The “culture wars” – incendiary debates over issues such as the role of religion in public life, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, the meaning of religious freedom and others – have roiled America for decades and were especially prominent during the tenure of former president Donald Trump. With President Joe Biden in the White House, some political commentators are wondering if things might calm down.
In a recent piece, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserted, “One of President Biden’s early achievements does not get enough attention: He is rolling back the politics of culture wars. This is good news for his electoral and governing projects, but also for our country.”
Dionne goes on to assert that “cultural conflict will forever be part of American life.” But he adds that Biden, by staying relentlessly focused on economic recovery and the coronavirus pandemic, has taken the steam out of some of the culture war issues.
Dionne is absolutely right that Biden’s approach on these issues marks a dramatic reversal from the Trump years. Although hardly a man of deep faith himself (remember “Two Corinthians”?), Trump played to his Christian nationalist base constantly and stoked the flames of the culture wars. Biden isn’t doing that, so naturally, the issues are less prominent.
Unfortunately, Biden can only do so much to lower the temperature. Members of Congress – from Q-Anon queen Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and a host of U.S. senators including Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and others – are eager to keep culture war issues front and center to fire up the same base of white evangelicals who so worshipped Trump. Tuberville has been in the Senate less than two months, but he has already gone on a tear about school prayer and attempted to derail the coronavirus relief package with an offensive amendment attacking the rights of transgender Americans.
And like-minded state legislators continue to fan the flames as well by introducing bills that undermine church-state separation – granting houses of worship special treatment during pandemics, allowing religious freedom to be misused to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others, expanding private school voucher programs and encouraging school-sponsored prayer.
Well-heeled Christian nationalist organizations will also do all they can to keep culture war issues alive. They’ve been attacking Biden since his election, continue to question his legitimacy and still peddle the outrageous lie that Trump supporters aren’t responsible for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
Those of us who have been monitoring and fighting Christian nationalism for a long time know the script: During the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Christian nationalist groups and their political allies used a combination of lies, personal smears and hysteria driven by Fox News, toxic talk radio and the far-right perpetual outrage machine, to amplify the culture wars.
Biden’s tone is refreshing, and his attempt to keep the focus on issues like jobs, the economy and fighting the pandemic is undoubtedly sincere and politically astute. But if past experience is any indication, it won’t be enough to keep the culture wars at bay for long.
Photo: Attendees of the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit