The most momentous thing about Monday night's presidential debate wasn't anything Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton said. It's what they didn't say.
Not a word was spoken about abortion, same-sex marriage, religious freedom, "family values," or any other issue championed by the religious right over the past few decades. True, those issues didn't fit naturally with the economic, race, and national security topics on the agenda Monday night. But in previous presidential contests, that wouldn't have stopped the Republican nominee from inserting a comment somewhere about protecting unborn life or the importance of traditional families. On Monday night, we heard nothing about that from the debate stage — and the silence was deafening.
The culture war is over, the liberals won, and the victory was so decisive that the Republican nominee for president doesn't even try to deny it. He just talks about other things, and hardly anyone (least of all the very voters who once demanded that presidential aspirants demonstrate fealty to the religious right) notices or cares.
It's not that culture was entirely absent from the debate. That's in part what the candidates were disputing in their exchanges about trade, foreign policy, and crime: Trump is attempting — clumsily, haltingly — to express the cultural outlook of people who live very far away from and outside the culture of the country's political establishment, which overwhelmingly favors free trade and internationalism in foreign affairs, and whose Democratic members tend to express more sympathy and concern for African American victims of violence at the hands of the police than they do for officers working to maintain "law and order."
But this is a very different kind of cultural clash than the one the parties and their grassroots activists have been waging for close to four decades now. Trump's version of the culture war is much closer to the one that Richard Nixon pressed, with the help of his vice president Spiro Agnew, from 1968 to 1974, before the rise of the religious right. That earlier conflict was a response to generalized anxiety about rapid cultural change and rising social disorder and destabilization, with crime (including violence directed against authorities ranging from presidents and civil rights leaders to the police) at the top of the list of concerns.
Once Ronald Reagan won the White House and the modern-day Republican electoral coalition coalesced, with millions of evangelical Protestant voters (who as recently as 1976 had thrown their support to Democrat Jimmy Carter) joining the GOP, the issues and rhetoric surrounding cultural questions had shifted in the direction of traditional morality and religiosity. The cultural war had become a battle against the sexual revolution waged in the name of faith.
Abortion rights were of foremost importance, but other issues also galvanized the ascendant religious right, including the rise of divorce and illegitimacy, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, the growing prevalence of pornography and an openly sexualized popular culture, the specter of cloning and stem-cell research, and, last but not least, the growing privatization of religious faith and thoroughgoing secularization of American public life.
That's the culture war that was completely absent from Monday night's debate. There are several overlapping reasons for its demise:
- As with vast, expensive military campaigns for democratization, the culture war was discredited by its association with the ineptitude of George W. Bush's presidency.
- The increasing secularization of the electorate, especially among millennials, has meant that fewer and fewer voters are animated by the issues that drove an older generation to the polls.
- The rout in the fight against same-sex marriage has been so decisive that even many who remain nominally committed to the religious right's agenda feel thoroughly demoralized and dejected.
- Donald Trump's stunning electoral success has demonstrated to all not only that a thrice-married philanderer who displays no religious piety whatsoever can win the GOP nomination, but also that he can then receive the support of roughly 94 percent of white evangelical Republicans in the general election.
Trump called the religious right's bluff, and no Republican running for president will again feel the need to make an appeal to the dwindling number of conservative religious voters.
None of which means that the issues wrapped up with the religious culture war have gone away entirely. Worries about an ongoing or looming assault on religious freedom persist among many social conservatives. And abortion remains a highly potent issue at the state level, with legislatures across the South and Midwest moving to restrict abortion rights (and the courts often blocking their efforts).
But at the national level — especially when it comes to presidential politics — the culture war is well and truly over.