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Th Culture War

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In a speech to the 1992 Republican convention, presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan famously said: "There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America."

Buchanan made it clear that enemies in the war were Democrats who wanted "to go back to the discredited liberalism of the 1960s and the failed liberalism of the 1970s." He said they wanted "unrestricted abortion on demand" homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units" and "the raw sewage of pornography that so terribly pollutes our popular culture." He said Republicans stand "against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women."

Buchanan was correct: a culture war was raging in 1992, and it still rages today. On one side are the GOP and its Tea Party and gun-zealot militias and the white evangelical "religious right" that wants a return to the prim and prejudiced 1950s. On the other side are liberal progressives and secular humanists who want more equality, more fairness, more human rights and more opportunity for everyone.

Roots of the current confrontation go back more than a half-century. They consist of a string of liberal victories, mostly won in the Supreme Court. When public prejudice prevents elected legislators from acting, appointed-for-life federal judges often enforce the Bill of Rights and protect minorities. The legendary "Warren Court" in the 1950s and 1960s, led by reformer Chief Justice Earl Warren, transformed America, and subsequent courts extended the liberal wave. Examples:

In 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education), the Supreme Court wiped out school segregation, a colossal blow against America's entrenched racial divide. The landmark decision caused many white southerners to send their children to white-only private schools, rather than let them mix with dark-skinned children -- but the Democratic Carter administration later revoked tax exemption for such "segregation academies."

In 1962 (Engel v. Vitale), the court outlawed teacher-led mandatory prayers in public schools, calling them a clear violation of the separation of church and state. A year later (Abington School District v. Schempp), it banned devotional Bible-reading in schools. Fundamentalists across America erupted in rage, and the battle has never stopped since. Representative George Andrews of Alabama protested: "They put the Negroes in the schools, and now they've driven God out."

In 1963 (Gideon v. Wainwright), justices decreed that poor defendants are entitled to defense lawyers -- and in 1966 (Miranda v. Arizona), they ruled that suspects must be given warnings before they blurt out self-incriminating statements.

In 1964 (Grove Press Inc. v. Gerstein), the high court specified that lurid sexual descriptions in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer aren't obscene. Many similar rulings over the years gradually erased sexual censorship in America.

In 1965 (Griswold v. Connecticut), the court ruled that married couples have a right to practice birth control in the privacy of their bedrooms. In 1972 (Eisenstadt v. Baird), after Warren had left the bench, justices extended the same right to unmarried couples.

In 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), the high court let mixed-race couples wed. The well-named case lifted a Virginia prison sentence that had been imposed on a white man and his black wife, Richard and Mildred Loving, because they married.

In 1973 (Roe v. Wade), justices ruled that American women and girls have a right to terminate pregnancies in early months. This historic decision allowed safe modern clinics and erased the ugly era of back-alley abortions that killed many young women. It also unleashed decades of protest by fundamentalists who think a human soul is created each time an egg is fertilized. "Pro-life" pickets and attacks became common at women's clinics. America even suffered "pro-life murder" as a few extremists killed doctors and nurses.

In 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas), the high court struck down final remaining state "sodomy" laws that put gays in prison for homosexual acts.

In 2015 (Young v. United Parcel Service), justices guaranteed that women cannot be laid off from their jobs just because they become pregnant, if their employer offers lighter work for other temporarily limited workers.

Time after time, the judiciary branch proved to be the last-trench defender of individual and minority rights, when the legislative branch wouldn't act. The high court delivered liberal victory after victory -- propelling conservatives and fundamentalists into a broad-spectrum counterattack.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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