Lessons from America: the new culture wars

Saturday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

‘The culture war is back’, proclaimed one American newspaper earlier this year. And it’s not difficult to see why. A variety of social issues, be it gay marriage or contraception, have seemingly cleaved America in two. The tribal battle lines look familiar: on one side the socially conservative, the Christian, the blue-collar; on the other, the liberal progressive, the secular, the white-collar. American politics is now steeped in culture-war polemic. Former Republican presidential candidate and social conservative Rick Santorum talked darkly of the liberals’ ‘organised war on religion’, and his adversary, the progressive President Obama, has charged that heartland America ‘clings to religion’. But is there anything new about the current revival of the culture wars?

For those immersed in the numerous conflagrations, claims of a resurgent culture war are often rejected. This is about the rights and wrongs of a particular issue, we are told: gay marriage is, depending on whom you listen to, a matter of civil rights or one of traditional values; the exemption of religious bodies from Obama’s contraception mandate is a matter of religious freedom or women’s reproductive rights. But are these battlegrounds in fact part of a broader war between two almost entirely divergent moral communities? When Edmund White, a longtime opponent of gay marriage came out in support of it because he ‘realised how opposed to [gay marriage] the Christian right is’, did this reveal the real impetus behind such cause-fighting? Given the vituperative language used, from ‘redneck’ and ‘hick’, to ‘racist’ and ‘homophobe’, are self-styled liberals now proving themselves as illiberal as the Christian fundamentalists they rail against?

And are we seeing the emergence of something similar in the UK? When prime minister Tony Blair introduced civil partnerships back in 2004, there was virtually no fanfare. Current prime minister David Cameron’s gay-marriage proposals, however, have been presented as a cultural marker, a test of what kind of person you are. So are debates about religion or gender issues now being conducted in terms of an emerging cultural battle, one that marks out liberals from conservatives on the American model? If so, it is not only liberals making moves. The sight of angry anti-abortion campaigners arrayed outside an abortion provider has become familiar in the UK as well as the US, and the abortion debate seems to have become more antagonistic since Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ attempt to strip abortion providers of their role counselling pregnant women. But what does all this mean? Are long-held rights and traditions really at stake, or are we witnessing the emergence of a type of politics in which fighting for a cause is less important than marking oneself out as a certain type of person?

Watch the debate


Listen to session audio:


Download mp3 (Right click and choose “Save link as”)

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

John Haldane
professor of philosophy, University of St Andrews; chairman, Royal Institute of Philosophy; author, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion and Reasonable Faith

Wendy Kaminer
US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture; author, Worst Instincts: cowardice, conformity and the ACLU

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Dr Tim Black editor, Spiked Review
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
There’s more to politics than values

The Democrat convention was big on moral posturing about gay marriage and abortion, but short on serious strategy.

Helen Searls, spiked, 13 September 2012

Gay marriage: importing America’s culture wars has backfired on David Cameron

The Prime Minister is in retreat over gay marriage – but he should never have picked the fight to begin with.

Fraser Nelson, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2012

Why Do We Care What Obama Thinks About Gay Marriage?

A declaration for or against gay marriage would have symbolic -- not legal -- value.

Wendy Kaminer, Atlantic, 9 May 2012

Liberalism, Marriage and Family Values

Clegg takes liberal values to be incompatible with certain kinds of social arrangements, or at odds with the state endorsing and supporting them, and these include a traditional understanding of marriage and the family.

John Haldane, Standpoint, May 2012

Gay marriage: redrawing the American political map

In officially endorsing same-sex marriage, Obama is signalling that the Democratic Party now has little interest in its old blue-collar supporters.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 14 March 2012

Election 2012: the return of 'culture wars'

Until now, we thought this campaign would be all about the economy. It still will – but 'values' voters are going to count, too

Gary Younge, Guardian, 10 February 2012

Session partners