Culture – a cause for war, a means for consensus

“In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong.
– President Abraham Lincoln, from Meditation on the Divine Will, 1862

Happy birthday, to America's strongest cultural warrior

The fight against slavery was a culture war. So were the battles to control European immigration, the fight for women’s suffrage and the marches against Jim Crow laws. They were all assaults on a status quo that refused to acknowledge the promise of a country established on justice, fairness, and possibility.

Those who grip to their ethnic past as an identity – whether racist, righteous, or radical – deny the dynamism of collective will. They push back against the sunshine of a more tolerant society by hiding the disdain on their faces below hoods and hat brims, by huddling their children into the dark caves of home schooling, and by gathering with their communities under the shade of ever expanding tents of religious dogma. To them, Washington, DC is Rome, and they are Judean zealots, hiding in the hills, waiting for the Lord – the mighty hand of God – to help them with their rebellion.

So hoist your banners high, and ready your flanks, for there is an active theater in the culture wars. Lest you doubt the current contraception debate is a call to muster, remember that the Republicans like to call it a “War on Religion,” and for women’s health advocates, the conservatives are waging another battle in the “assault on women’s rights.”

Of at least three major stories that have pushed cultural touchstones to the fore in the last week, the most press was from the contraception “misstep” of the Obama administration. The Department of Health and Human Services dealt with it by coming up with a compromise that satisfied most, but not all, religious institutions, to whom the rule enabling free contraceptives to people of all faiths, despite the religious ethics of the institutions at which they work, would apply.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the White House ruling “will not stand.” Republican hatchet man, and chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), titled a Thursday hearing on the issue, with the unfactual, hyperbolic and rhetorical, “Lines crossed: Separation of church and state. Has the Obama administration trampled on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience?”

This, of course, follows the feud between Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and Planned Parenthood, which had the right and left taking sides, and in which, eventually, women were the ultimate victors, at least for now.

But the assault continues, with what one Virginia State House delegate called “an attack on women’s health.” Charnielle Herring was referring to the draconian, invasive Virginia anti-abortion bill that requires women who choose to abort their pregnancies to be vaginally penetrated for “fetal ultrasound imaging and auscultation of fetal heart tone services…. for the purpose of determining gestational age.  When only the gestational sac is visible during ultrasound imaging, gestational age may be based upon measurement of the gestational sac.” Rarely is the assault so literal as it is in this law requiring medical professionals to stick something into a woman against her will.

Yet more battles are brewing. Washington recently became the seventh state to make gay marriage a legal institution, and it has just passed in New Jersey, although Gov. Chris Christie promises a veto. Maryland is on the verge of passing a gay marriage law, and similar legislation, introduced in Illinois, has won the support of Chicago mayor, and former Obama Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

The victory of the cultural warrior is neither Pyrrhic nor shallow. We fight as much for who we are now as for who we want to become, for whether this is a nation only of the exclusionary principle “In God We Trust,” or the all embracing unifier, “E Pluribis Unum -Out of many, one.” Even an arch-Conservative like Barry Goldwater called for a “reconciliation of diversity with unity” (even though he was talking about unifying the crazy and the practical members of the GOP).

Recent news reports about incidents of interracial marriages in this country seem to bear out Goldwater’s advice, quite literally. According to data from the Pew Research Center, released Thursday, marriages that cross racial or ethnic boundaries were at an all time high of 15% in 2010. Add to that, the research shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans “‘would be fine’ … if a member of their own family were to marry someone outside their own racial or ethnic group,” and it seems that at least one small cultural battle in this country is finally getting put to bed.

Victory on the field of cultural battle may be seen as the last gasp of free thought and reason, left black and ashen, in the smoldering ruins of a civilization of promise. Victory may also be seen as the legacy of unaccepting intolerance finally falling into legend, and becoming a cautionary tale about how we were almost diverted from the city on the hill we built from our commitment to unity. The willingness to hold the flagpole, though, when the fighting is over, has to include looking at the other hands raising the flag with you, like soldiers on Iwo Jima, and feeling pride that whether we agree or disagree, despite our uncommon pasts, we hold a common future.

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
– President Abraham Lincoln, at his first inaugural, March 4, 1861


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