Culture Wars about Culture Wars -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Are you as tired of the "Culture Wars" am I?  Is there an alternative to the constant Left-Right bickering that so dominates modern conversation? Martin Marty takes note of a David Brooks column that seems to have upset the apple cart a bit, leading Marty to offer his own thoughts on a more fruitful path. Brooks is a thoughtful conservative who is able to dialog with more liberal folks. The question is this -- can we find a different avenue for pursuing our conversations that go beyond constant battles for supremacy?  Or following Oliver Cromwell (of all people) might we recognize that we could be wrong!  Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Culture Wars About Culture Wars
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JULY 20, 2015
David Brooks                                                                                           Credit: Aspen Institute / flickr
“The Next Culture War,” a New York Times op-ed (June 30) by David Brooks, set off one of the high-level debates of this summer, and will be in the news for some time to come.

Brooks models a civil approach to controversy in his Friday night, on-camera conversations with Mark Shields on the “PBS NewsHour,” one of the few can’t-miss broadcasts in our house. But his column on “The Next Culture War” inspired an abundance of often uncivil internet responses from all sides of “culture war” talk.

Brooks spoke favorably about Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” (be sure to read Brooks in our “Sources” for some definitions, too long to be encapsulated in a short column). He called for articulate Christians to give up on dreams of winning the (largely sexual-issue-inspired) inherited culture wars.

Dreher, and here Brooks agrees, knows that the Warriors have lost. They need to re-conceive their stance, their perspective, their options, and their chances for survival in a secularized culture.

Brooks also speaks well of Robert P. George, “probably the most brilliant social conservative theorist in the country.” Brooks has read both writers as showing some potential for change. But “most of the conservative commentators . . . are resolved to keep fighting” the war that they have decisively lost.

Brooks' advice, and please note it well: “Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. . . The War has been a “communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex.”

You don’t need microscopes or telescopes to find these obvious visions and conclusions. Brooks now proposes to Christians a different culture war “just as central to your faith and far more powerful,” he says, “in its persuasive witness.”  He proposes reconceptions which could help “reweave the sinews of society.”
Some quick reflections:

1) Wasn’t it a mistake for Christian conservatives to become obsessed with the term “Culture Wars?”  Admittedly, using it is more fun, more tribally satisfying, more strategically valuable on the short term than are more dialogical and open ones?

2) Now, isn’t it a mistake to call the Brooksian option a “New Culture War?” Won’t it be as unproductive as the old one, a repeat of its lethal tone and intentions, albeit with less sexual preoccupation?

Having studied Fundamentalisms and their kin around the globe and in many faiths for years, I joined those who observed what the “War” approach leaves out, from its very first moves.

In a talk some months ago I was asked to suggest a “virtue” that could be helpful in a time of contest, debate, and conflict. I risked the model in a line by Oliver Cromwell: “My brethren [and, today, sisters] by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink that you may be mistaken” on this or that ideological claim or militant strategy.

I like to reread the claims of many on the now-Old Left and the now-Old Right which set the terms, presumably for debate, but more for obfuscation.

“Bethinking” that we may be mistaken does not mean surrendering, turning wishy-washy or deserting good causes. But it buys time for conversation with “the other,” the one who is different, the party whose advocates may have a point.

David Brooks is asking for new debate and the discovery of new causes and fresh affirmations. Let the Old Culture Warriors flail away at lost causes.


Brooks, David. “The Next Culture War.” New York Times, June 30, 2015, The Opinion Pages.

Rigney, Joe. “Okay, David Brooks, Which Culture War Should We Fight? It doesn’t make sense for David Brooks to say conservatives should fight the culture war without also fighting the sexual revolution that provokes it.” The Federalist, July 2, 2015, Culture.

Dreher, Rod. “David Brooks on ‘The Next Culture War.’” The American Conservative, June 30, 2015.

Dreher, Rod. “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country.” Time Magazine, June 26, 2015, Ideas/Religion.

George, Robert P. “After Obergefell: A First Things Symposium.” First Things, June 27, 2015.

Throckmorton, Warren. “David Brooks Wants Us to Fight a Different Culture War; Retraining Required.” Patheos, July 6, 2015, Blogs.

Hilton, Elise. “Culture Wars: Should We Christians Shut Up And Do Good?” Acton Institute PowerBlog, July 1, 2015.
Image: David Brooks, "America: One Nation, Divisible," Paepcke Auditorium, June 27, 2013. Credit: Aspen Institute / flickr.

To comment: email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. For Sightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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