by Quin Hillyer
Does America need renewed public battles about morality? Or, instead, have traditionalists already lost the "culture wars"?
The combined answer to those two questions may determine the fate of the republic.
The first question arises from a paragraph from actor/author Ben Stein's essay in the December issue of The American Spectator:
[T]he real crusade we need in this country is not about fiscal policy or monetary policy but about morals: for life above all, but also about the morality of work. It is just indecent for able-bodied men and women not to work. It hurts them more than it hurts anyone else and it is a form of slow suicide.
The second question arises because of a much-discussed essay in the online publication "The Week" by respected conservative columnist Matt Lewis. The headline tells the tale: "The culture war is over, and conservatives lost." In the text of the column, Lewis wrote:
Today, conservatives have made a shocking discovery: They are the ones in danger of appearing out of touch with middle America . . . In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Republicans did quite well electorally. Simultaneously, however, our society became coarser, more permissive, less traditional, and more socially liberal. And while politicians won elections, our young people turned to Hollywood for guidance. For every Republican elected, there were 10 films or songs (many of them quite good, actually) selling sex, drugs, and violence. Of course, this all comes down to that clichéd line about the breakdown of the family unit. It's clichéd because it's true.
Lewis does not appear to disagree, by the way, with Stein's assertion that traditional attitudes on morals and work are worthy of a fight. Nor does it appear that Stein would disagree with Lewis writing (in a later paragraph) that, at best, "it's going to be a long, hard slog" to make up lost ground. The question seems to be whether even a long slog can bring us back to decent ground, or instead if the slog is doomed to failure.
Despite the headline's appearance of categorical surrender, Lewis' actual text is not so defeatist. He doesn't actually say the war is lost, but merely that "conservatives have largely lost the culture" [my emphasis added]. And as Washington's army proved after Valley Forge and as athletes have proved in famous comebacks through the ages, there can be a vast difference between "utterly lost" and "largely lost."
Lewis himself seems to believe that only by things getting worse can they get better. His last lines: "[M]ost conservative victory is first predicated on liberal overreach. It may be that if things get bad enough, America will finally start looking inward."
To which the question arises, is there anybody out there who isn't such a pessimist? (To quote Stein's famous character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?) Is Stein's call for a "real crusade" about morals an effort that actually can succeed at retaking the cultural promised land?
The short answer is, we'll never know unless we try. The slightly longer answer is that there is no reason to succumb to despair; indeed, for those of Judeo-Christian heritage, both Testaments repeat the command of "Do not despair."
But the longer answer still, and the more important, is not just that we should mindlessly keep hoping, but that we actually can find at least some reasons why hope is reasonable. The first involves what Stein called "life above all": The culture is moving rightward on abortion. As National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru summarizes it (while making some simultaneously broader and subtler points), "Between 1994 and 2012, the percentage of Americans who told Gallup that abortion should be legal under 'any' or 'most' circumstances fell from 46 to 38 percent, while the percentage who said it should be legal in few or no circumstances rose from 51 to 59. Americans also became much more willing to describe themselves as 'pro-life,' and less willing to describe themselves as 'pro-choice'."
Moreover, much of the news on the legal fight for religious freedom in recent months has been good. With a few notable exceptions, court after court has issued preliminary injunctions in favor of charities and businesses fighting the infamous "HHS mandate" that would force institutions to pay for abortion-inducing services against the strong, clear dictates of their faith.
Also, with regard to Ben Stein's important encomium to the morality of work, there is no reason to believe that anything other than a large majority of Americans still holds fast to the so-called "Protestant work ethic." Even if the numbers in the other direction are rising, they still amount to a clear minority of the population.
A few other statistics also are encouraging: In 2010 (the last year available), the birth rate for U.S. teenagers reached historic lows for all ages and ethnic groups. This is not because abortions have gone up, but, it appears, because early sexual activity has slightly declined. As the Guttmmacher Institute reported last year, "teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past" and "the most common reason that sexually inexperienced teens gave for not having had sex was that it was 'against religion or morals'."
So the culture has not yet been lost. It still is recoverable. What remains is to find not the loudest way, but the most effective way, to carry on the crusade Ben Stein says we must pursue.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.