No one questions anymore that the nation is divided even polarized. Who hasn’t seen the vivid graphic published immediately after the 2004 election depicting the red-state, blue-state divide? Ever since, there have been discussions about the source of that polarization. Most recently, James Q. Wilson provided an elegant analysis for Commentary, titled “How Divided Are We?” The short answer is not surprisingly a lot! So what else is new? Are we just divided . . . or bitterly divided?
Wilson locates the source of our division in the belief that one’s own way of thinking is “morally superior,” or that one’s set of political beliefs is “entirely correct” and another “wholly wrong.” He asserts, as a fact requiring no qualification, that groups “divided by issues of rights or morality find compromise very difficult.” He invites the reader to presume that these factors breed “extremist views” from which has arisen a “culture war.” Wilson elucidates this idea with a definition of culture war borrowed from sociologist James Davidson Hunter: “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.”
In the parlance of the man on the street, the anger and division in America are about fundamental moral questions in brief, the culture war is all about sex and religion.
Thus Wilson sees those with deep-seated moral beliefs as the source of the red-state, blue-state divide in America, a polarization in American society being fed by those with “extremist views.” These unspecified extremist views he somewhat vaguely links, if only by juxtaposition, to the fact that the issues of rights and morality don’t lend themselves easily to compromise. But he quite explicitly links our descent into a “form of cultural war” to an orthodox belief in moral authority.
Despite his lack of specificity on how this linkage is supposed to operate (unlike the clarity of the rest of his discussion), he seems to be setting the argument up for the reader to conclude though he avoids saying it directly that having moral standards is divisive and extremist.
But let’s be clear about where and how today’s divisions arise.
Sex: Wilson’s analysis could be used as a rationale for the broader attitude that it is not enough that adults who believe in moral authority be willing to live and let live. “Progressives” and secularists implicitly demand that religious conservatives must deny the existence of any moral standards: In essence that we must all become “progressive” and accept that morality is relative. The “progressives” insist that there are no absolutes and everyone must accept their lack of standards absolutely! If this were merely an academic argument, it would be one thing. But they aggressively seek to use the full weight of the law to force us to accept the indoctrination of our children by the public school system and the media with the message that “anything goes” in terms of sexual behavior. Yet, unbelievably, in the public debate they cast conservatives in the role of the aggressors.
The director of Basic Instincts II recently explained the box office failure of his movie: “We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.” The national divide over sexual issues is not because Christian evangelicals are sexual prudes bent on imposing an oppressive theocratic state on the rest of folks in society who just want to enjoy life, if we would just leave them alone. It is not the evangelicals who are forcing their way into people’s bedrooms. Evangelicals have co-existed with people of other faiths for generations. What is different now is that those whose sexual behavior is out of the mainstream demand that their lifestyle have everyone’s approval. Tolerance is no longer enough; there must be approval lest anyone feel insecure about their behavior, no matter how aberrant.
Who are the extremists? Who is unwilling to compromise?
Religion: Those with deeply held religious beliefs are incessantly portrayed, by academics, by the media and in films and television, as fanatics. Holding to traditional moral standards is considered radical, out of the mainstream. Witness the attempts during their hearings to hold Roberts and Alito as radical and out of the mainstream because of their traditional Catholic faith.
One of the top books on The New York Times best-seller list is American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips. The theme of the popular book is that “radical” religion is too influential in America. In other words, holding a position of moral authority is considered dangerous. One of the top current movies, V for Vendetta, is about vicious Christian fanatics ruling Britain in the future. A wide variety of politicians (Al Gore, Robert Reich) and celebrities (Susan Sarandon, George Clooney) equate evangelicals with radical Muslim fundamentalists like the Taliban.
Who are the extremists? Who is unwilling to compromise?
Remember the disdain heaped upon George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign when he answered a reporter’s question about which philosopher he most admired? Bush said, “Christ, because He changed my heart.” In another era, the general public’s reaction to Bush’s confession would have been positive virtually all who heard it would have accepted his account as a good thing. But, that is not the reaction today. Many today might grudgingly commend Bush for kicking his drinking problem, but most commentators could not accept his problem as a moral defect of the human heart needing to be changed. Even many “religious” leaders rebuked him.
The secularist has nothing to fear from the teachings of Christ. Consider His encounter with the religious leaders of His day who sought permission to stone a woman taken in adultery. All they got for their pious charade was mortification when Christ suggested that those without sin should be the ones to cast the first stone. Afterward, Christ wrote in the sand apparently a message each of them took personally; whatever He wrote, it was a message that sent them away with no stones cast. To the adulterous woman, He offered forgiveness rather than condemnation. Her only requirement was to repent and turn to God. He offered a clean heart. He held out the promise of a new life. There’s nothing divisive or extremist about that!
Dr. Janice Crouse is Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.
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