U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The patriot and the priest

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 ?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    Good questions (e.g. stake, Catholic partisanship).

    As a sometime blog moderator, I’ve found that the action of removing comments that seem controversial ultimately does more harm than good. The removal often reveals more about the moderator than letting it remain actually hijacks or derails a discussion. …Unless the comment is most obviously SPAM, which is usually to do with hawking some fictitious good.

    As for Dolan, well, he is a culture warrior–as you note. And Catholics have a long history of showing their patriotism by engaging in culture wars, both on the right (e.g. 1930s anti-communism, the Hays Office, McCarthyism) and the left (e.g. protesting the School of the Americas, anti-nuclear protests, etc.). So perhaps the bigger question, on Catholicism, is why it believes that culture has so much day-to-day immediate relevance?

    I can see why Catholics believe in the relevance of politics, but many cultural questions are removed from having day-to-day consequences. I suppose this depends on how one defines culture, of course. If we look at the arts/humanities/history/philosophy side, the ~immediate~ consequences truly can feel distant. But the sociological side does seem to have unquestioned practical relevance (e.g. welfare programs of all types, economics, education). Perhaps this is because of the totality of Catholicism: insistence on daily prayers, icons, art, offering of welfare programs, opening schools, being international and sometimes cosmopolitan, etc.

    – TL

  2. Is the comment that was removed even controversial? I thought it was widely accepted that the military is becoming isolated from the country as a whole in terms of geography, socioeconomics, and politics. That has been going on at least since the expulsion of ROTC from the Ivies in the 1960s, and was one of the underlying issues in the Solomon Amendment case about military recruiting at law schools. One of the arguments made in favor of ending the ROTC ban – one advanced by those sympathetic to that position – is that it would put those two hostile, incomprehending communities in touch with each other again.

    I thought I saw that the bishop who lost the election also had problems in the clergy sex abuse scandal. Apparently he turned a blind eye to someone who later was revealed as one of the worst offenders.

  3. Nice post, Ray, on a topic I pay attention to, as you know. Varad is right that the military has become increasingly staffed by conservatives since the 1960s, the biggest factor being the shift from a draft to an all-volunteer army. Beth Bailey is good on this in her recent book, “America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force.” I have an ROTC student writing his senior research paper on the conservatism of the military. He wanted to write on this topic because he finds himself alone as a liberal amongst his cadre of officers-in-training. He came across some great surveys conducted by the military itself on the attitudes of soldiers, from the enlisted on up to the officers. All ranks are more conservative now than they used to be, a product of the self-selection at work in an all-volunteer army. But the further up the ranks, the more conservative. My unoriginal thesis is that this is because the officers-in-training have other professional options, thus for them joining the military is more based on conservative ideological principles than anything else. Liberals with professional options, should they choose to go into public service, tend to go the Peace Corps or Teach for American route, not the military route. The enlisted are less conservative because their backgrounds are less privileged and the military is for them a good option for three squares and a cot.


  4. Now, in terms of the question of real wars trumping culture wars. I know this is one of your propositions in terms of when the civil religion is a factor. But I tend to think it’s more complex than this. I think the crumbling American empire, especially post-Vietnam, is a major contributing factor to the culture wars because it leads to a rethinking of national norms in all kinds of ways. Take the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit in 1994-95: it was an important barometer of the confusion regarding the nation’s role in a post-Vietnam, post-Cold War world. These history wars challenged the legacies of old frontiers—the west, the Cold War—precisely because new frontiers were on the horizon, in the Middle East and elsewhere. When Bob Dole complained about the exhibit’s message—that “the Japanese were painted not as the aggressors but as the victims of World War II”—he was expressing discontent with the lack of agreement over what he considered an exalted national purpose. Conservative but especially neoconservative dissatisfaction with post-Vietnam America translated into culture wars. Neoconservatives, for instance, revolted against the liberal establishment, in part, because they thought it had abdicated its duty to extend America as a beacon of freedom. As a result, they began to associate liberalism with softness, which led them to take a host of conservative positions on the culture wars and to formulate the “new class” theory. Underlying all of this is my theoretical assumption that part of what made late-twentieth-century America “postmodern,” or rather, fragmented, was uncertainties about the national role and purpose and disquiet over “what it meant to be American.”

    As far as Catholic in-fighting, well, it seems symptomatic of American in-fighting.

  5. Thanks to Tim, Varad, and Andrew for the comments.

    On the issue of the “patriot” first: I take your points regarding the make-up of the military, but thought it was interesting that liberals had to defend the idea that their political persuasion did not negate service to the nation–not quite the fighting faith of Schlesinger. As to the controversial nature of the comment–to me, it wasn’t controversial as much as poorly stated. But the comment is beside the point: the fact that it is so easy to provoke a defense of liberalism as patriotic suggests something interesting about the position liberals start from in our cultural wars. That’s why I added the line about real war v. cultural wars–it seemed many who defended the patriotism of liberals were also arguing that when Americans honor those fallen in war, we speak as one nation, not as political factions. It’s the same sense one gets from Obama’s speech at West Point–we move beyond ideology when we speak about the troops, which is just nonsense. There is a discussion to be had about what soldiers are asked to sacrifice for and the different views on that issue should face off against one another.

    Ultimately, I want whatever I do on civil religion to be in conversation with (as it already is) what you are doing on the culture wars, Andrew. I see such projects as being party to the same discussion.

    In regard to the priest: Tim, you are correct, Catholics have been involved in cultural wars for a while. What I found interesting is that the church and its very sharp advisers like Robert George have seemed to drop the discussion of just war and social justice that was such a part of Catholic study in the 1970s and 1980s. When I speak to students about this shift, it’s revealing to go from analyzing the state’s role in war to the state’s role in same-sex marriage or healthcare. The stakes just don’t seem equivalent.

  6. Ray,

    On the issue of why Catholic contributions to the public sphere (and its civil religion) now avoid the topic of ‘just war’, perhaps it’s because patriotic, moderate-to-conservative American Catholics feel that all wars declared by presidents are inherently, or self-evidently, just? I mean, to be patriotic inherently implies some trust in the forces of defense and enthusiasm for the spread of liberty, and American couldn’t possibly ever be against those things, right?

    Conservative Catholics seem inclined to trust conservative endeavors and power figures. With that, maybe it’s a “Catholic mindset” thing—a Greeley study waiting to happen?

    Or, maybe it’s simply that Catholic culture warriors have shifted to the right and the old left-leaning Catholic culture warriors have either died, left the church, or lost their mojo?

    – TL

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