As is probably clear from our recent blog posts, many of us find the culture wars endlessly fascinating. Yet one of the most difficult questions I get from students when we discuss the culture wars is how do we identify what is at stake in these debates? Two very recent news stories provide cases in point. The first comes from a blog post about the recent Medal of Honor recipient; the second about the election of the Catholic Bishop who will direct the United States Conference of Bishops.
Yesterday, President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta for actions in Korangal Valley, Afghanistan. According to the citation for valor, Giunta placed himself in the line of fire to try to save his fellow squadmates and comfort a wounded American soldier. There have been four recipients of this award for the Afghanistan war; Giunta is the only living recipient.
News of the ceremony sparked an interesting and apparently short-lived debate at the New York Times blog, The Caucus: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/medal-of-honor-for-bravery-in-afghanistan/. I find the comments section of any blog to be quite revealing (of course), and this post did not disappointment. Within the first few comments, “Charles B. Tiffany” from Kissimmee, Florida fired a zinger, choosing to denigrate those of a certain persuasion—readers of the New Republic, graduates of the Ivy League, fans of Rachel Maddow. The upshot of this post was that if Giunta partook in any of these pursuits (thus making him liberal) he would not have been in Afghanistan to rescue his comrades; in fact he would not have been in the military at all. Somewhat incredibly, the Times removed this comment. You can pick up the gist of the original comment from others who refer to it. Many people wrote in to decry the idea that liberals are not patriots or that members of certain educated class do not serve. Perhaps most interesting in terms of the culture wars was that many who contributed to this debate believed that the topic of a contemporary war was not an appropriate venue for brawling over our politics. Real wars trump culture wars.
This morning, we learned that Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop who runs the New York Archdiocese, had been elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reportedly, Dolan was somewhat of a surprise choice because he was selected over Bishop Gerald Kincanas of Arizona who had served as vice president of the Conference and was seen as the natural successor to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. The key factor in this election, according to Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, was that Dolan is a moderate conservative who represents a wing of the American Catholic Church that has come out in opposition to the new healthcare act and takes strong public positions on same-sex unions. Kincanas represents another wing of the church that focuses on issues of social justice such as immigration, workers’ rights, poverty, and peace. Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown observed that the election of Dolan was “a signal that the conference wants to be a leader in the culture wars.” Indeed, the article included remarks from Robert P. George of Princeton and a leading figure in the contemporary culture wars who pointed out that Dolan had been the host of meetings that produced the “Manhattan Declaration,” a flagship contribution to the culture wars from religious conservatives.
So, on the one hand we have a defense of liberals as patriots sparked by honoring a soldier for his valor in an utterly tragic situation and war; and on the other hand, we have the election of an American Catholic Bishop based on his ability to coordinate attacks against the healthcare act and same-sex unions. I know that we have debated whether liberals have won or are winning the culture wars, but what is one to make of situations in which Americans try to defend a liberal position as nothing less than patriotic and when the largest single religious denomination chooses to highlight opposition to healthcare and same-sex unions rather than peace, immigration, and poverty ?