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Jewish World Review Oct. 1 1999/ 21 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Lincoln's 'Almost
Chosen People' -- THE "CULTURE WARS'' mean different things to different people. The wars have been described as mutually exclusive conflicts: conservative vs. liberal, traditional vs. progressive, religious vs. secular, right vs. left, patriarchal vs. feminist. Few of us see things from such polarized viewpoints, and after all, there's an honorable history of mixing politics and religion, the secular and the parochial.

Jeremy Rabkin, professor of government at Cornell University, says the conflicts are less a war than a continuing debate with different emphases, depending on the times, and times change.

"We are a nation of Puritans and a nation of scoffers and we do quite a lot of arguing,'' he writes in "Policy Review,'' the journal of ideas published by the Heritage Foundation.

Fortunately for all of us, you can't have Puritans without scoffers, the serious without the satirical, the demanding without the decadent. Or as Mark Twain put it, "To be good is noble but to show others how to be good is nobler, and no trouble.''

That doesn't mean that we don't have major disagreements at the extremes of opposition, but war is much too melodramatic a term to describe these fights. Even someone as politically reactionary in some of his ideas as Pat Buchanan won't -- or so far hasn't -- given up the debate for the barricades. He just considers taking it where he thinks it gives him a better forum, although he merely marginalizes the extremist argument. (Besides, nobody, not even Pat, believes he can get elected.)

Jeremy Rabkin reminds us that mixing politics and religion has an honorable history in America. The temperance crusades and Prohibition, for example, did not come from the "secularists'' or "liberals,'' but from fundamentalists and evangelicals vs. traditional Catholics and Lutherans, the give-no-quarter "pro- hi's'' vs. those whose religious convictions, also fervently held, nevertheless did not hide their contempt for teetotalers.

Contrary to popular understanding, the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee was not a fundamentalist crusade so much as a populist political crusade. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in the year of the trial overwhelmingly defeated a resolution to declare opposition to the theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan's argument was political, not religious: "The right of people speaking through the legislature to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue, as I see it.''

This is not an academic discussion. It goes to the heart of how we conduct our democracy. The fight for the culture is a legitimate one, but war suggests that somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, and what's more likely to happen -- and may already be happening --is a swing back to a more traditional position that everyone eventually agrees is the best we can do.

The statistics for divorce and teenage pregnancies are leveling off. It's even possible that the "liberalization'' of the humanities has peaked, though there's lots still to do in unraveling some of the more egregious inanities being taught at as knowledge in certain colleges and universities.

Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classics at Wellesley College, tells how she asked her students in classical mythology whether they wanted to add or drop anything from the reading list. "They requested more of what they were reading already,'' she says, writing in the New York Times. Asked one student: "Why not read the whole of `The Aeneid?' Another suggested rereading Ovid's `Metamorphoses.' ''

"So this year again, by popular demand,'' she says, "we will be reading the same old texts, all by dead white males.''

Every generation refashions the old myths to fit with their way of life, and they can do this with great literature because the classics are built on universal themes. Such refashioning goes on with the interaction of politics and religion, too.

The state courts have been pulled into the culture debates over how high to erect the wall between church and state. The Supreme Court is likely to have more to say this year, over vouchers and student-led prayer at high-school football games and graduations ceremonies. One of the more provocative questions is whether banning student-led prayer is a limitation of free speech.

But Jeremy Rabkin is right. The metaphor for war inflates the cultural conflicts. In a democracy such as ours, religious conservatives build coalitions with like-minded secularists over concerns of sexual license and educational failure. Government is about popular consent. Lincoln called us the "almost-chosen people.'' That means the wall between church and state is real, but not so high that we can't clasp hands over it.


09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate