights groups and social conservatives deal with two different but occasionally overlapping motivations: they both want to be left alone and to change the culture. Proponents of gay marriage want to be able to live as they choose and also to make the culture more accepting of the way they live. Social conservatives want to protect their own religious liberty and also transform the culture according to their moral vision.

This points to a possible truce, but also suggests continued conflict will remain inevitable. Both sides of the culture war can agree to maximum tolerance of the other side. “Showing a bit of respect for cultural values with which you disagree is not a bad thing,” Barney Frank said in 2004. “Don’t call people bigots and fools just because you disagree with them.”

At the same time, people were more willing to be tolerant as they also came to believe that gay marriage, for instance, wasn’t such a bad thing on the merits. To protect their own religious liberty, social conservatives will have to keep making the positive case for their values—values that are in some cases derided as bigotry. It’s no coincidence that Frank made his plea for cultural respect back when opponents of gay marriage were still winning.

But that doesn’t mean social conservatives can’t take Frank’s advice. A good start would be to recognize that the Judeo-Christian ethic, in sexual mores and so much else, is no longer intuitive to a great many Americans. Heavy-handed appeals, be they theological or (in the case of Phil Robertson) scatological, are likely to fall flat. Don’t call people heathens or fools (or worse) just because you disagree with them.

While specific social debates come and go, the culture wars will never end. But neither will the reality that the combatants must live together.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

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