Monday, November 27, 2006


In this paper I will discuss the idea of “culture war.” The concept of the community v individual is significant in proving or disproving the existence of a literal “culture war”. Is the idea of the “culture war” fought more inside and around the individual at the polls, in church, or at the dinner table than it is fought on a larger, national or collective echelon? What I intend to prove is the roots of the “culture war” begin with a single person and that culture (the individual is immersed in) is the total sum of values on beliefs held by individuals. At that time, the rational choice to take collective action is made. In sociological terms, the decision on how culture influences our political beliefs is particularly important in understanding the existing condition of moral discourse.
Background on “Culture War:”
The term “culture war” has become more pervasive in the media and political dialogue over the last decade. There is no exact definition for it. However, the general public contends that we in the middle of a raging conflict between two sides, each wanting to mold society in a visage that reflects there most cherished values and beliefs. That perception has become even more propagated since the 2000 and 2004 presidential election with the rise of the “religious right” and the success of the evangelical lobby. “Christianity in the United States has had long and combative history especially the Protestant-Evangelical denominations. Although the message has never been overly political or economic, there has been a shift towards a more paternalistic and politicized religious movement using party politics as a universalizing method of legislating “morality” (Laff, 2005). This notion of utilizing the political system (especially the courts) to move for cultural and social change is not an entirely new idea but it has been moderately successful for a number of political associations. A coalition with politics or a specific political party has always been a dangerous liaison for religion. Historically speaking, many of the older protestant mainline denominations like Southern Baptists have been suspicious of maintaining the separation between the “wilderness of politics” and the “garden of religion.” However, one may argue that the “culture war” has in effect changed that relationship. This has become more apparent in changes between individuals and their traditions.
Who are the “culture warriors?” Are they elites, wealthy and privileged or are they middle class church goers? Many scholars maintain that the culture war is directed primarily by elites. Those that follow actively are generally a small minority of unusually politically energetic individuals. According to James Hunter (2006), “about 5 to 7 percent of the American population on each side who represent the white hot core of opposition.” He also defines the importance of elites to the process.
“The critics of the Culture Wars hypothesis tend to minimize their role or to dismiss it all together. I find the role of elites to be extremely important, and it's precisely because of the disproportionate role that they play in framing public discussion. It's they who lead the institutions, who have the resources available to them, who have a disproportionate access to the media. It is their sound bites that frame the debate. From my vantage point, the power of culture is the power to define reality, the power to frame the debate, and that power resides among the elites. But they are supported in concentric circles by increasingly large numbers, though of less and less passion” (Pew, 2006).

I disagree with supposition that only 5 to 7 percent of the populations are directly embroiled in the conflict. Perhaps on a national scale, only a small minority are fighting in elite journals and media outlets. However, in small communities and even states battles are being fought on and off church grounds. Wither it be the neighborhood pro-life picketers at the local abortion clinic that is direct involvement in an issue that is unequivocally involved with the “culture war” narrative. For example, “South Dakota voters defeated the strict abortion ban aimed at setting up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, 56 percent to 44 percent (Pew, 2005). The new state measure would have made it a felony for anyone to help a woman end her pregnancy except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother” (Pew, 2006). This was such a contentious issue that caused even neighboring states to become involved directly. Montana’s Planned Parenthood set up demonstrations in Billings, Helena, and Missoula. North Dakota’s public university students stood in protest and support in Sioux Falls. On the steps South Dakota capitol, both pro-lifers, church goers, and pro-choice protested and supported the bill. I agree that unless the issue is directly linked to the persons individual experience and community chances are they will not become directly involved.
The relationship between the religious and political community is the core issue that makes the “culture war” theory possible. How those individuals make decisions, wither they are rationalized privately or are they moved because of a greater force of the collective will? Culture can move with political change rather than against it. The recent elections have made known us, the religious community will to become more enveloped in the political domain. The idea of influencing secular culture though law has become more and more popular among more radical denominations. We see this in the controversy centered on issues like abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage.
Abortion is a particularly prevent example of certain denominations (evangelicals) attempt to enter secularized politics. The Roe v. Wade decision has been an exceptionally salient issue in the religious communities. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2005) “1,502 adults, and July 7-17 among 2,000 adults finds that the public's views on social issues are complex, defying easy categorization. But religion plays a pivotal role in many of these issues, ranging from stem cell research to gay marriage” (Pew, 2005) All of this data implores more complicated questions. Why is religion so important to Americans? Is the religious experience a completely individual one or completely group dominated experience? This would be a vital aspect to understanding the “culture war” ideology. For example, the Evangelical community is a case in point of a religious denomination that is exceedingly devout in private and public life.
“One of the reasons that evangelicals are so important in American society today is because of their enormous energy. This is a community that is just extraordinarily active. Of course, many of us notice the relatively new activity in politics. But evangelicals are active in every other area. They're active in the arts, they're active in cultural things, and they’re active in publishing and broadcasting and the news media. And then, of course, they're very active in religious activities, which include a high level of volunteerism and participation in charitable and other types of Para church activities. And the source of that energy is this powerful tension” (Green, 2004).

The idea that the culture war occurs at an individual level is quite interesting especially with a group like Evangelical Christians. There are divisions within there own about how “in sync” they are with mainstream American society. “This is a group of people that in many ways feel very comfortable with American society; however they feel that they are still a people apart -- that they really have to struggle to get their message out, that they are not respected the way that they ought to be respected” (Green 2004). A decision about whither your message is being placed out in the cultural universe, is purely individual judgment. The decision as to how active you-- one person-- are in the prastylization of that message could be a choice also, probably guided by explicit interpretation of scripture or leader within that church. More importantly, conflicts between, and inside each evangelical show that the battle really is not fought out in the cultural ether, but within and around each individual.
“Three quarters of white evangelicals thinking that they're mainstream, but then three quarters believing that they have to struggle to get their message out. They believe that they have influence with political leaders, with the Bush administration and in Congress. On the other hand, they also feel that they're looked down upon, [that] there are certain institutions that really dislike them. And one of the findings, and I hope this doesn't come as a big shock, but they really don't like the news media too much. They really feel that the news media is hostile to them. It's not just that [the media] has a different point of view, but [it] is actually hostile to them, and I think that's part of that” (Green, 2004).

Evangelicals are very different from mainstream American, yet they are not. I believe that many people feel that way, pushed and pulled by different forces and belief systems which, is the essence of the “culture war” feeling at odds with mainstream culture. Evangelicals embody this conflict wonderfully. “[…] they’re very worried about the institutions that impact families and children -- schools, the news media, entertainment, other forms of education…these concerns link the evangelical community to politics”(Green, 2004).
This could apply a larger issue of direct involvement as well. If an individual chooses to write a letter to his congressman for instance, he may be influenced by a plentitude of diverse opinions in the cultural space (i.e. media, family, religious org, community, etc) and elites that are representative of those attitudes. Ultimately though the choice to write that letter and what is in it is his alone. Just like it is his choice based on rational assortment of information to stand on one side of the picket line or the other.
The “Hunter” Methodology:
Since American is culture has been historically dominated largely by a sense of individualism it would be logical to assume that when a choice is made about one’s “side” of the rhetorical “culture war.” That decision would be wholly made at the individual level, taking the sum of those values and beliefs which are a product of rational assimilation of information provided in the many sources cultural socialization. However, James Davison Hunter's book "Culture War: The Struggle to Define America " suggest that moral values in general and individualism in particular are being contested in America. Hunter—in his book—argues that the boundaries between religious denomination have collapsed and are in flux depending on the alliance of the day, especially when it comes to agreeing on what the American identity and character should be. He also argues that the old debates around these issues have incurred new divisions within Catholics, Protestants, and Jewish denominations. That Americans in general, have become more embroiled in these affairs as they have become more pervasive and in popular media coverage. “It is a division that is vividly seen in the political arena, but the political clashes reflect a deeper division over the sources of moral authority and the extent of individual autonomy “(Jensen, 1998). Hunter then goes about dividing individuals up into two polar groups, naming them perhaps whimsically, “progressives” and “Orthodoxy.” I don’t agree with his conclusions per say, but there is some value to his methodology (which I am going to borrow for the purpose of this article). For example, his choice to break down individuals into “Progressives” and “Orthodoxy” does in a sense remove that immediate religious connotation and rather implies that picking a side in the culture conflict encompasses far more than just religious preference. What is important about that to my argument is that although religious preference is the most apparent feature, it is less important when all the elements are taken into account (i.e. class, partisanship, family, gender, sexual orientation).
The Community v. Individual:
What is the difference between a person who is “individualist” and “communal?” “An essential attribute of collectivist cultures is that individuals may be induced to subordinate their personal goals to the goals of some collective usually family, tribe, or a religious association” (Triandis, Bontempo, and Villareal, Asai, Lucca, 1988). This concept fits Hunter’s Orthodoxy profile, [they] are eager to submit there will to a higher power and to the collective will of the religious denomination. “In individualist cultures there are many more groups like family, coworkers, clubs, and much of the behavior of individuals concerns goals that are consistent with similar and diverse groups”( Triandis, Bontempo, and Villareal, Asai, Lucca, 1988). The individualist is more likely to be subjective in nature and like the Progressive; he will also view the community as more of egalitarian partnership, which is more changeable than the rigidly hierarchical religious Orthodoxy. When one observes a community in its entirety it contains both elements, but does the individual influence the community or does the community influence the individual?
“The ethic of community defines the moral agent in terms of membership in social groups, and the obligations that ensue from this membership. Moral discourse within this ethic centers on a person's duties to others, consideration of others' welfare, and promoting the interests of groups to which the person belongs (such as family and society). The republican tradition described is one example of the ethic of community” (Jensen, 1998). Hitherto, an individual may in fact be a Catholic, and avidly pro-life, yet because of some unforeseen personal experience may in fact become pro-choice. His religions (and community) are expressly against abortion in all forms yet, he makes a choice against the communal wisdom. Suddenly he finds himself on the other side of the “line.” Although in a more symbolic sense, being “against abortion” may make one “a good catholic” in the eyes of the priest and congregation, people will still inexplicably make a rational decision to go against the collective values. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Americans are most likely to “first and foremost speak the language of individualism and emotion” (Jensen, 1998). I am willing to believe that the community wields some social influence over individuals’ actions, but even less than that when we enter the political domain. Then the community will find its influence diminish a great deal. This is where the individual’s rationalism becomes more powerful than the agents of communities imagined will. “The collective, particularly if they are centered on the family as their major collective, tend toward actions that benefit the family rather than the broad public good” (Triandis, 1988). Those in power act mostly to benefit themselves and their group and often will disregard the public good. Too much dependence on the community can lead to ineffective political behavior. Why? They will look to the commune to provide them with a paradigm ranging from on how to vote, on religion, on shopping, on choosing friends, and what kind of work to pursue, to what kind of music to listen to, and what education they should have. I consider that ineffective in politics, because when we cut out rational choice or individual preference, by relying too much on elites we create a tyranny of the majority. That would in turn either devolve into a sort of supra-socialism or on the other extreme an oligarchy.
It is a tendency towards that kind of behavior is why we have separation of church and state. Not just to protect religion from the tyranny of the government (and supra-socialism) but to protect people from the tyranny of religious followers, who put the will of the church above all other (even there own). Does the individual does have to power to tear down the community if he wishes? Translated into “culture war” rhetoric, it would say something like: if elites have no followers, they have no power to mold a political and cultural reality. Each individual must rationally choose to enter into the group freely and the moral discourse of the group must be in agreement with the individual’s emotions and language of individualism (which is very important to Americans as I mentioned before). Without this pseudo-agreement, between individuals and community there would be no conflict, or “culture war.” The “conflict” would instead; be limited to and encompass, few bunches of radical intellectuals on each side quarrelling about ideology.
On the other hand, the relationship between community and individual can be characterized well using Hunter’s methodology. “Progressivists often regard communities as social arrangements where humans who are fundamentally equal in their status come together. In contrast, the Orthodox often regard the source of community as sacred or even divine. In their view, members of communities differ in their roles and statuses, and this differentiation and hierarchy has a divine origin” (Jensen, 1998). What this means is that there is a major difference between how community and the individual perceive there rolls and interact, when discussing it in terms of Progressives and Orthodoxy.
To illustrate those differences, John Doe Arnett in his paper “…….” offers the explanation of Broad v. Narrow socialized communities. “In cultures characterized by broad socialization, socialization is intended to promote independence, individualism, and self-expression” (Arnett, 1995). This fits in well with Hunter’s “progressive” methodology and suits to exemplify the basis of the differentiation in the “culture war” rhetoric. “In contrast, cultures with narrow socialization hold obedience and conformity as their highest values” (Arnett, 1995). He says [they] maintain the viewpoint that the community is seen as something divine and that the hierarchical positions are see as divine origin. This is nearly identical to Hunter’s definition of his Orthodoxy methodology and our definition of communalism.
However, neither group disagrees on what the moral ethic of the community should be, and the interests that should be in the priority. According to Jensen (1998), “[…] it was the kind of community life they wished to promote.” A populace with conflicting views on the fundamental framework of what the community will become is the turmoil from which the “culture war” solidified in the American Psyche.
Yet, how does the individualist fair in such communities, it depends quite obviously on how “Progressive” or “Orthodoxy” the community. “The moral discourse of the Progressivist and Orthodox groups on the self and the community reflected a difference to the extent which they emphasized the will, needs, and feelings of the individual” (Jensen, 1998). In contrast, the Orthodox moral discourse is directly centered on God’s will and their relationship with Him; they reject the idea that a relationship with God is subjective in any way. They maintain that God’s will is an objective fact, and his will is handed down to us through the bible’s scripture. This interpretation could understandably generate an enormous nexus of tension between individualist and communalist living together. Simply, because according to the Orthodox “God has plan for each individual life held that in the case of terminal illness, people may want to die, but they are not allow to end their lives. They must wait to see God’s purpose for them. Basically, this cause for a “plan” can be easily translated into political rhetoric. For right to life or death cases, like the recent Terry Sheivo controversy. The Orthodox judge the will of the individual must be subject to God’s authority, and to know that will you simply read the bible. “The reference point for moral knowledge and moral action is the divine. Thus Orthodoxy speaks first, the language of divinity” (Jensen, 1998).
Nevertheless, the Progressives had a “subjective and individualized concept of the divine” (Jensen, 1998). Progressives also showed there were more willing to except individual moral choices and living in accordance with one’s own wishes, rather than directly by “God’s word.” Individualists also tend to emphasis a personal relationship with God over a “universal connection,” through verbatim elucidation of the scriptures.
Who does have more influence over the “culture war” the individual or community? I think that many involved in the “culture war” are grappling with merit of egalitarian and individualist conceptions. We all contend that with the swing of the pendulum, either side could gain ground. Eventually, radical individualism will lead us into unchecked hedonism. That radical communalism will lead to tyranny and take away our most precious economic freedoms.
“The root of egalitarianism lies in envy and insecurity, which are in turn products of self-pity, arguably the most pervasive and powerful emotion known to mankind. The root of individualism lies in self-interest, not always expressed as a desire for money but also for power, celebrity, pleasures, and titillations of all varieties. Western civilization, of course, has been uniquely individualistic. Envy and self-interest often have socially beneficial results, but when fully unleashed, freed of constraints, their consequences are rot, decadence, and statism”(Bork, 1995).

Perhaps it is better if neither side gains too much ground, that in this conflict and constant tension we will find a certain measure of stability.
So can we really answer the question, does the individual move the community or does the community move the individual? My conclusion on this question is the individuals hold all the cards. It is through rational, like-minded individuals you create a community. A community can not exist without individuals, so I maintain that our “culture war” could not exist if individual people did not have such fundamental disagreements about moral discourse among themselves. Our “culture war” depends entirely on the endurance of individual people to sustain it. It means that it is entirely subjective, and as long as the figurative pendulum swings. When I wrote about the 2000 and 2004 elections I found similar conclusions regarding the swinging pendulum of “culture war.” “Political and Church leaders generally appeal to these people in there congregations, convincing them that a particular candidate or party will bring traditional American values back to replace what they see as a destructive secular tidal wave. Not only do the leaders of these churches offer the return to “traditional values.” Perhaps more importantly, they offer answers to difficult questions, and offer comradely with likeminded people in the face of a shifting and increasingly diverse country” (Laff, 2005). For the immediate future, in any event, what we probably face is an increasingly vulgar, violent, chaotic, and politicized culture.
For many of those that are communal in nature, at some point the they will move away from the common will when he feels that it is becoming to “radical” or not forceful enough in getting the ideological message out in the cultural ether (as we saw with Evangelicals). Americans do not want an all out war. They in general have a vague notion that there is some discomfort tugging at the moral fabric of society. Many pay very little attention and are unconscious participants in the ebb and flow of the cultural tide.
Still, the Elites will continue to benefit from this war of ideas; it makes them powerful, over people and their beliefs. Coincidentally, Elites fit a very individualist profile. They do not submerge there “will” in the communities rather they frame and align that “will.” Which, I believe makes the theory that “individuals move the community” even more valid.
“Cultural elites, the people who control the institutions that manufacture or disseminate ideas, attitudes, and symbols-universities, some churches, Hollywood, the national press (print and electronic), much of the congressional Democratic party and some of the congressional Republicans as well, large sections of the judiciary, foundation staffs, and almost all the "public interest" organizations that exercise a profound if largely unseen effect on public policy. So pervasive is the influence of those who occupy the commanding heights of our culture that it is not entirely accurate to call the United States a majoritarian democracy”(Bork, 1995).

On a more conceptual note, ever since the end of the “Cold War” we as a people and nation have struggled to define ourselves. With the constant menace of communism gone, more than a decade later, we still can not decide what kind of nation we want to be. The true nature of the “culture war,” I believe, is the struggle to define the American character (individual and communal) in an increasingly dangerous and tentative world. Is the “culture war” a battle to define a new American identity or maintain traditions of old? It is hard to say. Some argue our culture is in decline, others say it is coming back with enthusiasm.
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1 comment:

Brainpolice said...

Good Post. I disagree with this line: "Eventually, radical individualism will lead us into unchecked hedonism". I take the individualist view, which is not to be confused with the "progressive" or egalitarian view. I believe that individualism, when properly practised, in turn creates a sound "community", because by respecting each individual you thereby also respect the community. The community is only the sum of the individuals that make it up.