Pluralistic Society and the Culture Wars

I detest the culture wars. I really do. My disposition toward cultural and societal difference is typically to cheer the dialogue and cherish the multitude of differing voices as we try to figure out the best ways of moving forward, and yet in my two recent posts I’ve taken sides in what is unmistakably a culture war. I’ve staked a position in support of seemingly out-of-touch, self-described religious authorities and their papal-ringed handful of devoted followers. I’d be lying if I said my raising the banner wasn’t partially due to a desire to be a faithful son of Holy Mother Church, but familial loyalty to my faith isn’t my only reason for drawing the sword. I’m a pluralist at heart. I do not yearn for a world in which my religious faith is the only game in town. I would vociferously oppose any attempt to enshrine my political philosophy and morality as the uncontestable law of the land. I’m a firm believer that my thoughts and beliefs can benefit from encounters with their other. Society as well, I believe, benefits in the long run when it welcomes the foreign, the alien, and the excluded.

Catholic morality has certainly become foreign to our culture and the culture of most Catholics. Its tenets seem everything from silly to barbaric. It’s understandable that contemporary thought would see Catholic morality buried in the sands of time, never to return. As a pluralist, that’s not something I favor. And as a pluralist and a Catholic, I cannot sit idly by when the government proposes to coerce my coreligionists to act contrary to the principles of their faith.

I’d much prefer that we as a society address our conflicts of values without famine, sword, and fire crouching for employment. I dearly hope my hope is not unreasonable. There are, for example, feasible alternatives to attaining universal access to contraceptives that do not compel Catholics to violate their conscience. I can’t imagine the church would like any of these alternatives, as it looks with a disapproving glare on contraceptives as contrary to the natural law, but it would, I suspect, tolerate one of them if it meant the preservation and protection of religious liberty. Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Like the rest of us in the postmodern era, the Catholic Church is still learning how to proclaim and make a case for its worldview within the framework of a pluralistic democracy. With all the trials and difficulties of this framework, the temptation of our time is to enforce similitude modeled on the dominant moral and political worldviews. Silly me, though: I associate justice with hospitality to those we’re tempted to leave out in the cold to starve, wither, and perish.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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45 Responses

  1. and yet in my two recent posts I’ve taken sides in what is unmistakably a culture war

    I believe this statement is only partially true because it’s something more in addition to a culture war. Yes, you have taken a stand in part to defend the moral prerogatives of your faith, and specifically to prevent, as you term it, coercion to compel your co-religionists to act contrary to the dictates of their faith.

    But at the same time, the concerns you raise and the stand you take about religious liberty vis-a-vis the state are of vital importance to anyone who lives in the U.S. And even though I disagree with you on this contraception mandate and side, at least in theory, with the state’s power to impose the mandate on the Church qua employer, I recognize that my conception of religious liberty (which is probably not shared, at least in the somewhat extreme form that I embrace it, by a majority of Americans) isn’t the only possible one. In fact, even I acknowledge that the radical disestablishment I support in principle* will, by itself, not ensure religious liberty.

    And our society and polity (and the blogosphere) would be much impoverished if thoughtful persons such as yourself didn’t take a stand and challenge those of us who see the matters differently.

    *By “radical disestablishment,” I mean ending almost all tax breaks to religious institutions qua religious institutions. By “in principle” I mean it’s probably not going to happen and to impose it in the form I would find congenial would probably in practice be horridly oppressive and cause great, perhaps unacceptable hardship, at least in the short term.

    • kenB says:

      Well, if the two sides were represented by you and Kyle then it would be less Culture War and more Culture Negotiation, which would be entirely a better thing.

      FWIW I agree that especially in our modern society it doesn’t really make sense to have any special treatment of religion per se. OTOH I also think that there should be a lot more leeway given for “freedom of conscience” (as Will Truman mentions in the main page thread), and in the specific case of covering contraceptives, I don’t think the government interest in mandating it is anywhere near significant enough to override an individual organization’s desire not to include that coverage.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      This is well said, Pierre.

  2. Jaybird says:

    The phrasings I tend to use ad nauseum are “matters of taste” and “matters of morality”.

    There seems so much about religion that is confusing the former for the latter… but, at the end of the day, my influence on that should be limited to my explaining my take on the universe to folks (the same way that we agree that their influence on me should be limited to that degree).

    If I start coercing them, suddenly I am using force over something that I admit is a matter of taste… which strikes me as fundamentally immoral.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      When it comes to strictly religious tenets, whether they be matters of taste or morality, I counsel persuasion and oppose coercion.

      • Jaybird says:

        One of the things I like about Catholicism is that they don’t have a whole lot to say about post-Protestant Atheists getting vasectomies. Oh, they have a *LOT* to say about Catholics getting one… but not a lot about folks who haven’t opted-in to their charming little opt-in dictatorship.

        Compare to (other religion) that says “you can’t (engage in particular act) or we will (punish) you!”

        • DensityDuck says:

          Although in the more dogmatic interpretations of the Catholic tradition, anyone who isn’t Catholic is gonna go to hell so who cares what they do?

    • kenB says:

      Is there really any way to say that a given matter is one of taste and not morality? We all operate with different categories of norms — some we would hold only ourselves to, some we would hold everyone in our normative community to, and some we would hold everyone in the world to. Unfortunately there’s not universal agreement on which norms belong where, and so we have conflict.

  3. Bryan Cross says:


    You wrote:

    “I do not yearn for a world in which my religious faith is the only game in town.”

    You don’t yearn for heaven?

    You don’t yearn for all men to become Catholic in this world?

    You want some persons to remain in schism or heresy, or ignorance of the Catholic faith? I don’t see how anyone who knows that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, having the fullness of the means of salvation, could not want all men to be in her bosom.

    Even God wants all men to be saved, and come to a knowledge of the truth. Shouldn’t we therefore imitate Him in this yearning? Even St. Paul desired all men would “become such as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29) Is his example not good enough for us?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I desire that all people pursue the truth to the best that they are able, but I also respect each person’s right to seek the truth in her own way. And while I don’t for a minute think that every pursuit of truth is equal, I value the challenges and critiques alternative ways of thinking and believing present to one another.

      I don’t know that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church. I believe it, but I don’t know it. I cannot prove it or demonstrate it or even show its likelihood. I only know the proposition because of the say-so of a network of self-described religious authorities.

      • Bryan Cross says:


        “… even show its likelihood”

        So, in becoming Catholic (or remaining Catholic — I don’t know your background), you simply made (or make) an arbitrary leap?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I wouldn’t describe it as arbitrary, but it is a leap, in the dark, into the abyss.

          • Bryan Cross says:


            If you have no evidence showing even the “likelihood” that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, then either your leap is arbitrary (whether you choose to “describe” it that way or not), or it reduces to ecclesial consumerism. If you don’t agree, then what is the third option?

            But, ultimately, to be Catholic, includes believing the Church’s teaching about the relation of faith and reason, and the motives of credibility, and fideism. And your position (seemingly) denies the Church’s teaching on the motives of credibility for the Church, and the relation of faith to reason, insofar as you (seemingly) claim that there is no *reason* to believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, which therefore entails that Catholic faith is [with respect to reason] an arbitrary leap, or reduces ultimately to ecclesial consumerism.

            In the peace of Christ,

            – Bryan

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            The third option is hope, but let me clarify that by likelihood I mean a possibility to which we could give some mathematical estimation or approximation above 50%. I don’t deny that there are reasons which may give cause to suspect that the confessional faith is what it says it is. The Catholic concept of love, for example, is perhaps the most beautiful idea I know.

    • Tod Kelly says:

      Bryan – I want to state quickly that I am aware that this is not a road that you had intended, but…

      Is this not the argument that made the auto-da-fé an acceptable practice?

  4. Michael Drew says:

    Kyle, do you have any information on how many Catholic-affiliated major employers (your Georgetown U’s; your major hospitals, etc.) now offer contraceptive coverage in their plans where they are not mandated to do so? Do the bishops speak for those organizations? I.e., are they saying that, whatever the current choices being made by heads of organizations now, they are speaking for all Catholic charities’ rights to free exercise? Or do they consider their own rights infringed by no longer being able to authoritatively instruct organization heads s to what the policy should be? Or are these bishops that in fact control the policy of the organizations they are concerned about, so that is their stake?

    Presumably whichever orgs do offer contraceptive coverage currently charge co-pays, since I think that is the norm for all plans now, and part of what this regulation was meant to change. Is the co-pay issue what has the bishops so exercised – that, even though some orgs currently compensate employees with coverage that specifically covers contraceptives, at least right now there is some financial disincentive to use it, i.e. it’s not just free.

    I guess I still don’t quite understand what the standing is of the bishops to make this determination that rights of these organizations to free exercise of their faith is being infringed, unless the bishops’ own role is shaping the way in which those organizations compensate their employees. Shouldn’t it be up to the people making those decisions whether this requirement restricts their right to exercise their religion inasmuch as their role in shaping such policies is indeed part of their exercise of their religion? Is it actually the case that the bishops are those people? Moreover, do doctors in the same institutions that the bishops are concerned about not prescribe contraceptives? Clearly that would be at least as much material support for using contraceptives as offering coverage for employees to get them.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Good questions, Michael. I regret to say I’m not sure about the relationship of each Catholic institution with its bishop. I imagine it varies, in practice and perhaps in design. I do know that this relationship that the church in general has long struggled to navigate. Some nominally Catholic institutions hardly have any Catholic identity. How this has been addressed has, I suspect, depended on the the strictness of each relevant bishop. Even when there’s a connection, though, the bishop’s will is not always followed. A few years ago, Obama spoke at Notre Dame despite the loud protestations of the bishop. I’m not sure what the fallout was from that episode. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some Catholic hospitals prescribe contraceptives. Nor would I be shocked to discover that some bishops look the other way.

      • Michael Drew says:

        You can see how, if this issue is in flux or unsettled, such a coordinated public action like this from the bishops could be seen as possibly an institutional power play to try to advance their control over a network of affiliates where such control doesn’t actually exist…

  5. Michael Drew says:

    One other question, when you refer to other ways to assure universal access to contraceptives, do you mean ones that are within the reach of administrative rulemaking under the current law, such that they simply could have brought it about at this stage of the process by making a different administrative decision than they did here? Or are you saying that there are things that the government could in theory do – laws they could constitutionally make, depending on Congress’ and a president’s simultaneous will to do them – in order to do it; i.e. that it’s strictly within the government’s power to take steps to attempt to achieve that end without forcing anyone to violate their religious conscience?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Things it could do in theory. Single-payer. A medicaid program specific to reproductive health. That sort of thing. The first is not an option for practical reasons, obviously, but I would think congress could come up with some workable alternative.

  6. North says:

    It’s odd; I don’t hate the culture war. Perhaps it’s because I approach it from the other side. I’m too young (and too raised in Canada) to have participated in the portion of it that impacted me direction (homosexuality) but I know many older gay people. I’ve heard their stories and seen the tics and scars (mostly psychological or social) that they retain from their time from before the culture war when they lived under the ancient regime. I’ve read and heard the stories of all the lives of the people (who I would have been just like, had I been born a decade or two earlier) twisted and shredder on the rules and attitudes of the time before the culture wars. No I’m very happy the culture wars happened and are happening.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      For my part, I would distinguish a culture war from a serious and consequential debate about cultural issues. A culture war is aimed at resolving cultural conflict by the figurative destruction of the opposing side and its positions. Like the game of thrones, when you fight the culture wars, you win or you die.

      • This bodes especially poorly for Jaime and Cersei, who are doing both.

      • North says:

        I’m sorry Kyle, I just can’t agree. Both sides fight like they mean to destroy the others ideas but neither has been able to do so. What sentiments like “screw the culture wars” tries to paper over is that there’s some serious fundamental disagreements at the heart of the culture wars. Saying “I wish the culture war wasn’t being fought” is essentially endorsing the status quos. I mean seventy years ago standing up and saying “I don’t think you should be able to be arrested if you kiss a man in public” wouldn’t have resulted in a culture war, it would have resulted in a “you’re being rude and gross, sit down and shut up.” That’s the US without the culture wars as far as I can see.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Now it’s the other way around, Mr. North. Progress.

          I do see your point, esp how it affects your bailiwick. And I do think culture wars should be fought—culturally. In the current case, we have the coercive power of the state directed against culture, specifically against religion, the freedom of which is explicitly allowed for in the First Amendment.

          • North says:

            Yes, Tom, well the coercive power of the state has had its finger in the cultural pie since before there was a state (at that time it was just the local governor or the concerned clique of the colony’s most influential members.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I agree that many of the culture war issues allow for no compromise and only an all or nothing approach. My problem with the culture wars has to do with the aim of their rhetoric: for the most part, culture war rhetoric is aimed not at offering an effective proof for the benefit of the opposition, but in destroying the opposition. Because proof is not its aim or its concern, culture war rhetoric has no allegiance to the truth. This isn’t to say this rhetoric necessarily employs lies, but that lies are not antithetical to its purpose. Its loyalty is to whatever most effectively leads to the enemy’s defeat.

          I understand that fundamental debates have to occur and that these debates must have practical consequence, but I’d rather see them ordered toward truth and make use of the methods of persuasion.

          • North says:

            I suppose, but where the fundamental issues are factually ireconcilable (or unknowable) then I suppose one can expect the truth to take second seat to persuasion. Especially when in most cases it involves usually a plurality fighting against a minority with the overwhelming majority of people only interested in a low attention sort of level. I don’t like this but I fear in a country of this size it’s pretty much inevitable.

  7. I disagree with you on these topics, as you well know, but I think it’s nice to be able to talk about them in a non-insane way. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of clarity on my own thought process and approach to religious liberty in the last few days.

  8. Jesse Ewiak says:

    Double-posting this here.

    It seems this was mostly already law.

    [quote]resident Barack Obama’s decision to require most employers to cover birth control and insurers to offer it at no cost has created a firestorm of controversy. But the central mandate—that most employers have to cover preventative care for women—has been law for over a decade. This point has been completely lost in the current controversy, as Republican presidential candidates and social conservatives claim that Obama has launched a war on religious liberty and the Catholic Church.

    [b]Despite the longstanding precedent, “no one screamed” until now,”[/b] said Sara Rosenbaum, a health law expert at George Washington University.

    In December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies that provided prescription drugs to their employees but didn’t provide birth control were in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. That opinion, which the George W. Bush administration did nothing to alter or withdraw when it took office the next month, is still in effect today—and because it relies on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. Employers that don’t offer prescription coverage or don’t offer insurance at all are exempt, because they treat men and women equally—but under the EEOC’s interpretation of the law, you can’t offer other preventative care coverage without offering birth control coverage, too.

    “It was, we thought at the time, a fairly straightforward application of Title VII principles,” a top former EEOC official who was involved in the decision told Mother Jones. “All of these plans covered Viagra immediately, without thinking, and they were still declining to cover prescription contraceptives. It’s a little bit jaw-dropping to see what is going on now…[b]There was some press at the time but we issued guidances that were far, far more controversial.”[/b]

    After the EEOC opinion was approved in 2000, reproductive rights groups and employees who wanted birth control access sued employers that refused to comply. The next year, in Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co., a federal court agreed with the EEOC’s reasoning. Reproductive rights groups and others used that decision as leverage to force other companies to settle lawsuits and agree to change their insurance plans to include birth control. Some subsequent court decisions echoed Erickson, and some went the other way, but the rule (absent a Supreme Court decision) remained, and over the following decade, the percentage of employer-based plans offering contraceptive coverage tripled to 90 percent.

    “We have used [the EEOC ruling] many times in negotiating with various employers,” says Judy Waxman, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center. “It has been in active use all this time. [President Obama’s] policy is only new in the sense that it covers employers with less than 15 employees and with no copay for the individual. The basic rule has been in place since 2000.”

    [b]Not even religious employers were exempt from the impact of the EEOC decision. Although Title VII allows religious institutions to discriminate on religious grounds, it doesn’t allow them to discriminate on the basis of sex—the kind of discrimination at issue in the EEOC ruling.[/b] DePaul University, the largest Roman Catholic university in America, added birth control coverage to its plans after receiving an EEOC complaint several years ago. (DePaul officials did not respond to a request for comment.)

    As recently as last year, the EEOC was moderating a dispute between the administrators of Belmont Abbey, a Catholic institution in North Carolina, and several of its employees who had their birth control coverage withdrawn after administrators realized it was being offered. The Weekly Standard opined on the issue in 2009—more proof that religious employers were being asked to cover contraception far before the Obama administration issued its new rule on January 20 of this year.

    “The current freakout,” Judy Waxman says, is largely occurring because the EEOC policy “isn’t as widely known…and it hasn’t been uniformly enforced.” But it’s still unclear whether Obama’s Health and Human Services department will enforce the new rule any more harshly than the old one. The administration has already given organizations a year-long grace period to comply. Asked to explain how the agency would make employers do what it wanted, an HHS official told Mother Jones that it would “enforce this the same way we enforce everything else in the law.”

    • DensityDuck says:

      If that’s the case then why did the HHS statement specifically reference religious exceptions?

      • Jesse Ewiak says:

        The difference now, as I understand, is now it covers BC without a co-pay. So, new law and new regulation means a new rule has to be written. I could be incorrect though.

  9. Michael Drew says:

    When I asked about where you saw the alternatives, I really wasn’t at all sure myself there wasn’t a workaround available to them even under the current law. It seemed intuitive that, given the extent of the regs the ins. cos. accepted in reterun for the mandate and the exchange business, given how much guaranteed issue and group rating will cost them, it seemed like it really shouldn’t be a difficult get from the insurers to make sure full coverage is available at no additional cost to those who would be excluded from it by the conscience of their employer. From the early reports of the change coming, it looks to me as if they simply went to them and said, hey by they way, this too, and the ins. cos, were like, “Right,” and that was it. Ultimately, my guess is it’s going to mean a bit of extra paperwork for people wanting birth control, but that it will be provided at no extra cost to such employees.

    Point is, I think you were very right to focus on the eminent possibility of providing the benefit by means that don’t require this particular religion to take actions their consciences proscribe. (As to other religions, who can say how they feel; they for the most part don’t have a similarly influential counsel of high clerics to press their case).

    While I’ve disagreed with you at times (in particular on the question of whether the bishops actually have the standing to speak for organizations in general that in many cases manifestly do not follow the dictates they issue, such as Georgetown, raising the question of whether the bishops’ free exercise is actually implicated here, as the title of your initial post suggested, and therefore of whether they ought to be speaking for the controlling officials of these organizations whose free exercise potentially would have been implicated*), I have found your blogging on this to be extremely helpful and clarifying for my thinking on the issue. Thanks for your work.

    * While obviously people other than those whose liberties are being infringed ought to speak up on behalf of such people, when it is a question whether an an entire class of people or merely a subset thereof feel their liberty is being infringed, those who speak for those whose liberty is being infringed ought to be careful to delineate whom they are speaking for and who in the same class dissents from that grievance.