The liberal Catholic columnist E. J. Dionne says that the old culture wars are fading, but that a new culture war is taking shape. The new one has to do with battles over immigration and poverty. Complicating those controversies, he says, is that the Roman Catholic church of Pope Francis takes “liberal” positions on immigration and poverty, while still taking “conservative” positions on the old culture war issues of abortion and sex.
In his 1991 book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” [James Davison] Hunter described a raging battle between the orthodox, committed to “an external, definable and transcendent authority,” and progressives, who could be “defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.” [Editor’s note: Notice how rationalism and subjectivism go together!] . . . .
[The new culture war] is about national identity rather than religion and “transcendent authority.” It focuses on which groups the United States will formally admit to residence and citizenship. It asks the same question as the old culture war: “Who are we?” But the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally. The new question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically. It is, in truth, one of the oldest questions in our history, going back to our earliest immigration battles of the 1840s and 1850s.
It is revealing that the contest for the Iowa caucuses in the 2016 Republican presidential nominating campaign had its informal kickoff on Saturday at an event organized by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). King is known for the special harshness of his opposition to illegal immigration, having once spoken of immigrant children with “calves the size of cantaloupes.”
The other issue gaining resonance is often cast as economic, but it is really about values and virtues: Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?
Politically, this could be explosive. What is at heart a moral battle could rip apart old coalitions, since many working-class and middle-class social conservatives are angry about our shifting structures of reward. If issues such as abortion and gay rights split the New Deal coalition, this emerging issue could divide the conservative coalition. The rise of Pope Francis could hasten the scrambling of the moral debate, since he links his opposition to abortion with powerful calls for economic justice and compassion toward immigrants.