2016-07-27
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As soon as the terrorist attacks occurred, sociologist Alan Wolfe knew, he said, that the culture war the country has been waging over gay rights, racial issues, abortion, and a host of other causes was "over." (Click here for an explanation of what the culture war is.)

Wolfe is the author of "One Nation, After All," a 1998 book in which he argues that Americans are not as divided on social issues as they appear, and in fact tend to agree that tolerance is an important guiding principle.

The one issue Americans remain edgy about is gay rights. But after 9/11, Wolfe says, even that issue may become passé. Those who disagree, he says, are part of the Culture-War Establishment--the intellectual high priests who want to keep the battles alive.

Beliefnet Religion Producer Deborah Caldwell caught up with Wolfe to ask about this turn of events.

Why do you believe the culture war is over?

The big war puts into perspective a little war like the culture war. I've always thought the culture war was really something wildly exaggerated that was fought among elites, and most Americans didn't buy into it. These events have really reinforced it.

Before Sept. 11, there were arguments about gay rights and stem cells, but if you were in the upper floor of the World Trade Center, it didn't matter who you were and what you believed--you would be dead. He was Osama bin Laden, an equal opportunity terrorist. And I think that lesson seeps in. If he didn't care about our differences, maybe we shouldn't care so much.

Can you give us some examples to back up your claim?

One huge one is what is happening to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Everyone denounced them, most significantly President Bush--and this is the President that spoke at Bob Jones University and before Sept. 11 was courting the votes of very extreme participants in the culture war. After Sept. 11, he's avoiding them like the plague.

In addition, the stem-cell debate is completely in abeyance. And President Bush took out the provision in the charitable choice legislation that was so divisive. No one was opposed to charitable choice. The only thing people were divided on was whether or not organizations receiving federal money could discriminate in hiring based on people's beliefs and lifestyles. People were arguing that we needed to include an exemption for religious beliefs. And it was really all about gay rights. But recognizing the new atmosphere, the President chose not to push it.

Then there's Islam. When we used to talk about culture war and racial profiling, we were talking about African-Americans. Now the target is Muslims, not African-Americans.

But many people say that some of these battles are still important. We can't pretend, for example, that people suddenly agree on gay rights or abortion.

[The pundits who say that] are essentially paid to participate in the culture war. They see it as part of their obligation to make sure their point of view is represented. I don't think there's much traction for the kind of classic debates between Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jerry Falwell that we used to have. Obviously, things will settle down, but the big emphasis is going to be on avoiding very polarizing arguments.

A year ago, the Supreme Court ruled and people were arguing over the fact that they weren't allowed to lead public prayers on high school football fields. A year later, the whole political elite meets at National Cathedral to mourn in the days after the terrorist attacks. That's the new atmosphere.

From now on, gays will not be discriminated against, but that's because the issue is now being treated on a more common sense basis. I think it's fair to say that people who are unpopular for their race or sexual orientation or whatever need protection of the law. And I'm sure there are lots of times that's true. But we have other mechanisms.

We have good old-fashioned common sense. I think we're going to be seeing more common sense. There is a need for very strong civil liberties for minorities when they get the sense that the majority is engaged in collective hysteria. But I haven't seen any of that collective hysteria after Sept. 11. It's remarkable.

This is a country that has a long history of intolerance. But this is different. The niceness of America is coming out.

But isn't it possible this is just a passing mood of the country?

No one can predict the future. But I'm of the belief that Sept. 11 is a transforming event in American history, right up there with the Civil War, World War II, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. We have never before dealt with this level of evil within our own boundaries. Hitler was as evil as Osama bin Laden, but that war took place somewhere else, even though our troops were involved. Not only do I not think it's a passing fad, but I'd also say as more time goes by, it's going to sink into our consciousness more that American society has been changed by it.

I get the sense, though, that Americans are beginning to feel grief for the loss of America before Sept. 11. What can you say to them?

I think this event will mean returning to the past. I think the mood of the last 20 or so years will go away. It was a time of great economic prosperity, declining civic participation, and great innocence. I think the changes I'm talking about take us back to the 1930s and 1940s, when there was a sense that political leadership mattered, that our fates were intertwined with each other, that we needed strong institutions.

What will be the upshot of this shift? How will our lives change as a result?

My guess is there will be a big decline in the divorce rate. This event puts things into perspective, and it brings to an end the me-first period, the yuppie phenomenon. If this doesn't make you want to find a mate, settle down and have someone to turn to at a time of need, then nothing can.

Gay rights, I don't know what to say. There's been a trend toward greater acceptance. This may dampen down the shrill rhetoric.

This kind of event also contributes to racial healing because it contributes to the notion that we're all in this together. The police officers and firemen who gave up their lives are people of many races. Same with the victims. Inevitably, in the aftermath of wars, there are gains in racial equality. After the Civil War, the slaves were freed, and after World War II, America was integrated. That's because the military is the most integrated institution in American life.

And we're certainly going to trust government more. It was just a few months ago that Bush was talking about giving people their tax money back. Everyone understands now that if you want good public health, if you want airline security, there's a government role in this. We've been fixated since the Reagan years on the idea that government was wrong or evil. That ended with Oklahoma City, and now it's ended even more. We're in a new cycle.

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