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Sunday Night Journal — May 13, 2007

A Permanent Culture War?

About one in six Americans have changed their religious identity at some point in their lives….. Boston University’s Peter Berger notes that “modernity in its essence means an enormous change in the human condition, from fate to choice” and that such switching is inevitable. (“Religion in America,” Touchstone, April 2007)

That observation about modernity strikes me as accurate. Catholics may look back on the Middle Ages, say, as the Age of Faith, or Protestants may look back on the centuries of the Reformation’s triumph in northern Europe and America as the time when most people practiced the true religion. Or neo-pagans may think the people of pre-Christian antiquity were more enlightened than any since, at least in the Western world. The truth probably is, though, that the vast majority of mankind in all times and places have not given a great deal of thought to matters beyond the mundane, and that when they did so they thought in the categories with which their culture provided them. In religion as in most matters they stepped into the beliefs and the roles which were prepared for them; there were no visible alternatives, and most probably never even thought that there could be.

But it isn’t that way for the modern American or European or a citizen of any culture formed since the Enlightenment. It’s impossible for us not to know, at a minimum, that other religions, other complete worldviews, exist, and for anyone with the least bit of education and curiosity it’s difficult not to know at least a little about them. It takes a certain amount of deliberate effort to remain insular. It can be said, I think, that the most perfectly modern citizen is also the most fully conscious of the extent of the religious and cultural possibilities open to the human mind. He is also the least suited to live entirely—that is, with irrevocable and uncomplicated commitment—in any one of them.

For this ideally pure modern citizen, religion is something chosen, and most of us approximate the type. Most of us have at some point made a conscious decision as to the religious or un-religious path we will follow. Few get very far into adulthood without at least becoming aware that many of our fellow citizens do not share many assumptions we once assumed to be everyone’s. It will become more and more rare to run across people like the sweet Southern Baptist lady who declared that a Jewish philanthropist of her city was “such a good Christian.” It’s even possible that Manhattanites will cease to be shocked by contact with Baptists.

The culture war is a side effect of this “change from fate to choice.” After several generations in which individuals have had an increasingly free and actual opportunity to decide, with little risk of unpleasant consequences, what to believe and how to live, we have something which ought not to surprise us at all: a widespread and serious disagreement about fundamental principles. (By “unpleasant consequences” I mean seriously unpleasant ones: loss of life, liberty, or livelihood, not simply disapproval or tension and estrangement among family and friends.)

Most of those who acknowledge the existence of this struggle implicitly expect that it will some day end. Some day all those other people, those unpleasant and unreasonable ones, will be pushed to the margins where they belong, and the nation will be guided mainly by our principles. It’s hard to imagine the present hostile stalemate continuing indefinitely.

But if modern convictions really are as fluid and changeable as Berger suggests, and continue to be so, it could be that neither side ever gains the decisive majority it needs for dominance. Although the views of millions of individuals may shift, moving them from one side to the other in the culture war, it could be that a rough balance of strength is maintained, with movement in both directions keeping the two sides at comparable strength.

A person grows up in a religious culture and begins to resent the limits it places upon him. All around is the allure of a world where personal liberty seems unlimited, above all in the realm of sexual behavior. He turns away from faith and tradition and becomes the sovereign master of his own fate, believing nothing and doing nothing (as far as possible) that does not commend itself to his personal preference.

But in time, like the prodigal son and like many a saint, he finds that such freedom is empty, and that the gain of pleasure does not in the end compensate for the loss of purpose, and he turns back to the community of faith, now embracing it freely and with genuine personal conviction.

We see this pattern sometimes from one generation to the next: the children rejecting the teaching of their parents, then their own children in their turn reaching back to their grandparents in search of the wisdom that seems to be missing from their parents’ lives.

It’s not hard to imagine a continual and roughly equal movement between the traditionally religious and the secular-atheistic subcultures of the modern world. A child of the former comes to resent its restrictions; a child of the latter comes to long for meaning; each moves to the other side.

It is, however, hard to imagine our current level of division persisting for many generations. Or, more precisely, it’s hard to imagine a society so divided remaining cohesive and strong. More likely, I suppose, than a permanent culture war is decline and replacement by a more unified civilization. But what might that be? If modernity is choice rather than fate, are “unified,” “modern,” and “lasting” adjectives that cannot long be applied to the same society? I can only think of two ways in which the freedom of modernity might be undone, barring divine intervention: by a catastrophic return to pre-modern conditions of technology, wealth, travel, and communications, or by totalitarianism. What we have seen of that second possibility in the last hundred years has been far more secular than religious in origin, but religion will serve, given the right religion and the right conditions, and there are some fairly effective experiments in that line currently in progress.



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