Polarizing, divisive, unsettling, vitriolic. These are the words used to describe our current culture. People choose to end relationships over ill-thought social media posts. They break ties because of a viral off-hand joke, and cancel opinions in uncivil arguments. Emotions and interpersonal conflict are at all-time highs.
A recent conversation hosted by the Trinity Forum on June 3rd titled “Curbing the Culture Wars” addressed the issue of partisan conflict and the future of our spheres of life. The conversation was presented online by Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder, with Yuval Levin from the American Enterprise Institute, and Brandon Vaidyanathan from the Catholic University of America. Levin is an author, thinker, and former Bush Administration advisor. Brandon Vaidyanathan is Catholic University Chair of Sociology and Founder of the Beauty at Work Project.
Does the culture war need to be curved, and if so, why?
“Some of the deepest moral and ethical questions that our society confronts present themselves when they enter politics,” Levin noted, adding that a foundational belief in the equality of humanity is central to understanding others. “The danger of a totalizing culture war is that we stop being able to see people as our neighbors, and we instead see our society as divided between two camps.” He said that this leads to only one question we ask ourselves about each other, “Are they on my team or are they on the other team?” He suggested this thought process closes our vision.
Levin defined the difference in the question of “who am I” and “what should I do.” While “who am I” is a foundational question, he said, “There are times in and places in our lives that require different modes. The question of “what should I do?” is a contextual question. And the right thing to do actually is different in different parts of our lives.”
Harder mentioned that the idea of a culture war helps people simplify and make sense of the fragmentation many people experience. Vaidyanathan agreed, saying, “Culture war framework provides a sort of heuristic for a lot of people. It’s a quick shortcut to escape the hard work of figuring out the “Who am I?” questions. I think those are profound existential questions we all have to wrestle with, and we typically do that within communities where we’re embedded.” He attributed the problem to the loss of our communities, pushing individuals towards forming communities around social media and political echo chambers.
Levin explained that American society has historically worked to sustain conversations between people who disagree on solutions to a problem. He believes that “local, interpersonal human level institutions have grown weaker. We’ve looked instead to something in our national institutions.” This has grown the influence and the importance of national elections and federal leaders, because people see the national government as the battleground for personal differences.
“That kind of totalizing tendency is very very hard to resist,” he commented.
However, he offered a solution: “The way out of that is not to win that fight, which isn’t going to happen. The way to do that is to rebuild the structures that allow us to answer that question in different ways, and in different parts of our society.” He said that the need for diverse spaces for collaborative work, that also inspires friendship, requires stronger, localized institutions. Levin remarked that seeing society this way is difficult, and “right now, to say we’re failing to make it would be an understatement.”
Harder asked the speakers to elaborate on Dutch Prime Minister and neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty and the “sacred canopy” as defined by Peter Berger. Vaidyanathan shared that pressures in society draw, but also limit, the interlocking circles of government and religion. As institutions and organized communities like family and faith have declined, he said, the identities people share today have become more “fragile.” People demand environments that protect their new ideological beliefs, and refuse to have conversations that challenge new opinions.
Levin jumped in, reminding, “We should prioritize these things in a particular way that allows us to differentiate between the high and the low. And politics is not the lowest thing, but it is lower than some other things.” He made the point that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have always asked the “core question” of “how to live with people who do not begin with where we begin.” That question throughout history required pluralism, not baseline sameness.
“Staying open to the beauty of the humanity of the other I think is really critical, and finding ways to discover that,” Vaidyanathan noted near the conclusion of the Q&A, not defining what beauty he referred to. The Catholic University sociologist is right to remind us to see beauty in others, but let us never forget that beauty resides only in what points us back to our Maker. Humanity cannot be beautiful outside of our God-given identity because of our sin. The power of grace and mercy should enable us to see those around us with the pure, unadulterated love of Christ Jesus, and reveal the beauty in salvation alone, through faith. Soli Del Gloria.