Culture War 2.0

Welcome back, Kulturkampf. We just didn't want to live without you.

It's been almost 15 exciting years since Republican National Convention speaker Pat Buchanan announced, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself." So, Kulturkampf, you're not quite in the running to become America's longest war—the War On Drugs is unlikely to yield that title easily. But you're already America's longest romance.

Yes, yes, we're not sure we're still young enough for the tricks we have to play to put some spark back into that romance. The dustup over John Edwards and White-Hot-Sticky-Holy-Spiritgate seemed trashy to us too. The supposed controversy over Mitt Romney's Mormonism felt like a stretch. (What—the issue is that only 72% of Americans would vote for a qualified Mormon presidential candidate? ZZZZ!) Ditto the alleged issue about what religion Barack Obama subscribes to. And the Rev. Ted Haggard's recent escape from the predatory underworld of twisted love? Well, let's just say we really had to suck it in to fit into that outfit.

But we've been desperate. For a while there, Kulturkampf, we could hardly get you to notice us. After President Bush's re-election in 2004, it looked like the conservatives had achieved total victory in the battle for America's soul. Then in 2006, the resurgence of the Democrat[ic] Party made it seem as if the culture war was winding down. Talk of détente filled the air. The War on Christmas was called off. Maybe we weren't a purple nation (that sounded a little too, you know, fey) but it seemed like the bible-thumping religiocrats and the Jesus-hating secular libertines could get along, even if that just meant we could all agree on how much we hate Richard Dawkins.

But now the culture war is back, handing out fake controversies, spiritual preening and grand pronouncements from political players who dare to stand for things that nobody is actually against.

The saga of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fits into this last category. As is frequently the way with such things, the people making the biggest fuss about Romney's religion are the people who support him. Enthusiast Hugh Hewitt has detected a "Mormon Problem" among Romney opponents and in March will deliver his indictment in the new book A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney. Romney's religious beliefs, however, haven't caused as much of a stir as his brand-new rightward views on abortion and gay rights. It's tempting to say his views have evolved since Romney's Bay State heyday, but we want to give equal time to the theory that it was intelligent design.

As identity politics increasingly become a tool of the right, this sort of shadow-boxing over alleged threats to deeply held beliefs is increasingly common. Catholic League President Bill Donohue, a stalwart of America's thriving anti-defamation industry and one of the culture war's hottest hunks, proved more than a match for presidential candidate Edwards this week.

Edwards campaign web consultant Amanda Marcotte may have been brought in for her deft politico-cultural aperçus (samples: "With our current health care situation, the gap is literally between the haves and the have-nots"; "[T]his is a country where people who work hard for a living shouldn't be living in poverty"; and "In fact, from everything I understand, much of the history of Christian misogyny is one 2,000 year long backlash against early female power in the church"). More likely, the aging North Carolina wunderkind was hoping Marcotte would help him "grok" what the kids are up to. The predictable result was a dance floor disaster, as Marcotte's eight-month-old comments at her Pandagon site turned out to be a little more hip than Edwards bargained for. Donohue made fast work of Marcotte's funny, unhinged, self-evidently blasphemous commentary about the Virgin Mary, and Edwards, after a brief show of defiance, realized that all the net-cred in the world isn't worth a dozen votes. Donohue adds another scalp to his collection, and the nation is again safe from anti-Catholicism, at least of the kind practiced by Democrats.

The Edwards brouhaha was barely a tempest in a teapot. The netroots will have forgotten the candidate's betrayal by the end of the week, and people with real lives probably never heard about it to begin with. But it was true culture war, irreligious liberals against faith-filled conservatives, and when you're 15 years into a relationship, you look to anything—a false hope, a jealous rage, a candlelight dinner—for evidence that the romance is still on. We look forward to the passage of Mitt Romney's national polygamy law, and to Obama administration HHS Secretary Keith Ellison's requirement that family assistance recipients wear veils. Or actually, we just look forward to culture warriors on both sides warning about such things in books with titles like Takedown! and Godless! and Blasphemy! and Spazz!

You're back, Kulturkampf, and we'll never let you go.

Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor of The Times' editorial page.