The 'new' culture war

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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E.J. Dionne Jr. sizes up the “new” culture war over at the Washington Post.

“The old culture war politics is dying, but new culture wars are gathering force,” he writes. The old culture war was a fight “between those whose deepest commitments were to God and the sacred, and those who believed that human beings evolved their own value systems through a process of steady enlightenment. The first group feared we were moving away from commitments that made us decent and human. The second welcomed more open attitudes on questions ranging from sexuality to racial equality to women’s rights.

“This culture war created the religious right and a backlash among more secular Americans — who happen to be one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. Their skirmishes focused especially on the legality of abortion, society’s view of homosexuality and, more generally, the public role of religion.”

Now, a new kind of culture war is emerging, Dionne writes, one that focuses on “national identity rather than religion and 'transcendent authority.'

“It asks the same question as the old culture war: ‘Who are we?’ But the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally. The new question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically. It is, in truth, one of the oldest questions in our history, going back to our earliest immigration battles of the 1840s and 1850s.”

Another important aspect of the “new” culture war “is often cast as economic,” Dionne writes, “but it is really about values and virtues: Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?”

“Politically, this could be explosive,” Dionne writes. “What is at heart a moral battle could rip apart old coalitions, since many working-class and middle-class social conservatives are angry about our shifting structures of reward. If issues such as abortion and gay rights split the New Deal coalition, this emerging issue could divide the conservative coalition. The rise of Pope Francis could hasten the scrambling of the moral debate, since he links his opposition to abortion with powerful calls for economic justice and compassion toward immigrants.”

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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