The ‘Culture War’ Trope in Catholic Discourse: Useful Construct or Dangerous Weapon?

The ‘Culture War’ Trope in Catholic Discourse: Useful Construct or Dangerous Weapon? October 18, 2014

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome the following guest post by reader Mike McG.

The terms ‘culture war’ and ‘culture warrior’ name very real tensions in both secular and religious domains. And yet I wonder if these phrases deepen the very polarization they seek to describe.

The terms came into common usage in the early 1990s with the publication of American sociologist James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The Pew Forum published an in-depth analysis of the book and the controversy it sparked. This analysis cites Hunter’s argument that “there was a battle raging between ‘traditionalists,’ who were committed to moral ideals inherited from the past, and ‘progressivists’ who idealized change and flexibility. These different worldviews, Hunter argued, were responsible for increasingly heated disputes over such issues as abortion, sexuality, education and the role of religious institutions in society. ‘Cumulatively, these debates concerning the wide range of social institutions amounted to a struggle over the meaning of America.’”

Note Hunter’s even-handed application of terms. He argued that warriors were well represented on both sides of contested issues. My read on current usage is that ‘culture warrior’ is no longer neutrally applied. Instead it is reserved, often with a derisive edge, for conservative activists. Much like ‘right wing,’ the epithet ‘culture warrior’ has morphed into a weapon in the culture war it was coined to describe.

For every over the top anti-abortion ‘culture warrior,’ there is a counterpart of the anti-anti-abortion persuasion remarkably sanguine about abortion and contemptuous of those passionate about stopping it. For every Catholic deeply affronted by same-sex marriage, opinion polling confirms that there is another Catholic fully on board with the zeitgeist.  For every Catholic who fervently holds to the traditional teaching on contraception, there must be at least ten who are dismissive of this teaching, many finding it little short of ridiculous.

Peter Steinfels was prescient in exploring the limits of the ‘culture war’ metaphor. Witness his December 7, 1991, New York Times review: “Throughout his book Professor Hunter worries about ‘the eclipse of the middle.’ At the same time, he seems to treat the metaphor of war, with its two embattled armies, as the inevitably dominant reality. That poses an uncomfortable question. If the culture war is all his book suggests, if the stakes are so high, the competing moral visions so non-negotiable and rational discussion so unlikely, then isn’t the responsible thing to choose sides and plunge in?…By describing the reality, he wants to correct it, not perpetuate it. But can he do this without questioning the adequacy of the military metaphor itself? When culture becomes the continuation of war by other means (to paraphrase Clausewitz), something is seriously wrong.”

Is the ‘culture warrior’ metaphor useful in describing the neuralgic tensions prevalent within American Catholicism? For example, does it shed heat or light when applied to the division among American women religious? The progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its conservative counterpart, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, represent very different visions of consecrated life. Symbolizing the former vision is ‘nun on the bus’ Sister Simone Campbell, speaker at the 2012 Democratic convention. Symbolizing the latter vision is ‘nun on cable’ Mother Angelica Rizzo of ETWN fame.  Both publicly engage the culture with penetrating and controversial critiques. Both, for example, were publicly critical of Catholic vice presidential candidates, Mother Angelica of Biden and Sister Simone of Ryan. Does that make both of them ‘culture warriors’? It seems deeply unfair to label as ‘culture warrior’ only the one whose sensibilities most contrast with our own.  Perhaps we should foreswear ‘culture warrior’ characterizations in favor of less loaded descriptions.  Both, after all, are principled Catholic women with well defined, if starkly distinct, visions of the tradition. And both display exceptional courage in speaking truth to power.

‘Culture war’ language as currently applied reinforces the conceit that engaged Catholics self-sort into binary categories, each with a distinct constellation of views captured by one or the other NCR. Repetition of this trope has a self-fulfilling prophecy flavor. It marginalizes those of us not so readily characterized. It drowns out the voices of those ‘caught in the center’ on many of the contested issues of the day. And it amplifies the voices of those unburdened by ambiguity and nuance.

‘Culture war’ skirmishes doubtless make good copy. But let’s also acknowledge that there are ‘culture war refugees’ and ‘culture war casualties’. And while we’re at it, how about a shout out for ‘culture war non-combatants’ who clamor for a ‘culture war truce’!

Pope Francis presents us with a teaching moment in Catholic discourse. It has become commonplace to say that he heartily endorses the progressive cultural project and dismisses conservative sensibilities. Not true. His pronouncements are remarkably disconnected from the agendas of the usual subjects, right and left. Francis calls us to more than ‘culture war resistance’. He challenges us to become peacemakers.

So how about it, VN readers: Does ‘culture warrior’ describe ‘us’, or just ‘them’? Is the ‘culture war’ metaphor still useful in grappling with out-of-control polarization? Or has it outlived its usefulness?


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  • Alexandra

    A bit of perspective is in order here. The current pejorative use of the term “culture warrior” can be traced back to Pat Buchanan speeches from the 1990s, and later from 2004, where Mr. Buchanan states that there is a need to fight the prevailing culture which consists of support of feminism, support of gay rights (he called it homosexuality), separation of church and state, support of choice (or as he called it, support of abortion), etc. He defined this war as a struggle between two ideologically opposed groups; Bill O’Reilly from Fox News labeled the two opposing groups: secular-progressives and traditionalists. Our bishops made very clear where they stood in this self-proclaimed “war”.
    Why would anyone want to take away from conservatives a name that they gave themselves?

    • brian martin

      Perhaps because we want to heed the call of God? Perhaps because what gets lost in the urge to label or in the view of thing as an either/or battlefield is the fact that the other person or people involved also are made by God, in his image and likeness, rather than some “other” to be despised and scorned.

    • Julia Smucker

      To Brian Martin’s thoughtful reply, I would just like to add the same question Mike is asking: if you are willing to go into the same kind of battle against Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly, starting by quarrelling with their word choice when they draw their battle lines, or for that matter against the bishops (although you are profoundly mistaken if you place the bishops squarely in the camp of the above, aside from perhaps a handful of individuals who have taken up the same misguided battle), what is it that separates you from your opponents aside from your chosen ideological brand? In other words, what makes them culture warriors and you above the fray?

      • Benedict XVI and John Paul II pursued “culture wars” with a vengeance; both of them were quite brutal in suppressing dissent. Need I remind you of the relentlessness with which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger harried Catholic University to have Charlie Curran silenced and forced from his position?–or that that went on in the wake of Ratzinger’s ignoring of the pedophile scandals that he helped to cover up in his own archdiocese of Munich (using, as an excuse–ironic when compared to his care to silence Curran–that he didn’t do micro-management as archbishop)?

        The “traditionalists” have reveled in the so-called “culture wars” as if they were a battle for the very soul of the Church–so we know all about their “pain,” but know little from Vox Nova writers like you, Julia, of the suffering of ostracized and banned nuns and theologians and “queer” teachers thrown out of jobs for swearing fidelity to “partners.”

        Believe me, Julia, the “culture war” is ending for most of the “liberal Catholics”; we’re not going to live inside that war any more, because, with the refusal of the Synod Fathers to agree that the divorced should be accomodated or that the “queers” should be accepted as NOT “intrinsically” inclined toward “sin,” we’re giving up–we’re leaving. We now know that the Catholic Fundamentalists, the folks that Cardinal Pell calls “the good people in the pews” (i.e. the people who PAY the most for the kind of old-fashioned religion they want and believe in) have a veto over the acceptance of us and our friends. There will be no change; the pope is afraid of the people who revolted at the Synod–and he should be afraid of them. They are of the ilk that Christ called adherents of the “Law” who would kill its Spirit, and their fear of science, of evolved consciousness, of “the way the Spirit blows” makes them fanatical and dangerous. For myself, I won’t argue or struggle against their views anymore, and they may have the Catholic Church.

  • Mike McG…

    Crux recently published an article entitled “Will Conservatives Turn on Pope Francis.”** It concluded with a beautiful gesture of reconciliation, a “surprise phone call to Mario Palmaro, an Italian writer who had co-authorized a critique of Francis for the newspaper Il Foglio with the deliberately provocative title, ‘Why We Don’t Like this Pope’, as he lay seriously ill in the hospital. When Palmaro tried to say something about his essay, Francis interrupted him. ‘I know you wrote those things out of love,’ the pope said, ‘and I needed to hear them.'”


    Francis recognizes that Mario lashes out from a place of exquisite pain borne of deep love for the tradition. Culture warriors of all persuasions fear that their deepest convictions about the tradition are being deconstructed and denigrated. Francis is capable of naming the love beneath the pain beneath the shrill, culture war rhetoric. Far from dismissing Mario, he essentially says to him, “I needed to hear that.”

    What a remarkable and enduring lesson in culture peacemaking. Gives me goosebumps.


    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for pointing to that beautiful and humbling reconciliation moment. Maybe this is just my tendency to see the negative, but for me that beauty is unfortunately overshadowed in the article by my disappointment with how even John Allen has succumbed to facile popular categorizations of the popes into “conservative” and “moderate” labels. I thought he of all people was above that.

    • Julia Smucker

      I just came across this one.

      I still chafe at the language Allen is using to describe the division among the bishops (when I find myself wanting to agree with points made from either “camp”, the labels put me off), but there is an absolute gem here where he quotes Pope Francis’ reconciling speech at the synod,

      …saying that the Catholic Church needs to chart a middle course between “hostile rigidity” and a “false sense of mercy.”

      The Church, Francis said, must neither “throw stones at sinners, the weak and the ill,” nor “come down off the cross” by accommodating itself to “the spirit of the world.”

      The pope received a five-minute standing ovation.

      Can those in warrior mode (on whatever “side”) understand this? That standing ovation gives me hope that at least a strong representation of the world’s bishops do. It must resonate deeply with them after having just put in all that time and energy trying to navigate exactly that course.

      Unfortunately, sensationalism still rages on in the headlines. Allen’s “water down welcome” wording is a slight improvement over one of the major news pools (AP or Reuters) saying they “retracted” the welcome. What must be understood (and headlines like these don’t help, although Allen’s exceptionally lucid writing usually does) is that collegiality can be a messy business at times, and it’s a process. With all the hype and premature reactions from every quarter, I can easily see why Pope Francis felt the need for as much privacy during the process as could be managed in an age where immediate access to up-to-the-minute information about everything has become expected. We need to remember that the Church (with good reason) does not think, speak or act at the speed of sound bytes, and give the bishops the time and space to do their job.

      • Dante Aligheri

        When this first came out, my first thought was, and I don’t know if this would have been possible, is that the Synod probably would have been better served to hold back the interim report, essentially a work in progress from the get go, and just give out the final version when they were truly finished. I understand the desire for transparency, but at the same time how could someone not have understood that the current media – fixated as they are on their handful of First World, Western talking points – would jump all over it?

        Now there is a need for perceived damage control – which just does not help the narrative at all.

        That’s a very touching story, by the way. And, yes, the Pope’s speech was quite apropos.

  • Thales

    The “culture war” language makes me think of the “culture of life vs. culture of death” language of JPII. (Before looking at your links, I would have guessed that “culture war” came from that JPII description, but I guess I was thinking wrong and “culture war” had a different origin.) I guess I don’t know what to think about “culture war” and “culture warrior”. I find the “culture of life” concept to be helpful, and maybe that’s different from a “culture war” idea (which is perhaps not helpful.)

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes, I think those are two very different ideas. Sadly, the “culture of life vs. culture of death” language is sometimes made into a weapon in the culture wars, but that is a misapplication of JPII’s usage, which transcended those wars by virtue of its rootedness in Catholic Social Teaching and the consistent ethic of life. In that sense I think Pope Francis is talking about the same phenomenon that JPII described as the “culture of death” with his own preferred term “throwaway culture”.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    While I think you have raised some valid points about the use of “culture war”, I cannot help but wonder if you are creating a false dichotomy in identifying “culture warriors” on both sides of the divide, at least in the Catholic Church. Let me focus on abortion, where this seems to me to be most evident. Here, one cannot set up as a counter-point to the fervent anti-abortion activist those who are equally fervently pro-choice. They may exist in the Catholic Church, but their numbers are small and they have limited impact on the debate (“Catholics for Free Choice” notwithstanding). Rather, there are large numbers of folks—many of them among our regular contributors and commentators—who are opposed to abortion, but either uncomfortable with or opposed to the language and tactics of our erstwhile allies. Does this make us culture warriors as well? We are not opposed to ends, but only to means.

  • Mike McG…

    Thanks for your comment, David. I think it is likely that we are both correct but that we have starkly different experiences around such issues.

    In certain Catholic subcultures one would rarely or perhaps never encounter someone who is, in my terms, ‘anti-anti-abortion.’ That is to say, it is difficult to imagine someone who is viscerally opposed to prolife advocacy and contemptuous of prolifers belonging to a Secular Franciscan fraternity or living in a Catholic Worker House. I get that; I affirm your comments as an authentic representation of your experience in this matter in the worlds you inhabit

    But that isn’t the world I inhabit and my experience is radically different. I was deeply involved in organizing around the seamless garment 25 years ago and in the intervening years I have observed first hand the cognitive dissonance that surrounds being simultaneously prolife and progressive in many urban, highly educated, politically progressive settings. Most of my Catholic comrades from that era have migrated away from any identification with advocacy for the unborn. Some are now ‘out and proud’ in their prochoice worldview. Many others, I suspect, harbor ‘closeted prolife’ sentiments but protect themselves from the scorn such views might occasion by joining in the depiction of profilers as uniquely grotesque and hypocritical.

    Perhaps this brings us to the limits of blog conversation. I generalized from my own experiences as we all do, I imagine. How could it be otherwise? I am reminded of the ‘false equivalence’ charge that often so bedevils those of us ‘between’ the dominant voices on contested issues. Whenever we who are ‘caught in the center’ observe similarities in strategy and tone between the most polarized voices, one side or the other charges false equivalency.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Mike, I am aware of the limitations inherent of generalizing from our own particular experiences. As my son Kiko is wont to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. And I acknowledge that your experiences have been different from mine. But I do object to the limitations you seem to impose on my experience, narrowing it to Secular Franciscan fraternities and Catholic Worker houses. (Though in fact the Worker movement is very much divided on pro-life issues, with the few houses who engage in very public anti-abortion activism not being in the “mainstream” of the movement.) As an academic at a secular institution and through my work against the death penalty, I have had a chance to see a broader swath of Catholic culture.

      However, rather than debate whose experiences are more legitimate (the answer, of course, is neither), let me try to amplify my thinking. I think that there are problematic mindsets and rhetoric on both sides of the divide (the many divides) in the Catholic Church. However, I question whether it is true or illuminating to label both of them “culture warriors”. Whatever similarities this may highlight, I think that it obscures important differences that must be acknowledged to understand the shape of the debate. They stand in different places both with respect to the dominant secular culture and, more importantly, with respect to the Church. I.e., no matter how big a pain in the ass a bishop might think some pro-abortion activists are, he will respond to them differently than he will to Catholics who maintain a pro-abortion (or anti-anti-abortion) stance. This is not limited to abortion but to all the cultural flashpoints, and is not a consequence of a conservative hierarchy. Though both “left” and “right” have expressed hopes and misgivings about Pope Francis, it seems to me that they are grounded in their very different positions. I think this can be seen in the critiques that Francis himself has made of both sides (e.g. see the speech Julia posted): he is gently calling them out for very different things.

      Maybe the term “culture warrior” should be discarded because it has become too semantically loaded to be useful. But I think the two sides (many sides) are quite different, so we need some vocabulary that acknowledges this. For all its faults, calling one side “culture warriors” captures this. And then, how do we describe the divisions themselves? You are correct that binary language tends to reinforce binary thinking and polarization, but changing the language will not eliminate the polarization: it is real and ongoing. If I were to describe it in a nutshell, the divide is over how to deal with modernity, in all its complex and messy expressions. One small and vocal faction essentially rejects modernity, another embraces it uncritically. But in the vast and nuanced middle (the “culture war victims”?) I think are the folks who are willing to engage with modernity seriously. This puts this middle (where I place myself) into a different relationship with each of the two extremes. Maybe we can no longer profitably call this division a culture war, but what then should we all it?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Mike, as I was typing the above response, something was niggling at me. I made a quick search and discovered that we have had this discussion before, in a somewhat different form:

      There is a very full set of comments there which it was very helpful for me to review. In light of them I think I am rehashing (and not terribly well) points that I was trying to make there. Besides your responses I would point to the very thoughtful comments from our long time readers Kurt and Johnmcg, who challenged me from very different directions.

      Maybe, in the end, our difference is this: we both see a breach that needs healing. You want to stand back and look at the polarization itself and challenge both parties to put down their weapons; I want to examine more closely the polarized sides because I don’t think there is symmetry in the battle and this must be dealt with to close the breach.

      • Mike McG…


        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I picked up on two affiliations I very much admire which I believed resonated with you from reading your posts. I regret limiting you to those affiliations and implying you are unfamiliar with other settings. As an academic at a secular institution you do indeed rub shoulders with people just like those in the world I inhabit. And yet our experience are so very different. A great Salon piece about the tendency to loathe those who are radically ‘other’ captures my take on the culture war:

        Back in the day Saturday Night Live comedian Colin Quinn ended the Weekend Update segment with the phrase, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it.” And so it is with me. My story is deeply, perhaps too deeply, informed by my wounds. Your testimony challenges me to reconsider: If I dropped my defensiveness, if I stopped picking my scabs, would I feel less embattled?
        And yet even if we drop ‘culture war’ terminology the reality remains that starkly different worldviews fiercely compete for dominance. As you correctly observed, “…(I)mportant differences…must be acknowledged to understand the shape of the debate. They (culture war combatants) stand in different places both with respect to the dominant secular culture and, more importantly, with respect to the Church.”

        What to do? I wish I knew what would work. I’ve attempted to focus on fierce combatants’ style similarities rather than content dissimilarities. But this strategy is regarded as offensive ‘false equivalence’ by those who predominantly align with one or the other of the contrasting worldviews.

        Another strategy is to take a page from psychology. Eminent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers both sober analysis and reasons for hope on the issue of polarization. In a 2003 article in the Journal of Applied Socal Psychology, Haidt and his collaborators report some discouraging data: “An enormous body of research demonstrates the importance of similarity, particularly shared attitudes, for interpersonal attraction and cooperation…Interacting with people who hold dissimilar attitudes raises skin conductance levels, providing a visceral cue that may damage further interactions. Disagreements that challenge one’s cultural and moral worldview lead to desires for ostracism and punishment…(T)he response to the threat raised by disagreement is to denigrate those who disagree; not only are they rejected, but they are also seen as lacking in intelligence, knowledge, morality, and psychological adjustment.”

        But Haidt holds out hope. In his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” he acquaints readers with psychological processes which facilitate a better understanding of our own beliefs and those of others. Processes like confirmation bias, “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think: People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession – your child, almost – and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.” So if we become more reflective about our common propensity to confirmation bias, might we better understand those who inhabit contrasting moral matrices? Could this be part of basic training for culture peacemaking?

        I resonate deeply with your final comments, David: “If I were to describe it in a nutshell, the divide is over how to deal with modernity, in all its complex and messy expressions. One small and vocal faction essentially rejects modernity, another embraces it uncritically. But in the vast and nuanced middle (the “culture war victims”?) I think are the folks who are willing to engage with modernity seriously. This puts this middle (where I place myself) into a different relationship with each of the two extremes.”

        My question: Are there safe places where the vast and nuanced (but too often voiceless) middle can gather to engage with each other and modernity?

        PS: As I post this reply, I noted your follow-up comments. I’ll certainly pursue the links and I endorse your cogent description of our contrasting approaches.

  • Ronald King

    “The Church, Francis said, must neither “throw stones at sinners, the weak and the ill,” nor “come down off the cross” by accommodating itself to “the spirit of the world”
    What is “the spirit of the world”?
    The “Culture War” has been going on forever and began with “…This one shall be called ‘woman’…”
    Just as in the DSM-V, the label and symptoms describe a condition which influences a person’s life, but the label does not know the human being. Only through building a sense of safety and trust can we begin to create a compassionate connection with another person rather than the fear and power based connection which we now call the culture war.

    • Julia Smucker

      Ronald, I’m trying to figure out whether I agree with you but I’m not sure I understand your point about how far back the culture war goes. Are you saying that scripture itself is representative of some kind of culture war, or that it often gets proof-texted that way?

      • Ronald King

        Julia, When I write most of these comments they are not formulated on a conscious level but seem to have been constructed over time from various influences and it would take a long time for me to clearly describe what is clearly ordered in my mind, however, a lot of people may disagree about my mind being clearly ordered about anything.
        The scripture reference, “…This one shall be called ‘woman’…” came into focus about 10 years ago with a Christian couple married for 30 years who came to me for marital counseling. This was a year before my return to Catholicism. Nothing I was doing with traditional methods worked except to reveal a deep rage in both of them which left me sitting there at times like a deer in headlights. The thought came to me that I could use the bible against them. I started reading from Genesis and the light came on with that quote above. They were at war and it started with the man telling the woman who she was, is or whatever. It was the use of primitive instincts of power to control the meaning and behavior of the weaker participant or threat in the relationship to enhance the status of self.
        This created an identity crisis within self and other and two separate cultures were formed to cope with the consequences of being in intimate relationships with each other’s false self.
        I hope that makes sense.

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