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The Culture Wars, Then and Now

During my end-of-August Netflix binge, I re-watched “Jesus Camp.” The documentary follows Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal youth minister, as she organizes a spiritual retreat for evangelical children. It’s a film about the culture wars and all the scrapes—evolution, school prayer, gay marriage, abortion—that defined them. When the movie was released in 2006, American soldiers were caught in the middle of Iraq’s civil war, Massachusetts alone permitted same-sex marriage, and leftists worried that the Christian right would remake the country.

My memories of the mid-aughts are few and brief. Shepard Smith interviewing Bill Frist on Fox News. My father telling me, “Give them everything but don’t call it marriage.” Fleeing New York during the Republican National Convention, where George W. Bush spoke of America’s “calling from beyond the stars.”

Maybe my current sensibilities were latent, even then. My brother and I spent the better part of the weekend in our friend’s attic, where all the cartoons banned in the Solomon household—“South Park,” “Family Guy,” and “The Simpsons”—enraptured us. On Sundays, the networks broadcast their talk shows, with pundits dissecting Osama bin Laden’s latest video threats. On Sundays, Joe and I re-watched the “Austin Powers” movies, laughing at Dr. Evil’s demand for billions of dollars.

Then there was Green Day, who in September 2004 released “American Idiot.” A collection of ready-made anthems for “the kids of war and peace,” the album laments the triumph of “the redneck agenda.” But more than trenchant social criticism, “American Idiot” highlights the failure of conservative value-creation. Songs like “Jesus of Suburbia” contrast the Christian right’s millennial vision with the end of history in the country’s bedroom communities. Nation-building abroad, supposed to inspire us at home, was always limited in its appeal. Against a rising trend of political apathy, the Christian right advanced a set of values, and that act—perhaps as much as the values themselves—made the movement counter-cultural.

How did the left win the culture wars? That answer depends on how much thoughtfulness we impute to the American electorate. Often, when voters sour on the specific policies of Republicans or Democrats, they move away from the party as a whole. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, for example, turned on economic questions, but he gained his initial following thanks to his timely denunciations of the Iraq war. The polling data suggests as much. Between 2005 and 2008, the decline in President Bush’s approval rating—which fell as the news from Iraq grew grimmer—was correlated with a rise in public support for the social acceptance of homosexuality.

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This explanation feels partial, simplistic even—and that’s because it is. The Bush coalition of neoconservatives and “values voters” was held together by its belief in American exceptionalism and its faith in the United States as an evangelizer of democracy. In “Jesus Camp,” that alliance is on full display. After the kids perform a series of military-style dances, Pastor Becky connects her work with the young to the success of U.S. foreign policy.

“Do you know Muslims train their children from the time they’re five years old to fast during the month of Ramadan?” she asks. “This is a sick, old world. Let’s just fix it.”

Today, the Christian right has defected from the war party, which is once again led by neoconservatives in the security establishment. The movement sets narrow goals for itself: the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East, amnesty for Central American refugees. This is partly because it lacks a receptive ear in the Oval Office. But it is also because foreign policy (with the possible exception of Israel-Palestine) no longer promises the next world. After 2005, images of bombed-out mosques in Baghdad left churchgoers in the heartland shell-shocked. Democracy and quiet did not arrive. Instead of taking a dunk in the Euphrates, Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims submerged themselves in sectarian conflict.

All this shook the Christian right’s confidence, but the way disaster in Iraq changed how we thought about the Middle East did in the movement. Its social vision rested on firm oppositions: religious vs. secular, “salt of the earth” vs. elites, good vs. evil, heartland vs. coasts. The hard choices inherent in any engagement abroad–navigating factional divides, arming former enemies, abandoning commitments once so fundamental–injected nuance back into our politics.

“This moment is a fulfillment of prophecy,” Pastor Becky says. “Now is the time to stand up and take back the land.”

Man plans, God laughs.

Daniel J. Solomon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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