Only four years ago, the media were abuzz with the revelation that a fissure ran through America, dividing us into Republican red states and Democratic blue states, polarity as much cultural as political. Red states are NASCAR and barbecue, while blue states are NPR and brie. Red states are overweight and vulgar and gas-guzzling, while blue states are trim and green and cool in a European sort of way. Tell me what radio station you listen to, what kind of beer you drink, where you spent vacationand I can tell you what party you voted for.
The redblue divide has never been as sharp as the electoral maps make it seem, and the redblue analysis obscures the more fundamental division in American political life. Since the mid-1970s, the “culture wars” have defined the alignments of American politics, and the alignments of the culture wars are largely religious.
The 1963 school-prayer and Bible-reading decision, Murray v. Curlett, startled some believers into activism, but it was not until Roe v. Wade that evangelicals awakened from their Pietist slumbers and launched a crusade to win back America. Once energized, evangelicals were not content to remain narrowly anti-abortion, but sought to promote religiously grounded positions on everything from Star Wars to stem cells. The culture wars are the result of the invasion of conservative religionmostly Christianityinto public life.
Not everyone sees things this way. Despite his post at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Alan Wolfe has nothing to say about religion in his post-election analysis of Obama’s achievement in ending the culture wars. That’s because Wolfe doesn’t think the culture wars were really about religion in the first place. The culture wars, it turns out, were racial conflicts in disguise.
Happily, the wars are over. Writing in the New Republic weekly politics newsletter on November 6, Wolfe explained that Obama’s historic election marks both the climax of the march toward racial equality and the collapse of the “politics of polarization” that began with Newt Gingrich’s efforts to impeach Pres. Clinton.
In place of the racist and polarized politics of the past, Obama ushers in an era of civility and national unity. By Wolfe’s reckoning, Obama received a mandate not only because of the margin of his victory but because of the way he campaigned. Even when McCain and Palin got nasty, he stayed above the fray. “The major theme of his speeches, from the early ones to the victory oration . . . is that we can do better than a negative politics of attack-and-respond,” Wolfe confidently announced. “This senator from Illinois ended the culture war.”
Wolfe may well be right that Americans have grown weary of the sharp rhetoric of the right. But for someone predicting the end of polarized politics, Wolfe provides a remarkably polarizing analysis of the election results. He warns that despite Obama’s victory, the “forces that have long opposed racial justice and equality in this country are by no means dead.” As evidence, he points to the disturbingly strong support for McCain across the South, evidence of the Republican party's identity with the Confederacy.
Virginia and North Carolina? They were flukes, the result of enlightened immigrants to deepest darkest Dixie. Elsewhere in the South, “long-time Southern whites” mostly opposed Obama, are a sure sign that racism is as strong as ever. It’s not clear how Wolfe explains all those 57 million voters who cast ballots for McCain, and it’s even less clear why he assumes that a Southern vote against Obama is a Southern vote against blacks.
In Wolfe’s world, racism lurks behind every conservative political effort since Nixon. In fact, Wolfe says, the two battlesthe civil rights movement and the Kulturkampfwere at bottom about the same thing: race. “Race has long been our major division, and all our other divisions play off its script. From the culture war's first manifestation in the guise of a Nixonian emphasis on law and order, through debates about teenage pregnancy and promiscuity, down to affirmative action, the culture war was a replay of earlier conflicts between black and white.”
Wolfe prepares the ground for a chilling regime of political correctness that will make the last twenty years look like the heyday of free speech. If Wolfe is right, every criticism of Obama can be reduced to racism.
You don’t like Obama’s position on stem-cell research? It’s because you don’t want poor blacks to benefit from new treatments. You worry that universal health care will damage the economy? Your real motive is to keep blacks sick. You oppose the gay rights movement? That’s yet another “replay of earlier conflicts between black and white.” Dreams of white supremacy drive the whole conservative agenda.
Not that closing out conservatives is a big deal to Wolfe. Conservatives don’t matter anyway. The forces of darkness have been defeated, and Wolfe, in the euphoria of Obama’s landslide, suggests that Obama’s best strategy is to ignore them. After all, the racists had their chance: “Not long ago, these kinds of people, driven by their parochial obsessions with racial superiority, ran the country.” Their time is past, and that’s all for the best: “They have for too long been a malignant force in American political life, and we should not miss their passing.”
President-elect Obama has taught us to hope. My hopes are modest. I hope that Wolfe doesn’t represent the emerging shape of public discourse. My fear is that he does.
Even Wolfe has to admit that things are a bit more complicated. He cites California’s vote against gay marriage as evidence that pockets of resistance remain, and even admits that African Americans helped defeat the measure. But the pockets are far deeper than Wolfe imagines. Gay-rights activists are not going to stop pressing for gay marriage, Planned Parenthood is not going to let up the pressure to reverse skepticism about Roe among Supreme Court justices, education lobbies are not going to recognize suddenly that parochial education is good for America. Obama is already planning to reverse the Bush policy on stem-cell research by executive order as soon as he is inaugurated. With a friend in the White House, those whom James Davison Hunter labels progressives aim to recover turf and conquer new territory. As long as they pursue that agenda, millions of religious conservatives will find themselves bound by conscience to resist.
This is not a call to arms. It is American reality, 2008. Obama’s impressive victory didn’t change the alignments overnight and, if he wants to make good on his promises to heal America’s divisions, he needs to recognize that what still divides us is more than skin deep.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho.