The Culture War: Why We Still Fight
Vanity Fair has an interesting piece about TAC today. The author didn’t contact me for a comment, which is a shame, but he had already decided what he wanted to write, it appears. He did mention me in these passages:
While Dreher, 53, is almost certainly TAC’s most-well-known writer, his contributions are often its most-widely criticized. A orthodox Christian and author of The Benedict Option, Dreher seems to relish in the culture wars. In a 2018 op-ed, “The Trans Teen Industrial Complex,” he attacked the media for “propagandizing for gay marriage…as far back as 2005;” in a Spectator USA piece several months ago, he described Chick-fil-A’s choice to cease donations to groups with anti-LGBTQ histories as a “Germans-marching-down-the-Champs-Élysées moment.” In 2018, he defended Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, which he said was “crude, obnoxious, and wrong,” before writing, “If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it?…Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood [into] a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?”
For TAC’s younger writers, Dreher’s crusade is low-priority. “I just think the culture war is over, just put it down,” said Mills, a 29-year-old D.C. native. “A ban on gay marriage is like, not seriously an offer, right?…The idea that we’re gonna have a national ban on abortion—it’s pretty far-fetched.” Burtka, 30, said the majority of writers on the masthead are under 35. He sees this as an advantage; they watched the Republican Party’s aughts-era fumbling from the sidelines while right-wing intellectual types elsewhere, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s, were in the thick of it, cheering on Bush. “It seems like younger conservatives are more plugged into ‘conservative realignment’ type issues,” he wrote in a text, chalking it up to a sense of disillusionment following the “failed War on Terror and the 2008 financial crisis.”
“Dreher seems to relish in the culture wars,” the writer says. It is certainly true that I write about them a lot. My conservatism is not economic or foreign policy, but social, religious, and cultural, so of course I’m going to pay attention to this stuff. The writer (and, unfortunately, my colleague) betrays a view of the “culture war” that is not only ignorant of how I view them, but of my own specific positions. I’m going to set the record straight.
About the passages the VF writer quotes, of course I wrote those things, and I stand by them. On the “shithole countries” thing, as the writer notes, I criticized Trump for saying it, but I still believe that most of those bourgeois pearl-clutchers who jumped on Trump for his vulgar remarks would turn into the world’s biggest NIMBY activists if the government decided to plop Section 8 housing in their neighborhood. In other words, they’re hypocrites.
About the second graf, Curt Mills is a libertarian, which is a fine thing to be, but libertarians do not often distinguish themselves with their understanding of how and why social conservatives believe the things we do. (To be fair, we social conservatives are also prone to caricaturing libertarians.) I have been saying since the latter part of the 2000s — years before Obergefell! — that social conservatives have lost on gay marriage — and was pilloried by Maggie Gallagher for it. She called me defeatist. To be clear, Maggie and I are friends, and she really did believe I was surrendering too soon. At the time, I argued that gay marriage was a losing battle because gay marriage itself was something that was entirely consonant with what most Americans already believed marriage was. My argument at the time was that SoCons would be better off turning our resources, financial and otherwise, to using our diminishing capital to erect strong religious liberty protections in law for dissenters.
I was right about gay marriage, as it turned out — and I was right not because I had any kind of special insight, but because I had read Philip Rieff and Alasdair MacIntyre. So now we have same-sex marriage, and, as I learned in October 2015, on a visit to Capitol Hill, we have a Republican Party that is not going to lift a finger to pass any religious liberty protections. I wrote about that 2015 moment in my book The Benedict Option, as part of my argument that in most cases, SoCons have lost the political aspect of the culture war.
My position on same-sex marriage has been clear to anyone who has read me for any length of time. It is here to stay, and it’s foolish to think otherwise. I believe that social conservatives still have possibilities to win legislative victories over transgender issues, because I don’t think trans is the same kind of things as homosexuality.
On abortion, I don’t believe that a nationwide ban on abortion is in the offing, not in my lifetime, if ever. Most informed pro-lifers know perfectly well that overturning Roe v. Wade would only send the abortion issue back to the States. States like New York and California would protect abortion rights maximally; states like Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama would set restrictions. A pro-life amendment to the US Constitution is a pie-in-the-sky hope for the pro-life movement, but not something that most of us think is achievable. To characterize the work of the pro-life movement as seeking a national ban on abortion is cartoonishly uninformed. In fact, there have been some remarkable incremental victories at the state level on restricting abortion.
And, even though abortion remains legal, and widely available, the number of abortions has been declining for years — in part, I believe, to a greater popular awareness than unborn children are human beings with personhood. If you only see the culture war in political terms, you’re going to miss the main part of it.
In all honesty, a lot of social conservative and religious conservative leaders see the culture war exclusively in political terms. It’s what they know. It’s how they raise money. It’s how they boost their influence. In fact, as I have argued for years (and argued in The Benedict Option), this preoccupation with politics blinds SoCons to what is achievable through politics — in their case, not a lot these days — and also to what is achievable through the kind of social and cultural work that takes place outside of political and policy circles. I wrote The Benedict Optionas an exploration of how traditional Christians should live in this post-Christian culture — and it’s almost entirely about ways we can organize our lives together outside of a political culture in which we have much less power and influence.
It is true that I didn’t anticipate Trump’s victory when I wrote the book, and had to go back and revise a bit of it in light of the surprising 2016 Trump win. But as I pointed out, the Trump victory may give us some pro-life wins (which it did, thank God) and some good judges (which it seems to have done), but a political victory alone is not going to reverse the deeper trends that have been pushing the West towards total secularization and radical individualism. When Trump leaves office — whether it is in 2021, or 2025 — religious conservatives who had placed so much faith in having a sympathetic administration are going to be in for a very, very rude shock.
So, why do I keep up with the culture war when there are so few political victories to be had? Because whether or not you are interested in the culture war, the culture war is certainly interested in you, and in your children. When I was in my twenties, unmarried and childless, I didn’t have a real clue about how pervasive the struggle over virtues and values were. I too thought of them primarily in political terms. Then, as I wrote about in my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, my wife and I had our first child, and it forced us to look much more deeply at the world in which we moved. We discovered — or at least I discovered — how my off-the-shelf Republican Party beliefs could not account fully for what I was learning.
What I discovered was not that I was really a liberal, but that I was a different kind of conservative than the mainstream. As I wrote in a 2002 cover story for National Review:
One day this summer, I told a colleague I had to leave early to pick up my weekly fresh vegetables from the organic food co-op to which my wife and I belong. “Ewgh, that’s so lefty,” she said. And she was right: Organic vegetables are a left-wing cliche. Early last summer I had made fun of neighbors who subscribed to the service, which delivers fresh fruits and vegetables from area organic farms to our Brooklyn streets.
But then the neighbors gave us one week’s vegetable shipment, and we were knocked flat by the intense flavors. Who knew cauliflower had so much taste? It was the freshness of the produce, not its organic status (of dubious nutritional advantage), that we were responding to. But you can’t get produce that delicious in grocery stores here, so when this summer rolled around, we signed up enthusiastically. Now, Julie picks up our weekly delivery in her National Review tote bag.
It never occurred to me that eating organic vegetables was a political act, but my colleague’s comment got me to thinking about other ways my family’s lifestyle is countercultural. Julie is a stay-at-home mom who is beginning to homeschool our young son. We worship at an “ethnic” Catholic church because we can’t take the Wonder Bread liturgy at the Roman parish down the street. We are as suspicious of big business as we are of big government. We rarely watch TV, disdain modern architecture and suburban sprawl, avoid shopping malls, and spend our money on good food we prepare at home. My wife even makes her own granola.
And yet we are almost always the most conservative people in the room – – granted, not much of a trick if you live in New York City, but wewe’re still pretty far out there. So how did we get to be so “crunchy”–as in “crunchy-granola,” a slang term for earthy types–without realizing what was happening? Much of our crunchy conservatism comes from simply being carried along by the tide of our lives, and discovering by trial and error things that work well. But it’s also grounded in the basic attitudes we’ve long held. That, generally speaking, Small and Local and Particular and Old are better. That beauty in all its forms is important to the good life. That the bright glare of television and the cacophony of media culture make it too hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. That we are citizens before we are consumers.
And most important of all, that faith and family are the point of life. We agree with Russell Kirk, who observed, “The best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, ‘We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.’ The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”
I confessed that I was a Birkenstock’d Burkean in a National Review Online essay, and talked about how displaced I felt as a conservative who liked both Rush Limbaugh and Garrison Keillor. My in-box quickly filled up with literally hundreds of replies from across the country, nearly all of them saying, “Me too!”
There was the pro-life vegetarian Buddhist Republican who wanted to find somebody to discuss the virtues of George W. Bush with over a bowl of dal. An interracial couple, political conservatives and converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, wrote to say they loved shaking up the prejudices of liberal friends at their organic co-op. Small-town and rural crunchy cons checked in, and so did their urban counterparts from Berkeley to New York to London. “I used to listen to Rush while driving around following the Grateful Dead!” someone wrote. Wrote another, “We thought we were the only Evangelical Christians in the world with a copy of ‘The Moosewood Cookbook.’”
Clearly, there are a number of thoughtful, imaginative, eclectic conservatives who fly below the radar of the media and Republican politicos. Who are these people? What do they stand for? And do you have to tune in to NPR as well as to Rush, turn on to whole grains, and drop out of mainstream society to join them?
The crunchy-con bookshelf–and because they eschew television, they have lots of bookshelves–sags with works by conservatives like G. K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Southern Agrarians, and Michael Oakeshott. They also read books by more contemporary thinkers like the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry; Jane Jacobs, who championed particularity and diversity in urban planning over the dominant trend toward mass abstraction; media critic Neil Postman; and James Howard Kunstler, whose choleric jeremiads against America’s strip-mall Babylon have made him a left-leaning prophet with honor among crunchy cons. They favor books on the environment that reflect a manlier, Rooseveltian (Teddy, the good one) stance toward the natural world, which respects nature without worshiping it.
Of all the thinkers and writers favored by crunchy cons, Kirk may be the most reliable guide to their sensibility. He grasped the essential truth that conservatism was not primarily about a political agenda, but instead “a complex of thought and sentiment, and a deep attachment to permanent things.” It was a fundamental stance toward reality. For crunchy cons, the quest to live “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” is not just a nice idea–and because of this, they don’t always line up with Republican orthodoxy. As Carson Gross, a 25-year-old San Franciscan, says, “I’m always explicit with people that I’m a conservative, not a Republican.”
There are four basic areas that are touchstones for crunchy conservatives: Religion, the Natural World, Beauty, and Family.
Read it all — or, if you’d like to go deeper, you can buy a Kindle copy of the book, Crunchy Cons, that I later wrote. Even today, almost 15 years after that book was published, I often meet people who tell me how much that book meant to them. It’s a book about social and religious conservatism that is not what passes for “social conservatism” in the mainstream media, and in mainstream right-wing discourse.
If you don’t think homeschooling, for example, is a culture war issue, you’re not paying attention. If you don’t think that localism is a culture war issue, you’re not paying attention. If you don’t think that there are culture-war aspects to environmentalism, ditto. And religious liberty. And immigration. If you are on the Right and don’t think fighting porn is a culture war issue of extreme importance, you are probably a libertarian. If you don’t think defending the natural family is probably the most important culture war issue of our time, you are not paying attention, or at least not troubling yourself to see the world through the eyes of parents who are socially and religiously conservative, and who do not want to surrender their children either to the Progressive-Industrial Complex, or to unrestricted capitalism (woke, surveillance, and otherwise).
Liberals and many (though not all) libertarians assume that because they can’t see why these issues matter, that they don’t matter. Resistance from the social and religious right seems like nothing more than futile, irritable gestures. Let’s just say that the view from the trenches of family life is rather different.
The people I know who really enjoy fighting the culture war are Very Online Males in their twenties, and childless. I don’t say that to put them down. Had the Internet been a big thing when I was in my twenties (I turned 30 in 1997), I would have been right there mixing it up with them. In my experience, though, older people, especially if you have kids, don’t enjoy this stuff. God knows I don’t. I would love nothing more than to rest within a stable, healthy culture. But we do not have that, and besides, I know perfectly well that the Left will never, ever leave us alone. If you are raising teenagers today, you have to fight the culture war almost every day, inside your household. It’s called raising a family.
So, it may baffle liberals and my young libertarian friends who are unsympathetic to social conservatism, but I’m going to continue to write about the culture war, because religious and social conservatives don’t have the luxury of surrendering. The way we resist has to adapt to changing circumstances — it’s why I wrote The Benedict Option, and what’s behind my forthcoming September book, Live Not By Lies — but the fight continues, because it has to. Social and religious conservatives should be realistic about what is achievable, especially about the limits of politics. The idea that it’s still 2004, and that what made sense to us in 2004 still does in 2020, is madness. And speaking for myself, I’m no libertarian, but I believe that within America’s pluralistic polity, social and religious conservatives have to find common cause with libertarians to resist the dominant progressive integralism.
But we should never, ever allow ourselves to be gaslit by liberals or libertarians who tell us that nobody cares about this stuff anymore, so we should just drop it.
Nor, for that matter, should we allow ourselves to be gaslit by figures within Religious Conservatism, Inc., who insist that we are within one election, and one Supreme Court appointment, from “victory.” It’s not true, and it was never true, and believing that the culture war was primarily a political and legal conflict was a massive strategic error of an entire generation, from which we have yet to recover. Going forward, the most important work of the culture war will be mounting guerrilla resistance within a culture whose dominant institutions were long ago captured by the other side.
Not everybody who reads TAC is a social or religious conservative, but a lot of you are, and I hope I speak for you. If you aren’t, I hope at least that I make arguments and report information that gives you a clearer understanding of how the world looks to people like us. If I can do that, then I have been of use to you.