The Decline of the Culture Wars -- Sightings

Could it be? Could we be moving on to other things besides constant debates about abortion and homosexuality (and teaching creation in the schools)? Is the religious right in decline?

Well it's too early to tell, but as Martin Marty points out, Frank Rich seems to believe that this is true. Rich believes that economic issues have taken center stage and so we're less focused on the other issues. I think he's probably correct, but the question is -- will they heat up when the economy begins to settle down (after all today the Dow went up nearly 500 points). These debates are cyclical and likely will come back, but in our economic doldrums we get a respite! Take a look, add a comment.


Sightings 3/23/09

The Decline of the Culture Wars

-- Martin E. Marty

Eight days ago columnist Frank Rich in the New York Times joined the company of those who note, as his headline says, that “The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off.” He wrote of the “upside to the economic meltdown,” one which allows citizens to get serious now about drastic issues and render secondary the no-win/no-lose fights over what get called “cultural” as opposed to “political” or “economic” conflicts. Rich reported on the strangely muted response by legislators to news that seasons ago would have led them to, yes, outrage: Rich pictured that when the Administration shelves the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about gays in the military, it “will be greeted with more yawns than yowls.”

In his view, the old New Right has lost credibility, as when “the two top candidates for leader of the post-Bush G.O.P., Rush and Newt, have six marriages between them,” and a roll call including Mark Foley, Larry Craig, David Vitter, and “the irrepressible Palins” render talk of “family values” idle. “The religious right is even more in denial than the Republicans,” Rich adds, reacting as it does with non-apoplectic responses to the appointment of Kathleen Sebelius, who supports abortion rights, to the Health and Human Services post. Similarly, Congressional Republicans made tepid response or ignored it. Reaction to new action on governmental support for stem cell research lacked its old fire. “The family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth—Falwell, Robertson, Dodson and Reed—are now either dead, retired or disgraced.” Et cetera.

Rich went on with a chancier comment on how seriously to take the polls, which show that “nones”—people with no religious attachment or interest—is a fast-growing camp in America. That’s a different topic for a different day. For now, it’s advisable to keep fingers crossed. Culture wars, like other wars, can get heated up after cooling, but they are not likely to take the forms they did, nor keep media over-awed again.

Similarly, non-culture-warring phenomena tabbed ‘Evangelical” are also meeting changed fates, as a spate of books proclaims the decline, if not the fall, of the churchly evangelical empire in America. Those within the evangelical camp do show some signs of worry, but those outside it are grossly inaccurate in their visions of drastic decline.

The one issue in the culture wars that still has energy is “gay marriage”—“same-sex unions,” and the like. While most public attention goes to its political and judicial fronts, as with Proposition 8 in California, less notice is given, except to members of some church bodies, to the battlefields in the churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and other Protestants of many sorts seem bent on policies of self-destruction at their assemblies and conventions; so say those who anticipate with dread their denominational conventions this summer. We recall “good old days,” when church leaders debated doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and not just sex-sex-sex.

Listen to those close to the scene and you will hear of ironies. Thus, the power people and convention voters tend to be older people, and they will decide on issues that—ask any campus pastor, for example—are seen as only old peoples’ issues, not part of the world younger generations inhabit. Another irony: Most of those caught in the middle of these battles know that there will not be any winners—just wearied conventioners who trudge home, confident that they have served God, ready to take up more important church work with those who are left, and necessarily girding up for battle on the same issues in 2010. Maybe the economic crisis will distract them.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


The Dow is not the best indicator of economic recovery for everyone else. However, E.J. Dionne had predicted 2 years ago that the culture wars would decline (or get less traction) because we had other big issues on our plate. Even if/when the economy recovers, we still have two wars (one that Obama is EXPANDING), the need to clean up the Bush human rights violations, climate change catastrophe looming, etc.

And here are some indications that things are shifting on same sex matters: Generals are now arguing for open gay serving in the military; Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is no pillar of principle, is now endorsing same-sex marriage. If the mushy middle of the Democratic Party is now seeing marriage equality as the default position, things have DEFINITELY changed.

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