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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