Strange times: culture wars vs. cultural-demographic trends

We (I’m talking USians here) live in strange times. A post by Will Wilkinson on Newt Gingrich captures a lot of that strangeness:

What message is so compelling that South Carolina voters were willing to overlook Mr Gingrich’s overwhelming liabilities as a candidate? “We think open marriages are great!”? “We love corrupt Washington insiders”? I guess not. Saturday’s expressive message, I think, comes down to this: “We’re not going down without a fight!


Mitt Romney can prattle on all he likes about his picture-perfect marriage, about double-Guantanamo, about America, the best doggone shining city on a hill in the history of forever, but this stale stuff has never hit conservatives where they live, in the victim-bone. Mr Romney can mouth the words, but he’s just too sober, too Wall Street, too Mormon to really feel the down-home conservative music. As nuts as it may seem to those of us who belong to smaller, more vulnerable segments of the population, conservatives feel backed into a corner by the broader culture, and they detect in Mr Gingrich’s pharisaic diatribes the hopeful will to fight, the promise of punching their way back to uncontested supremacy. That Mr Gingrich is a cartoon of a corrupt demagogue doesn’t seem much to matter. Not only do conservatives believe Mr Gingrich feels their pain, they believe he seeks their revenge. That’s thrilling.

To understand the strangeness, though, it helps to realize that the apparent contradiction Wilkinson notes–that conservatives, conservative Christians in particular, have a lot of power, yet feel backed into a corner–isn’t quite as much of a contradiction as it seems. It’s clear they have the power now (most Americans are Christian, being religious is basically a requirement for holding public office in all but a few areas, most states have bans on same-sex marriage, etc.), but it’s equally clear that they’re rapidly losing that power.

The “culture war” metaphor obscures what’s really going on here. Literal wars only happen when both sides think they have a chance of winning, and while a war can last for thirty or a hundred years, there’s usually some chance you’ll arrive at either truce or surrender in the near-future. But the so-called “culture wars” aren’t like that at all.

Instead, what we have is more of a cultural-demographic shift. Slowly but surely, old people are dying, and young people are growing up and reaching voting age with different values than the old people, in spite of the best efforts of the old people to pass on their values. Unlike a literal war, there’s no chance of this processes yielding a decisive “victory” for one side next year, but there’s also much less uncertainty about what the end result is going to be a few decades from now.

One especially powerful cause ensuring a one-way trend is the gay rights movement, especially gays and lesbians coming out. The more people come out, the safer people feel about coming out, and the safer they feel, the more come out. It’s a self-reinforcing trend. And the more people are out, the more likely any given person is to have gay friends, and it’s really hard to be homophobic when you have gay friends.

It’s increasingly becoming normal for teenagers to come out in high school, something that’s changed a lot in the last few years. When I was in high school, the Gay-Straight Alliance was a new and highly controversial thing, but now I’m told my old high school’s chapter is going strong. One day it will be normal to come out in middle school. Just think what the world will be like once the country is being run by people who had gay classmates in middle school.

And here’s the big thing: there’s a very good reason why the trend is going the way it is (more people coming out means even more people coming out), and it’s very, very hard to think of a way the trend could be reversed. Maybe if another economic crisis or terrorist attack result in a literal theocratic takeover and the new regime lets gangs of brownshirts roam the streets, beating and killing gays until they all are frightened back in the closet. But I don’t think that scenario is at all likely.

Once homophobia becomes no more acceptable than racism is today, it will be the death of conservative religiosity in the US. It’s one thing to say (as many evangelicals do), “just because the Bible has rules for owning slaves doesn’t mean abolishing slavery wouldn’t be better than restricting it,” since after all, nowhere does the Bible say “thou shalt own slaves” (or “thou shalt not emancipate slaves”). But “kill men who have sex with men, it’s an abomination” is pretty clear-cut. Of course, most evangelicals have persuaded themselves that the penalty only applied in Old Testament times, but attempts to re-interpret the “it’s an abomination” part don’t seem to be catching on. (More on that here.)

So in short: Christian conservatives are to an extent “in” right now in the US, but they’re on their way out. And they know it, and this has them freaking out and flirting with making a crazy person like Gingrich or Santorum a major-party presidential candidate. They’re still on their way out, though, and I for one am happy about that.

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