Lessons from America: the new culture wars

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Saturday 20 October, Barbican, London


‘The culture war is back’, proclaimed one American newspaper earlier this year. And it’s not difficult to see why. A variety of social issues, be it gay marriage or contraception, have seemingly cleaved America in two. The tribal battle lines look familiar: on one side the socially conservative, the Christian, the blue-collar; on the other, the liberal progressive, the secular, the white-collar. American politics is now steeped in culture-war polemic. Former Republican presidential candidate and social conservative Rick Santorum talked darkly of the liberals’ ‘organised war on religion’, and his adversary, the progressive President Obama, has charged that heartland America ‘clings to religion’. But is there anything new about the current revival of the culture wars?

For those immersed in the numerous conflagrations, claims of a resurgent culture war are often rejected. This is about the rights and wrongs of a particular issue, we are told: gay marriage is, depending on whom you listen to, a matter of civil rights or one of traditional values; the exemption of religious bodies from Obama’s contraception mandate is a matter of religious freedom or women’s reproductive rights. But are these battlegrounds in fact part of a broader war between two almost entirely divergent moral communities? When Edmund White, a longtime opponent of gay marriage came out in support of it because he ‘realised how opposed to [gay marriage] the Christian right is’, did this reveal the real impetus behind such cause-fighting? Given the vituperative language used, from ‘redneck’ and ‘hick’, to ‘racist’ and ‘homophobe’, are self-styled liberals now proving themselves as illiberal as the Christian fundamentalists they rail against?

And are we seeing the emergence of something similar in the UK? When prime minister Tony Blair introduced civil partnerships back in 2004, there was virtually no fanfare. Current prime minister David Cameron’s gay-marriage proposals, however, have been presented as a cultural marker, a test of what kind of person you are. So are debates about religion or gender issues now being conducted in terms of an emerging cultural battle, one that marks out liberals from conservatives on the American model? If so, it is not only liberals making moves. The sight of angry anti-abortion campaigners arrayed outside an abortion provider has become familiar in the UK as well as the US, and the abortion debate seems to have become more antagonistic since Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ attempt to strip abortion providers of their role counselling pregnant women. But what does all this mean? Are long-held rights and traditions really at stake, or are we witnessing the emergence of a type of politics in which fighting for a cause is less important than marking oneself out as a certain type of person?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

John Haldane
professor of philosophy, University of St Andrews; chairman, Royal Institute of Philosophy; author, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion and Reasonable Faith

Wendy Kaminer
US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture; author, Worst Instincts: cowardice, conformity and the ACLU

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive