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chapter 9 George W. Bush, Public Faith, and the Culture War over Same-Sex Marriage Martin J. Medhurst, Baylor University No one knows when the culture wars started. It is entirely pos­sible that there have always been culture wars in America— over slavery, women’s rights, temperance, the rights of labor, pacifism in time of war, and on and on. Clearly such issues divided the electorate, revolved around values, and resulted in significant changes in public policy. On most of these issues, the American presidency eventually weighed in on one side or the other. But the contemporary culture wars seem of a somewhat different order—narrower, more personal, more grounded in religious sentiments, more connected to the debate about individual rights as against community consensus, and perhaps more intractable. The issues are familiar: school prayer, displays of religious symbols on public property, the content of educational curricula, abortion, gay rights, faith-based social services, school vouchers, and the list goes on. For purposes of this chapter, I want to focus on the contemporary debate over the culture wars, with special reference to the controversy over same-sex marriage. I begin by reviewing the sociological theory of culture wars set forth by James Davison Hunter in his 1991 work Culture Wars: The Struggle to 210 | Martin J. Medhurst Define America and his subsequent elaborations on that theory. I then use the ongoing debate about same-sex marriage both to test that theory and to apply it to the rhetoric of President George W. Bush on that subject. My argument has three parts: (1) to understand how George W. Bush has responded rhetorically to the debate over same-sex marriage, one must first understand Bush’s Christian worldview, for it is his worldview, not primarily political calculation, that guides his rhetoric; (2) that commitment to this worldview impels Bush to speak in a different idiom about even so controversial a topic as same-sex marriage; his rhetoric is substantially different than that of the Religious Right or other hard-right conservatives inasmuch as it always pairs a message of respect and tolerance for gay Americans with principled opposition to same-sex marriage; and (3) that this different rhetorical approach is the closest instantiation that we have seen to date of Hunter’s call for a middle way through the culture wars. I now turn to the theory of noted sociologist James Davison Hunter. Hunter’s Thesis Hunter minces no words. From the very outset of his 416-page book, he claims that what is at stake in the culture wars is “how we as Americans will order our lives together.”1 Such ordering revolves around competing notions of moral authority. As he notes: Because this is a culture war, the nub of political disagreement today on the range of issues debated—whether abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism—can be traced ultimately and finally to the matter of moral authority. By moral authority I mean the basis by which people determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, and so on. Of course, people often have very different ideas about what criteria to use in making moral judgments, but this is just the point. It is the commitment to different and opposing bases of moral authority and the world views that derive from them that create the deep cleavages between antagonists in the contemporary culture war.2 Based on extensive survey research, Hunter finds that the primary dividing lines in American culture today are not so much political (Republican vs. George W. Bush, Public Faith, and the Culture War | 211 Democrat vs. Independent) or traditionally religious (Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Jew vs. Muslim) but rather ideological, a divide he labels Progressive vs. Orthodox. In the world of the ideologically orthodox, “moral authority arises from a common commitment to transcendence . . . to an external, definable , and transcendent source of authority.”3 Such an authority may be a sacred scripture (the Bible), or an authoritative person (the Pope), or a body of tradition (Torah), or a group of authoritative teachers (Magisterium, the Ayatollahs). Thus orthodox adherents of any religion—Christianity, Judaism, or Islam—have more in common with one another than do the proponents of progressivism within those same religions. Hence, evangelical Protestants often find themselves in league with conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews on questions of abortion, rather than with other Protestants of a more...


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