Culture War


We are no longer one nation under God. We are two separate nations with two distinct and incompatible moral visions.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

As societal values have eroded over the past four decades, not only were the valid concerns of Christians ignored but their growing political involvement was viciously attacked. It was as if only other groups, such as Jews, union members or racial minorities were allowed to organize themselves to further their own group interest by democratic process.

Most Americans regarded the conservative Christian movement as something that suddenly exploded onto the national stage. Not surprisingly, an uproar erupted when the words "culture war" were spoken at the 1992 Republican convention. After all, American citizens profess many different faiths, come from diverse backgrounds, and have two major opposing political parties, but surely we respect each other. Why use fighting words? Why suggest that a war exists between groups of citizens in our country?

I believe that understanding this phrase, "culture war," is imperative for the restoration of our society.

When the Civil War was fought, the individuals participating were no enemies. Often they were neighbors and cousins; in more than one instance they were brothers. On both sides fought upright, valiant soldiers. However they had reached a point where their conflicting beliefs could no longer coexist in one country. A terrible war ensued, but at the end of the fighting, one idea again prevailed. Once again, we were one country.

This time the culture war, thankfully, is not a bloody one. That makes it no less a war that will, in the end, yield a victor and a loser. The two ideas struggling for supremacy in society today cannot coexist. One needs to dominate. What are these two ideas?

Reduced to their simplest elements, one idea claims that public adherence to biblical values and acceptance of traditional godly direction are essential for the continued existence of this country. The opposing view is that such religion, while perhaps laudable for individuals, is an impediment to progress in the public arena.

What do I believe is meant by the phrase "culture war"? Author Russell Kirk was once asked the source of humankind's many cultures. His reply was that they originally came from cults. While the word "cult" has now taken on a negative connotation, it originally meant a joining together for worship — that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. Therefore, when we say that people are unified by a common culture, what we really mean is that they share the same general view of God and His expectations. Conversely, when we speak of a culture war, we are referring to a great rift over the issue of God. What does this have to do with most Americans? The role of God in society is somehow similar to that of sewers, telephone lines and gas pipes. We don't see them running invisibly beneath our streets. We seldom even think about them. However, their sudden removal would dramatically and horribly impact our lives. Likewise, we never used to think about the indivisible structure of morality and logic that lay reassuringly beneath our culture. Now, however, it is being ripped up.

Two nations instead of one

One of the most profound truths about America as we approach the end of the twentieth century is that we are no longer one nation under God. We are really two separate nations with two distinct and incompatible moral visions. We are two nations occupying the same piece of real estate and engaged in a giant cultural tug-of-war for that real estate. In the last few elections, some politicians attempted to use this concept of two Americas to divide us into warring groups. Blacks were pitted against whites, rich against poor, Democrats against Republicans, Christians against Jews, consumers against capitalists, men against women. The truth is that different people do have different ideas of how America should look . But it is a lot simpler than a complicated smorgasbord of competing interests.

I believe there are just two basic, competing visions for America which encompass all the various special interest groups. The two views can best be characterized as either support for or opposition to Judeo-Christian morality playing a role in American public life. The crucial point I want to make here is that both sides attract blacks and whites, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Jews, and men and women. It is important to note that members of religious, ethnic, and gender groups unite with those of varying religious, ethnic, and gender groups despite media attempts to insist otherwise. California's Proposition 209 banning affirmative action was passed not because whites on one side outnumbered blacks on the other. Blacks and whites lined up on both sides of the issue. Heather Has Two Mommies, the aforementioned book that attempted to inculcate first grade students in New York City with the idea that lesbianism was acceptable, was taken out of the schools by a coalition of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

California's Proposition 227 English for the Children, was driven by the passion of Jewish conservative Ron Unz and passed overwhelmingly by Californians of every race, color, religion, and socio-economic background. Bill Clinton was not, despite headlines to the contrary, elected because women lined up staunchly for him. Truth be told, married and unmarried women differed in their voting patterns even more than males and females did in theirs.

Two fundamental questions

I would like to make what seems on the surface to be an outrageous suggestion, but one I hope to buttress throughout this book. More often, people are now lining up with each other according to how they answer two essential questions:

  1. Do you yearn for an America in which God is allowed and honored outside of our churches and synagogues, or do you want an America in which lip service is paid to Him so long as He is kept out of the real world?

  2. Do you accept a view of God that would be compatible with one that your religion held 223 years ago at the founding of this country, or have you reinvented God to fit in with your present-day views?

Dividing Americans along those two fault lines begins to make sense of otherwise confusing data.

Many women are eschewing radical feminism for a reemphasis on being wives and mothers. They are black and white, Jewish and Christian, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican. What unites them is a belief that raising a family is a noble and worthwhile use of their time and talents. Radical feminists, on the other hand, vehemently reject a traditional model for family life. If you doubt this, do what few have bothered to do: find and read the platform of the last United Nations Conference on Women.

Statistics often deceive rather than enlighten. When the McCaughey septuplets were born, columnists delighted in mentioning that they would need close to 30,000 diapers in the next few years. Since my wife and I have seven children, all past the toilet-training stage, I began jokingly telling people that between us, Susan and I had changed that many diapers. That was technically true but utterly deceptive. The diaper changing duties were in no way divided evenly between us. It is also correct, but utterly misleading, to state that a graduating student from Stanford University has a 50 percent chance of giving birth to a baby. Yes, I know that almost 100 percent of the female graduates will one day give birth. Yes, I know that zero percent of the male graduates will ever give birth. But averaging those results confuses rather than enlightens.

There are large families in America today, as there were one hundred years ago. I have been told of studies that inform prospective pediatricians that large families are prone to certain problems. Poor nutrition, sexual abuse, and low IQs are some of the dangers touted. In the large families I know, and I know many, malnutrition is hardly a danger. The possible candidates for "abuse" are the parents who have chosen to be deprived of leisure, time alone, and many material luxuries. And no one has told the children of these families, who often excel in their studies, that their intelligence is endangered by the presence of their many siblings. How do we reconcile the grim statistics collected about large families with the large and happy families we know and love?

This is not a difficult problem as long as you remember that we are not one, but two nations. Mixing entirely different statistics from the two separate nations, and presenting the averaged results to a trusting populace, confuses the issue rather than shedding light on it.

The two nations of America are not distinguished by their incomes as much as by their religious outlook. In one of these nations, a family with many children means a husband and wife devoting their lives to one another and to their children. It may mean a widow and a widower combining their families; or two divorced people, who recognize their divorce as a major tragedy, combining theirs; or a combination of the above. What these families share is a commitment to the concept that one man married to one woman and raising children is a noble enterprise.

In the other America we find that a large family might well be a never-married woman with many children, none of whom will ever know his father. Or perhaps, there is a succession of fathers, each present for a short time. Or perhaps as marriages and divorces occur, many groups of step-siblings weave in and out of each other's lives. Families in this other America are not distinguished by race, religion or income. They are distinguished by the sad fact that they have abandoned God's plan for human happiness.

This other America is made up of those for whom marriage is either an unnecessary and unsacred concept or perhaps even a recreational activity, to be ignored or to be entered into and exited with a casualness that makes divorce a Hallmark card opportunity. This America includes those who encourage others to think that a family is whatever you want it to be. They like to mix the statistics of the two Americas and pronounce doom facing large families. It is true that in this America there is a likelihood of the children being hurt by one of the procession of men passing through the mother's life. Psychiatric problems abound as do learning difficulties. But the determinant is not the large number of children. It is the absence of the sacred, holy dimension provided by the Biblical model.

There is an important similarity between these two Americas: Both are products of a belief and of a moral vision. Some of the people in each America have thoughtfully and carefully decided where they belong; others are either the fortunate recipients of a tradition or the victims of those who have persuaded them that one vision is correct.

There is only one core difference between these two Americas: the difference in moral vision that each chooses. This is the tug-of-war taking place in our land. It includes the cultural disagreement between women who feel that fulfillment can best be found outside the home rather than within it. Some women, like my wife and six daughters, believe that motherhood, family building, community support, and all-around nurturing are worthy and noble activities. Other women heap scorn on these traditional views, dismissing them in contemptuous terms. The tug-of-war is not between black and white or between rich and poor. The main separation between the majority of traditionally minded women, whether or not they work outside the home, and hard-line feminine careerists is how each views God's guidance.

As the bow of our ship of state sinks deeper into the dark ocean, I believe each American must carefully think about which vision for our nation will lead to success, both for individuals and for the country as a whole. The lines are blurred today. There are indeed upright, staunch citizens in both the Democratic and Republican parties. There are honest politicians and decent leaders who consider themselves liberals, and honest politicians and decent leaders who call themselves conservatives. Likewise, both liberals and conservatives have within their ranks people with whom they should be ashamed to be associated. Nonetheless, we need to understand the two basic pulls tugging at both us and our political representatives.

Which God shall we serve?

Only when we realize that there are two diametrically opposing nations struggling to gain ascendancy in America will we be able to have an open and honest examination of where each will lead. One acknowledges the Judeo-Christian tradition as necessary for America to survive, while the other defiantly insists that religion should stay in the churches and out of the public square. Note that we are not discussing whether Americans should attend worship services or belong to a religious organization. We are speaking instead of ideas that permeate and shape every decision of our lives. We are contemplating whether we should place God and biblical morality in a neat little box labeled "religion" or, as our founding fathers did, regard God and biblical morality as the core value for all of life. It is imperative to know whether our god is the God of all time or a god created in modern man's image, a god to be used merely as a photo op or to justify our "enlightened" positions.

I remember enjoying a fascinating debate on my radio show with Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University. Since I had never met him nor yet read any of his writing, I assumed that his outlook would be similar to that of most of my African-American friends who are Christians. Which is to say that I anticipated a cheery chat with someone with whom I expected to agree on most important issues. Well, Professor Gomes is an extremely likable and engaging fellow, but we agreed on very little. This may well have resulted in a more entertaining radio show than had we agreed, but I was still shocked to find myself so at odds with someone who taught Christian morals at one of the country's great universities.

Attempting to nail things down a bit, I asked him if we could at least agree that the act of homosexuality is a sin. To my astonishment, he burst into good-natured laughter and assured me that under no circumstances was he prepared to consider homosexuality a sin. This served as quite an education for me. Here was one of our society's premier intellects claiming that the Bible is not the defining authority on what constitutes a sin. At that point it became clear to me that whether Peter Gomes was black or white, homosexually inclined or not, rich or poor, professor or construction worker, Democrat or Republican, mattered not at all in clarifying our relationship. What mattered most was whether we viewed traditional Judeo-Christian principles as relevant to the American experience. He did not and I did. That was all there was to it.

Dr. Gomes was good fun and I remain indebted to him for so honestly identifying for me what the schism is all about. We could be friends but we cannot both be right. Either he is right or I am. If he is teaching morality at Harvard, that esteemed college cannot serve the needs of my children. We disagree on only one issue, but it is a big one: whether God created us in His image and supplied us, for our own good, with His commandments.

People often think that life would be better if we knew for certain whether God created us; if we knew for certain whether death ends it all or is only a beginning; if we knew which lifestyle truly provides lasting fulfillment. These are the identical questions asked by a child reaching the threshold of cognizance. Every young mind disconcerts his parents by persistently questioning his origins and senses the awkwardness caused by his curiosity about death. In contrast to the view held by many child psychiatrists, a child yearns to be told what he is supposed to be doing between birth and death. A country needs to agree on the answers to these questions no less than individuals do.


Lapin, Rabbi Daniel. "Culture War." Chapter 7 in America's Real War (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1999), 45-50.

This chapter is reprinted with permission of Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

There is a tug of war going on for the future of America. At one end of the rope are those who think America is a secular nation; at the other end are those who believe religion is at the root of our country's foundation. In America's Real War, renowned leader and speaker Rabbi Daniel Lapin encourages America to re-embrace the Judeo-Christian values on which our nation was founded, and logically demonstrates why those values are crucial to America's strength in the new millennium.


Radio talk show host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition — the American Alliance of Jews and Christians — a Seattle-based, bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation’s survival. For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact: Rachael Whaley (206) 236-3046 Rabbi Lapin's is the author of Buried Treasure: Hidden Wisdom from the Hebrew Language, Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money, and Americas Real War. Rabbi Daniel Lapin is a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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