Why We Can’t Quit the Culture War

by Patrick J. Buchanan – February 19, 1999

With the Senate’s failure to muster even a bare majority for the conviction of Bill Clinton, some conservatives are near despair.

“I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” writes veteran activist Paul Weyrich. “I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values.”

“If there really were a moral majority, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago,” he laments. “The culture we are living in has become an ever-wider sewer. … we are caught up in a cultural collapse … so great that it simply overwhelms politics.”

He urges conservatives to “drop out” and “quarantine” themselves from a poisoned culture and the politics it has produced. Henry Hyde echoes his despair, “I wonder if, after this culture war is over … an America will survive that will be worth fighting to defend.”

Is the culture war over? Has our culture become so debased that conservatives have no choice but to secede? To answer those questions, we must ask first: At its original and deepest level, what is the culture war all about? Who are the contending forces?

Ultimately, our culture war is about one question: Is God dead, or is God king? For centuries, this issue has been crucial. If God is dead, as Nietzsche wrote, everything is permissible, and eventually, one will logically reach the conclusion of Paris’ student radicals of 1968: The only thing that is forbidden is to forbid.

But if God is king, men have a duty to try, as best they can, to conform their lives to his will and shape society in accordance with his law. Defection and indifferentism are not options open to us. We are commanded to fight.

Yet, looking back over recent decades, it is impossible to deny that an anti-Western counterculture has completed its long march through America’s institutions, capturing the arts, entertainment, the public schools and colleges, the media and even many churches.

In politics, conservatives have won more than they have lost, but in the culture, the left and its Woodstock values have triumphed. Divorce, dirty language, adultery, blasphemy, euthanasia, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, cohabitation and so on were not unknown in 1960. But today, they permeate our lives.

The critical change has come in the attitudes of our elites. What our leaders once believed to be symptoms of social decline many now celebrate as harbingers of a freer, better society. What was once decried as decadence is now embraced as progress.

Born to sin, men have always done wrong. The sea change is that society no longer accepts the old distinctions between right and wrong. Thus, the young are astonished that Clinton, having been consecrated in the secular sacrament of free elections, might be punished and removed for something so trivial as perjury.

The counterculture of the 1960s is now the dominant culture. As in France in 1789, most of the intellectuals have gone over to the revolution. America has been converted, and her conversion may prove as historic as that of Constantinian Rome to Christianity.

Politics is the last contested battlefield of our culture war, for only through politics can the new cult, a militant and intolerant secularist faith that will abide no other, impose its values on us.

But how, then, does it avail us to withdraw from politics, to retreat, to give up? Where do we go? What shall we do?

We cannot quit. We can no more walk away from the culture war than we could walk away from the Cold War. For the culture war is at its heart a religious war about whether God or man shall be exalted, whose moral beliefs shall be enshrined in law, and what children shall be taught to value and abhor. With those stakes, to walk away is to abandon your post in time of war.

Is the battle truly lost? Or, as traditionalist Russell Kirk argued, can a culture renew itself by its very struggle to renew itself, even as the striving of sinners to lead good lives is the making of saints? Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right when he said there are no lost causes, because there are no won causes. The struggle is eternal.

What is needed today is the same awareness that finally hit the conservative men of America in the early 1770s. Loyal to their king, they had rejected the counsel of Sam Adams to rebel against him and fight. Finally, it dawned on these conservatives that they had to become radicals; they had to overthrow the king’s rule to keep what they had. And they found in George Washington a conservative leader with the perseverance to take us to victory over an enemy superior in every way but courage and character.