Culture War: How to Fight the Right

Texas academics and politicians discuss the how to revive progressivism

"War does not determine who is right – only who is left," said author Bertrand Russell. In the so-called "culture wars," however, the Right's rhetoric has for too long defined morality, using wedge issues like gay rights, reproductive rights, and religion to rally the Republican faithful.

In an attempt to reclaim the debate, last Friday the Texas Faith Network hosted "The Moral of the Story: Reviving Progressive Values in American Politics," to call attention to fundamentalism, prejudice, and pseudo-science masquerading as the mainstream. Opening the conference at the Palmer Center was Ernesto Cortes Jr., regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group dedicated to inner-city social issues. Cortes' fiery, religion-infused ruminations urged attendees to combat the "pre-political" mindset affecting many in the country. When people don't see "there's a very powerful group of people that are benefiting from all this [divisiveness]," he said, it's easier for pundits to prey on their anxieties, fears, and needs for protection.

Following Cortes came workshops dissecting differing fronts in the Right's assault. Alan Gishlick, from the National Center for Science Education, delineated the history of "intelligent design" in "Evolution, Stem Cells and the Religious War on Science." Gishlick said initially, Christianity had no trouble reconciling religion and science; only later was an incompatibility between the two appropriated by young-earth, fundamentalist Christians. In "The Bible in Public Schools," Odessa College professor David Newman described his battle against his conservative school board that adopted a fundamentalist Bible textbook, The Bible in History and Literature, which he alleges is riddled with plagiarizations and poor science, presents the Bible as the infallible word of God, and exclusively uses the Protestant King James version of the tome.

Moderated by Bush's Brain author Wayne Slater, a panel featuring GOP state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson, and former U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin convened that afternoon. "I don't agree with the Republican party platform," said Wentworth, whose pro-choice views get him targeted by fellow Republicans each election. And asked why low-income Texans vote against their own economic interests, Thompson, the longest-serving African-American in Texas politics, said, "Racism still plays a significant role." Sandlin concurred, saying in the case of many disenfranchised whites, their ancestry is "the only thing that they're good at" – the mentality being, "I'm better than that guy."

Religious right specialist Jeff Sharlet delivered the closing keynote, bookended by the Scopes monkey trial and the 2004 election. While the former was seen as a win, keeping the narrative on the side of the secularists, Sharlet said it "didn't prepare us for when fundamentalism comes roaring at us." Far from a dogmatic, backwoods group, Sharlet described the Religious Right as a group in constant flux, firing off endless volleys into the popular culture. While Dems have begun framing their positions in moral arguments, it's important for them to approach same-sex rights with the same moral zeal they would approach poverty issues, Sharlet said. If Democrats are to keep Bush's re-election from signifying fundamentalism's cultural triumph, they'll have to, he said.

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