It was the Republican National Convention in 1992, and I was bored and half-asleep in the press section of the Astrodome in Houston, only to be snapped awake by hearing one of the speakers declare that we were at war.
It was Patrick Buchanan, hero of the righteous right, and it was not war as we normally know it that he was talking about.
“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Buchanan bellowed. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
Later, he characterized the major fronts in the war: abortion, sexual orientation, prayer in the schools, creationism and, strangely enough, clashes over the Confederate flag. I suppose now he would add immigration to that list.
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Here we are 23 years later, and one might think – or wish – that the culture war, if not over, might at least be winding down.
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Alabama Gov. George Wallace once declared. And how did that work out for the racists among us? Wallace himself later repented.
Didn’t the U.S. Supreme Court rule in favor of gay marriage? Don’t most public opinion polls show majorities in favor of a woman’s right to choose, and believe in global warming and evolution? Didn’t the Confederate flag just come down in South Carolina?
But the religious right and the political ideologues have seized control of much of the Republican Party. The 17 GOP presidential candidates will be left with no choice but to prolong the war and pander to voters for whom moderation and compromise represent surrender to the forces of evil.
When I was on the campaign trial, Democrats formed circular firing squads. Now, Republicans stock up on ammo and fire away at each other.
In Thursday night’s debate on Fox News, the top-tier candidates were, for the most part, on their best behavior. There was feigned civility, and only a few elbows were thrown. Look for that to change as the campaign progresses.
For some of the candidates, tacking to the right to attract conservative primary voters is no problem, as they showed in the debate. They are already there. For others, the situation becomes a bit more complicated. And facing all of them is the question of how they can then move close enough back to the center to win a general election.
Gay rights provide a perfect example. It is an issue that is not going away, though it got only passing attention Thursday night. Anti-gay zealots promise to make that a major issue, and they are talking of pushing a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court ruling permitting gay marriage and require justices to stand for election.
Reigniting the culture war, whether the issue is gay marriage or abortion or any of the other hot-button social issues, strikes me as a certain loser for the GOP in the general election.
No doubt there was a time when Americans might have been evenly and deeply divided on social and moral issues. And this is not to suggest that divisions don’t still exist. Buchanan argued some years after his convention stemwinder that some Americans don’t inhabit the same moral universe as others.
But people who want to continue the culture war remind me of the handful of Japanese soldiers who emerged from jungles years after the end of World War II, unaware that the war was long since over.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee. His most recent column, “Quoting Scripture, preaching intolerance,” appeared on June 21.