Culture wars and the political future of the US

The culture wars have not ended with the election of Obama, they will continue to shape American politics.
Jennifer A. Marshall | Aug 18 2009 | comment  

American soldiers engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that our debates about the state of American culture are far from actual "wars." Unlike other societies where division often leads to violence, we inherited a framework for resolving our differences according to shared principles and practices of constitutional government.

It is true that questions such as embryonic-stem-cell research or the definition of marriage create tension with those fundamental principles. But disregard and misuse of the very tools of self-governance in recent decades have threatened our capacity to address these differences.

All the more reason we should recommit ourselves to the constitutional framework of shared principles and insist that courts and legislatures respect them, assisting rather than hindering us in navigating challenging issues.

The Founders thought moral reasoning was a prerequisite for a self-governing people. In the Constitution, they designed a system that presumes we are capable of deliberating together about what is good.

By appealing to shared concepts of the common good, we ensure our exercise in democratic self-rule is a matter of reasoned discourse rather than raw political muscle, the triumph of strong over weak.

Morality and reasoned discourse are essential to safeguarding individual liberties and basic human rights -- and make tolerance possible. Refusal to rely on reasoned discourse creates both ugly spectacle and dangerous precedent.

Consider the backlash last year against supporters of Proposition 8, California's constitutional amendment that defined marriage as existing only between a man and a woman. Voters who displayed the "Yes on 8" slogan had their cars keyed, bumper stickers ripped off, yard signs stolen and other property damaged.

Donors who gave as little as $100 received vulgar e-mails and phone calls; their employers or businesses were targeted for picketing and boycotts. Churches were vandalized. Mormon temples got packages of suspicious white powder in the mail. The mayor of Fresno received a death threat.

Our ability to reason together on the most fundamental issues also is shortchanged when courts or remote levels of government snatch decision-making from our hands. Judicial activism particularly heightens tension by suggesting decisions are out of our control.

Proposition 8, for example, responded to a California Supreme Court ruling that redefined marriage despite the fact that a significant majority of state voters in 2000 spoke in favor of traditional marriage by approving Proposition 22, a ballot measure protecting marriage in statute.

Most famously, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade made abortion-on-demand the law of the land.

Similarly, legislative overreach has damaged the spirit of deliberation handed down by the Founders. State and federal governments, far removed from local complexities, have sought to impose uniformity where it not only can't be achieved but shouldn't be our goal. Caught in the gears of such systems, too many aspects of cultural policy became winner-take-all contests.

Take education and health policy. Liberals' efforts to achieve one-size-fits-all uniformity often make these all-or-nothing confrontations and greatly exacerbate cultural tension.

Debates over cultural values tend to center on what we will teach our children. Parents' rights and responsibility to oversee the education and upbringing of their children get lip service, all right, but not serious support in policy. Too often, parents are relegated to helping with peripherals like bulletin boards and bake sales. Meanwhile, family religious beliefs and values meet antagonism in the classroom and curriculum.

Parental choice in education offers an exit strategy. It could defuse controversies that create stalemates on state school boards -- from how to teach about the origins of the universe to standards of sexual behavior today -- by allowing families to choose schools that reflect their values. Choice would not only recognize parents' fundamental authority but also affirm that decisions in these sensitive areas are best left to their discretion.

Health care is even more of a cultural minefield. There may be no more sensitive realm of policy, since it encompasses the most intimate aspects of life from conception to death. The prospect of a government-run health plan and federal regulation of private plans has escalated the tension.

Proposals under consideration in Congress likely would force health plans to cover abortion -- and taxpayers to finance it: This, on the heels of a Gallup poll in May finding that 51 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-life and a Zogby poll in November finding that 71 percent object to tax-funded abortions or employer-sponsored insurance that covers abortions.

As biomedical advances push us into ever-more murky ethical depths in everything from prenatal concerns to end-of-life decisions, President Obama's health care agenda would hand over the moral compass to anonymous bureaucrats to decide what questionable benefits the government plan will cover.

Families need to be able to vote with their feet when it comes to abortion and other personal or sensitive medical issues. True reform should empower Americans to choose affordable, quality health plans consistent with their ethical and religious convictions. That is more likely to be achieved by pursuing reform in the decentralized environment of the states, where the goal should be to maximize choice so families can find trustworthy plans that protect individual rights of conscience.

These fundamental issues will not fade away. Indeed, they call for policymakers who will restore commitment to the constitutional principles and practices that will help us navigate the most turbulent challenges. The future of our politics, and of the American republic itself, depends on such a renewal.

Jennifer A. Marshall oversees the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society as director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Copyright © Jennifer A. Marshall . Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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