The Common Good

How to Win a Culture War

Sojomail - July 23, 2009


You feel violated, embarrassed, not sure what is taking place, especially when you haven't done anything. You feel shocked, then you realize what's happening, and then you feel it's a violation of everything you stand for.

- Earl Graves Jr., CEO of the company that publishes Black Enterprise magazine, offering insight into last week's arrest of Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. In 1995, Graves was himself stopped by police during his commute to work and made to face the wall while being frisked in New York City's Grand Central Station. (Source: Associated Press)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

How to Win a Culture War

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Want to know how to win a culture war? Don’t fight one. The soul of our nation has been marred from a perpetual state of culture war. In an Orwellian twist, each camp relies on conflict with their supposed enemies for the perpetuation of their own existence. The culture warrior’s clout, influence, fundraising, and organizing is based upon real or perceived attacks from the other side. These “threats” and boogeymen are their oxygen, and without them, they die.

The biggest fear of those leading the culture wars is not an attack from the other side or the threat of losing ground on their issues -- it is common ground. Culture wars require a clash of incompatible ideologies; common ground acknowledges differences but finds practical shared goals. Practical shared goals mean people and parties with different ideologies can both “win.” When culture wars are fought, the only people who win are those who build their careers off them.

Culture wars inevitably have causalities, and if those leading the charge have their way, the next casualty will be meaningful health-care reform. In a nation as prosperous as ours, all Americans should have access to quality, affordable health care. Reasonable people may differ on how best to accomplish this goal, and I welcome a rigorous policy debate about it, but it should be a moral priority for all of us. We must work together to find common ground that will provide quality, affordable health care to all Americans.

At this point in the debate, abortion should not become a wedge issue that could doom the chances of any legislation passing. For too long the issue of abortion in our country has been a contentious and ultimately divisive debate between simplified and polarizing positions of “life” and “choice.” It has been an ideological clash in which each side has sought dominance through shouting their position out louder and longer than the other side. There are code words, buzz words, and shibboleths to identify those on your team and to protect your side from intrusions by the enemy. The trenches have grown deeper and the barbed wire fences higher while little has been done to advance any solutions or provide opportunity for real dialogue.

Federal funding of abortions is prohibited by current law, and that prohibition should be maintained. Any final legislation should make clear that no private insurance company will be mandated to pay for an abortion, nor should they be prohibited from paying for an abortion. These provisions would maintain the current status quo, and demonstrate how sensible common ground can bring people together.

On the issue of abortion itself, Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Tim Ryan’s “Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act” addresses how best to both prevent unwanted pregnancies and support pregnant women who desire to carry their baby to term. It also makes adoption easier.

The bill demonstrates how searching for common ground can lead to higher ground, in ways that both sides of the debate can embrace without compromising their core principles. It could lead to genuine progress in reducing the number of abortions and improving the quality of life for women and children -- all by addressing the real issues that often lead to abortion. Abortion is legal in the United States, and although Americans are divided on its moral status, most feel the tragedy of abortion and believe that we currently have far too many for a healthy society.

Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro are wise public servants who are trying to unite us around the new common ground of abortion reduction, a place that people on both sides of the debate can agree to. Helping young people to delay sexual activity, preventing the pregnancies that people don't want, economically supporting low-income women to give them real choices about having a child, and encouraging adoption all will reduce abortion in America. Who could be against any of that?

We have a great opportunity to advance our shared values and common goals at a crucial moment in our country’s history. Sojourners and I strongly support this good and wise piece of legislation and applaud the creative solutions it offers for real action.

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