In one of the strangest political reverses in history, the 1998 elections have been turned into a referendum on the Religious Right and the Republican Congress. Democratic leaders, on cue from the White House, have successfully turned the tables on conservatives by portraying President Clinton as the victim of a moralistic witch hunt.
Granting credit where credit is due, President Clinton and the First Lady must be acknowledged as the masterminds of this political master stroke. With breathtaking speed, conservatives found themselves the accused rather than the accusers. Many citizens seem ready to overlook President Clinton’s grotesque pattern of sexual immorality and, in the President’s words, “deal with the real issues facing this nation.”
Clearly, something more significant than a political strategy is involved here. We are seeing American culture divided into two opposing groups, who seem increasingly unable even to understand each other.
On the one side are those for whom personal character is a “real issue” and cannot understand how so many Americans seem untroubled by a philandering President who has acted as a sexual predator with audacity unmatched in the nation’s history, and who has obviously lied in order to cover his affairs. On the other side are those who seem genuinely to believe that the President’s sexual behavior is his own business, and perhaps the proper concern of the First Lady. Since she seems unconcerned, so should we, these citizens argue; and thus the Starr report, the upcoming impeachment hearings, and the pattern of conservative outrage look like hysterical overreactions by a bunch of moralizing busybodies.
The American electorate is now divided into these two opposing groups—and this new alignment may eventually be of greater importance than the two political parties. The so-called “Culture War” has opened a new and ominous front, and each of the two cultural parties thinks the other to be a deadly threat to the body politic.
Though the Clinton controversies have captured the greatest media attention, the cultural divide is far deeper than disagreement over what to do with the President. The best evidence of this is the October 11 cover article in The New York Times Magazine—a proof-positive indication of the worldview of the cultural elite. In “The Scolds,” writer Andrew Sullivan lambastes the moralizing of the conservative movement as “conservatism become puritanism,” and charges that conservatives are bent on a “cultural jihad” which threatens to turn modern-day America into a vision of paranoid Salem.
Modern conservatism has lost its way, Sullivan laments, and has degenerated into “moral obsessiveness,” a “scolding, moralizing conservatism” that has already taken its toll in “constitutional and cultural damage.” With its focus on homosexuality as a threat to the culture, abortion as a criminal scourge, and the President as a lecherous sex-monger, modern conservatism is a “cultural and moral revolution: a wholesale assault on the beliefs and practices of an entire post-1960’s settlement.”
This is a brilliant tactical maneuver, but it will not stand closer scrutiny. It was the revolutionaries of the 1960s who started this culture war, and there never was a “settlement” of the critical issues of moral debate. The children of the 1960s went from fornicating on the campus green to lecturing with tenure, but America never agreed to a settlement which normalized homosexuality, accepted abortion on demand, and tolerated leaders who live as though the moral laws are for everyone else.
Sullivan is a bright and promising intellectual, and one of the most effective homosexual activists contending for, among other things, homosexual marriage. But he is not being honest with his readers—or with himself—when he argues that conservatives want government as a “moralizing big brother.”
What conservatives want is a culture which protects the integrity of heterosexual marriage, the sanctity of unborn life, and expects its leaders to embody character. What the real moral revolutionaries hate to admit is that none of these convictions would have been controversial until after the 1960s—they were not up for debate. Those pressing for homosexual marriage have declared war on the very foundations of our moral order. Those who argue that the President’s behavior is “none of our business” will have the leaders they deserve.
Conservatives do not want a police state, but we do expect a President who upholds the laws, rather than breaking them. We will contend for a culture which defends life—born and unborn—and will mourn the mounting death-toll of forfeited lives. We will defend marriage and the family—the most basic social unit of human relations—against those who would normalize homosexuality and upturn the moral order. We know who the real revolutionaries are.
It remains to be seen if the 1998 elections “send a message,” and the outcome of the Clinton scandals is up for grabs, but this much is certain: The issues of vital concern to both parties in the culture war will remain. Neither side will be satisfied with an artificial “settlement.”