Here’s a headline that makes no sense: “The Christian Right is winning cultural battles while public opinion disagrees.”
That’s not possible. I think I know what it’s intended to mean, but what it actually says is self-refuting nonsense. “Cultural battles” are efforts to win over the culture and the second half of this headline insists that the “Christian Right” is failing to do that. What the first part of the headline tells us, then, is that the Christian Right is not actually “winning” the culture, just imposing its will legally on a culture that doesn’t like it. That ain’t “winning cultural battles,” just power politics.
“Winning” power politics in opposition to public opinion — in opposition to the will of the majority of citizens and voters — isn’t a “culture war.” It’s simply the denial of democracy. The “Christian Right,” in other words, is exploiting the undemocratic features of our politics to impose undemocratic results on everyone else.
That can, sometimes, be a way of changing the culture. Top-down cultural change by brute force has worked before, but not in any “culture” you’d want to live in.
Part of the problem here is the use of “public opinion” as measured by polling data as a gauge of “culture.” Those aren’t exactly the same thing. Culture is bigger and sturdier and more multifaceted than the ebbs and flows of survey-question responses.
What’s really going on here was clearer when the “Christian Right” was marching under the banner of the “Moral Majority.” That name became a bitter joke — a punchline widely derided throughout our “culture” by the majority of Americans who saw, assessed, and rejected the ugly immorality of the white Christian Right’s idea of what is and is not “moral.” A generation later, most people in our culture are still not persuaded that there’s anything good about the stunted, cramped, selfish, prudish, bullying, self-righteous vision first trumpeted by that immoral minority calling itself the “Moral Majority.”
If you want to see what a culture regards as moral or immoral, look at the stories it tells. In our stories, the Moral Majority is never the Good Guy. We don’t like bullies. We don’t like scolds and judgmental busybodies. Nobody had the ability or the inclination to tell any story in which somebody like Jerry Falwell was the hero. That worked out well for a large cadre of heavy-set, jowly white character actors who found steady work throughout their career playing blowhards and hypocrites thanks to their physical resemblance to Jerry Sr. There’s still no shortage of parts for those guys, but they never, ever get to play the Good Guy.
Because whether we describe it as “public opinion” or as “culture,” we know. We’ve seen who the Christian Right is and heard them tell us what they want and most of us reject it as not good or beautiful or true.
This has had some strange effects. The white Christian right still uses former symbols of moral authority, but that very use by them has inverted the meaning of those symbols. Pulpits and leather-bound Bibles and steeples are no longer able to convey what the white Christian right still imagines they do. They’re as cluelessly frustrated by this as their culture-war co-belligerents, the Catholic bishops, who still don’t comprehend that all their symbols of authority changed meaning in the spotlight of horrific, lethal scandal. Or that the only thing the culture wants to hear from them now is a heartfelt apology accompanied by evidence of repentance.
It’s still possible, just barely, to tell a story in which a priest can be perceived as the good guy, but this entails communicating to the audience that this priest is not like most of them. And the clearest way of showing that is to show this priest getting in trouble with the bishops.
Another way of getting at this — fuzzier, but revealing — is to ask whether or not the white Christian right is cool.
We don’t need to attempt a concrete or specific definition of “cool” to answer that question. Nor do we need to think long or hard about the answer. We know. You know. Everybody knows. The white Christian right is almost universally understood to be emphatically not cool. (This is most known and most deeply felt by the members of the white Christian right themselves and is, in fact, a driving force in their anti-democratic efforts to impose minority rule on the rest of us. They’re driven by the desire to retaliate against the culture that deems them uncool, thus revealing their desperate concern with being or not being regarded as cool, which is, in any form, the antithesis of coolness.)
Don’t be distracted here by any of the elitist nonsense peddled by salesmen trying to rebrand their products as “cool” or to rebrand coolness as their product. I’m talking about the utterly necessary, unavoidable meaning of the term our culture routinely expresses as a visceral, comprehensive evaluation. “That’s cool.” “That’s not cool.” The former expresses that something or someone is worthy of admiration and emulation. The latter is a clear warning: Don’t be like that because it’s bad for reasons too vast and numerous and obvious to attempt a precise or comprehensive list.
This is one cultural shorthand for the same understanding conveyed in our storytelling. We see and understand that the white Christian right is not cool in the same way that we see and understand that they cannot be made into the Good Guys in our story. In any story.
Hence the only path available to them for “winning cultural battles” is the one described in that contradictory, nonsensical headline from NPR. They can impose, but they cannot convince or persuade. They can “win,” but they cannot win over.
While the white Christian right may not be cool, or good, or beautiful, or truthful, they’re not dumb. They understood all of this a long time ago. That’s why they’ve spent a whole generation planning the top-down lawless judicial coup they’re now carrying out. They realized that democracy was never going to be an option for an agenda as ugly and unwanted and uncool as theirs, so they rejected democracy and sought power in other ways.
And now they have it. That’s not cool, but there it is.