Culture War 2.0


Welcome back, Kulturkampf. We just didn’twant to live without you.

It’s been almost 15 exciting years since Republican NationalConvention speaker Pat Buchanan announced, “Thereis 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 oneday be as was the Cold War itself.” So, Kulturkampf, you’re notquite in the running to become America’s longest war—the

War OnDrugs is unlikely to yield that title easily. But you’realready America’s longest romance.

Yes, yes, we’re not sure we’re still young enough for the tricks wehave to play to put some spark back into that romance. The dustupover John Edwards and White-Hot-Sticky-Holy-Spiritgateseemed trashy to us too. The supposed controversy over MittRomney’s Mormonism felt like a stretch. (What—the issueis that only 72% of Americans would vote for a qualifiedMormon presidential candidate? ZZZZ!) Ditto the alleged issue aboutwhatreligion Barack Obama subscribes to. And the Rev. TedHaggard‘s recent escapefrom the predatory underworld of twisted love? Well, let’s just saywe really had to suck it in to fit into that outfit.

But we’ve been desperate. For a while there, Kulturkampf, we couldhardly get you to notice us. After President Bush’s re-election in2004, it looked like the conservatives had achieved total victoryin the battle for America’s soul. Then in 2006, the resurgence ofthe Democrat[ic] Party made it seem as if the culture war waswinding down. Talk of détente filled the air. The Waron Christmas was called off. Maybe we weren’t a purple nation(that sounded a little too, you know, fey) but it seemedlike the bible-thumping religiocrats and the Jesus-hating secularlibertines could get along, even if that just meant we could allagree on how much we hate RichardDawkins.

But now the culture war is back, handing out fakecontroversies, spiritualpreening and grand pronouncements from political players who

dareto stand for things that nobody is actually against.

The saga of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s faith inthe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fits into this lastcategory. As is frequently the way with such things, the peoplemaking the biggest fuss about Romney’s religion are the people whosupport him. Enthusiast Hugh Hewitt has detected a “MormonProblem” among Romney opponents and in March will deliver hisindictment in the newbook A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every AmericanShould Know About Mitt Romney. Romney’s religious beliefs,however, haven’t caused as much of a stir as his brand-newrightward views on abortionand gayrights. It’s tempting to say his views have evolved sinceRomney’s Bay State heyday, but we want to give equal time to thetheory that it was intelligent design.

As identity politics increasingly become a tool of the right, thissort of shadow-boxing over alleged threats to deeply held beliefsis increasingly common. Catholic League President Bill Donohue, astalwart of America’s thriving anti-defamationindustry and one of the culture war’s hottest hunks, provedmore than a match for presidential candidate Edwards this week.

Edwards campaign web consultant Amanda Marcotte may have beenbrought in for her deft politico-cultural aperçus(samples: “With our current health care situation, the gap isliterally between the haves and the have-nots”; “[T]his is acountry where people who work hard for a living shouldn’tbe living in poverty”; and “In fact, from everything Iunderstand, much of the history of Christian misogyny is one2,000 year long backlash against early female power in thechurch”). More likely, the aging North Carolina wunderkind washoping Marcotte would help him “grok” what the kids are up to. Thepredictable result was a dancefloor disaster, as Marcotte’s eight-month-old comments at herPandagon site turned out to be a little more hip than Edwardsbargained for. Donohue made fast work of Marcotte’s funny,unhinged, self-evidently blasphemous commentaryabout the Virgin Mary, and Edwards, after a brief show of defiance,realized that all the net-cred in the world isn’t worth a dozenvotes. Donohue adds another scalp to his collection, and the nationis again safefrom anti-Catholicism, at least of the kind practiced byDemocrats.

The Edwards brouhaha was barely a tempest in a teapot. The netrootswill have forgotten the candidate’s betrayal by the end of theweek, and people with real lives probably never heard about it tobegin with. But it was true culture war, irreligious liberalsagainst faith-filled conservatives, and when you’re 15 years into arelationship, you look to anything—a false hope, a jealousrage, a candlelight dinner—for evidence that the romance isstill on. We look forward to the passage of Mitt Romney’s nationalpolygamy law, and to Obama administration HHS Secretary KeithEllison’s requirement that family assistancerecipients wear veils. Or actually, we just look forward to culturewarriors on both sides warning about such things in books withtitles like Takedown! and Godless! andBlasphemy! and Spazz!

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

Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor of The Times’ editorialpage.