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Os Guinness on the Culture Wars

The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It (HarperCollins: 2008), pp. 15-17.

To be sure, it is as dangerous to exaggerate the culture wars as it is to minimize them. At the core of these wars is a battle between two sets of elites, with their corresponding battalions of activists, organizations, and supporters. And on most issues, the great majority of Americans find themselves between the two sides, somewhat ambivalent and often confused. But when all the issues have been clarified and matters of style separated from matters of substance, it becomes clear that the issues dividing the traditionalists and the progressives are important and will be decisive for the future of of the republic. They are, after all, disagreements about the very nature and destiny of human beings, so they cannot be swept under the rug. ¶ In short, the issues at the heart of the culture wars will be decisive for the American future, and they will have to be settled — but not in the present, destructive manner.

The current style of discourse in the American culture wars forms a black hole into which the fundamental principles and striking successes of the republic are being drawn and destroyed. For more than thirty years I have been a sustained and outspoken critic of the culture-warring style of both extremes, and I wish to propose a solution decisively different from both: a vision of a cosmopolitan and civil public square in which such important differences may be deliberated, debated, and decided in a way that protects and promotes both liberty and unity.

It is time for Americans to reforge a civil public square, to wrest back the culture wars from the domineering pundits and activists who have become the warlords of American public life — and then to debate such important issues as the uniqueness of humanity, the character of life and death, the importance of truth, the relationship between virtue and freedom, and what the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb described as "the collapse of ethical principles and habits, the loss of respect for authorities and institutions, the breakdown of the family, the decline of civility, the vulgarization of high culture and the degradation of popular culture.

To remain passive before the bullying of the cultural warriors on issues such as these is both foolish and dangerous, for the outcome of these issues will determine the future of the United States at a moment when to miss the way is to court national decline.

Put differently, Americans again have to choose whether they still value the res publica ("the public thing"), the covenanted partnership whose goal is a common vision for the common good, a goal that lifts their republic above a democracy. If American do choose the republic, they must attend to civility, which is a form of republican "second nature," a cultivated "habit of the heart" that lifts citizens above the Hobbesian "state of nature" and the war of all against all. If they do not, America will become a bare democracy, counting heads, brokering interests, and declaring winners and losers in a long-running grand game of nickels and noses.

So the question is: Are "we the people" still dedicated to abiding by a covenant of constitutional relationships that requires duties as well as recognizing rights, that gives weight to truth, justice, and restraint as well as to power, and that sees civility as a necessary and vital companion to freedom and justice for all?