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Are Millennials Calling for a Truce on the Culture Wars?

Jose Carrazco

Brian Brown - published on 05/02/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The battle may already be over - and that’s a good thing.

“The last thirty years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the ‘Moral Majority’ left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and justly confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant ‘big gospel’ movement of the last decade (like the New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority.”

Owen Strachan recently wrote the above excerpt as part of an article that points out two main things. First, that Millennials tend to shy away from “culture war” language, leaders, and organizations. Second, that they need to figure out an alternative way to approach cultural issues. It’s fine to criticize the previous generation’s style of engagement, but you’ve got to come up with your own alternative—because (as anyone who cares about anything can tell you) good outcomes rarely come without somebody standing up for them.

But the fact that Millennials don’t identify with hot air and antagonism doesn’t mean they can’t approach the same kinds of problems the Purveyors of Hot Air and Antagonism did. In fact, they’re starting to deal with them already, and their approach is well grounded in the Millennial mind.

So what’s the future of the culture wars?

Morality in American Politics

A little context: Americans approach politics in a bizarre way. Politics, as democratic and republican societies know it, is supposed to be a mechanism for collective problem-solving. You’re trying to figure out how to fix the potholes in the street, or get water to that new city, or create and/or support social structures that help a kid grow into a healthy, civilized adult.

Since people tend to disagree about the best way to do pretty much everything, and not everybody can be involved in conversations like that, voters are supposed to vote for the candidates they think will best contribute to the conversations.

But we don’t vote like that. Noah Millman writes:

“The culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us.”

He’s right, although it goes back further than the culture wars. As Donald Green and his co-authors documented in their book “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” Americans basically pick a side (and even that decision is heavily influenced by outside forces) and then vote, as Millman indicates, for the guy who is one of us. We are pretty much impervious to arguments coming from people who are not one of us. Our politics are infused with a morality of identity.

This means our conversations–on the rare occasion they’re even conversations–aren’t usually about convincing someone of something. They’re either about beating somebody, or, at best, convincing somebody he’s the bad guy (which is what winning a zero-sum, culture war argument amounts to).

This is a serious problem. On one level, of course, there are very real moral quandaries in politics, and the morality of our politics is one of our great strengths—we want to promote what we believe to be right and stop what we believe to be wrong. But the kind of morality that infuses American politics has been taken beyond where politics is supposed to go—a sort of “migration of the holy,” where we ascribe near-religious significance (and therefore near-apocalyptic measures) to political considerations.

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