How to Win a Culture War

The culture wars are not distractions from real political business: John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin may be cynical, but conservative enthusiasm for her is not.
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1.) Start by taking it seriously. The culture wars are not distractions from real political business: John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin may be cynical, but conservative enthusiasm for her is not. Progressives can continue to be outraged by the campaign's shameless distortions; we can continue to hope for damning stories about the governor's treatment of librarians or brothers-in-law. None of it will matter till we get our tone right. Pointing to the economy, stupid, may have worked in 1992, before Christian fundamentalists at home and Islamic fundamentalists abroad forged the explosive political climate we now know. Now it's time to drop the condescending claims that voters in Kansas, and elsewhere, let themselves be fooled into voting for candidates who trumped up questions about values to blind them to their real -- that is, economic -- interests. Many people insist on voting for values that are larger than their individual economic interests. They ignore bread-and-butter questions because they do not want to live on bread alone.

Barack Obama, who chose the South Side of Chicago over Wall Street, understands this sort of hunger very well -- which is why his improbable journey is so close to reaching the White House. Michelle Obama's convention speech was most moving where it reflected that longing: to work towards a world that is what it ought to be, rather than settling for the world as it is. That's a distinction that goes back to Immanuel Kant, and before him, to the Prophets, but today you're more likely to read it in Newt Gingrich than elsewhere. For however shabbily conservatives may behave in private, they offer a public conception of goodness few progressives know how to defend. Right-wing talk of morality and honor can be empty, but that's not the same as being meaningless; empty concepts can be filled with content. Progressives, by contrast, have deflated the concepts themselves.

2) Forget about embarrassment. It doesn't matter how many colleges Sarah Palin stumbled through, or whether she knows the difference between Sunni and Shiite -- or even between Iran and Iraq. Most Americans don't. She does one thing they do well in the heartland: she talks about morals, not "morals". Democrats lost the last election because too many of us cannot. We are uncomfortable with moral language, and if we use words like morality and hero at all we distance ourselves by putting the words in scare-quotes - as if to reassure anyone who might question their legitimacy, or ridicule us for being sappy, that we didn't really mean it. Our moral positions -- not to mention our policy proposals -- may be far more substantial, but that doesn't matter now. Until we can voice our moral values with self-confidence, they will not get the hearing they need. This is not a matter of framing or packaging, but of conviction -- and you don't need much education to tell the difference.

Whether you focus on corporate fraud or child pornography, it's hard to deny that public morality is frayed. Many who are most troubled by that seek moral foundations in traditional religious institutions. And many who care about the separation of church and state are thus reluctant to use moral language with full voice -- however deep and genuine their own moral practices may be. One way to answer both of them is by looking at the Bible itself.

3) Learn to use their weapons. Take a favorite fundamentalist text, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you think you know the story, it's time to look again. The sin that did in the Sodomites was not fornication or homosexuality, but the local demand to gang-rape two strangers to death -- a demand which, according to legend, reflected the Sodomites' general inclination to turn moral law upside down. The strangers turned out to be angels, who blind their would-be tormentors and prove their undoing, but the most interesting part of the story is what happens before it. Abraham challenges God's plan to destroy the two cities, risking his life to argue with God: would the Judge of all the earth really destroy the just and the unjust alike? In a world in which even ordinary sovereigns were ill-inclined to take lessons from their subjects, Abraham dares to remind the King of Kings that He's about to violate moral law. And after a slow, careful, and dramatic argument, God agrees to spare the cities if enough righteous people can be found there. The principle is one we need to recall: rape is a criminal action -- and so is collateral damage.

At a time when the deaths of Afghani children -- in a war fought from the air because our troops are tied down in another one they shouldn't have fought -- bring shame on our nation, and supporters to the Taliban, this argument is worth revisiting. Collateral damage involves hard questions about the value of innocent life, which is why the right prefers to concentrate on what they think are easy ones. But too much is at stake to risk on another argument about which month life begins. Still less can the word choice ring as substitute for the value of life. Progressives need to accept the need for moral seriousness that drives conservative applause for Palin -- and to use conservatives' own texts to show that they cannot find moral clarity in blind faith. For the most important lesson learned at Sodom and Gomorrah is that even a direct line to God will not solve every moral problem. If Abraham needed to think for himself to decide what was right, none of us is ever exempt. Religion is one way in which many people choose to express moral seriousness, but it isn't the basis of it- - even for the Father of the Abrahamic faiths. This is good news for all of us, for it should remind both religious and secular voters of what really matters. They're called values. Not "values".

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