What We Really Mean by the Culture War


If initial signs are any indication, Donald Trump may not accomplish anything as president. Sadly, however, he has already done great damage. Though it appears he will govern as a blundering plutocrat, he ran as a populist racist. In so doing, he legitimized and encouraged a racialized vitriol that will take years to defeat. Among the many signs of this new era is the dangerous spike in hate crimes.

But it is not the only sign, or even the most important. Despite its long pedigree, violence has never been the first weapon for those who claim cultural supremacy in this country. Far more common, and far more potent, is the prideful and patriotic insistence—often backed by law—that some voices do not represent the authentic American experience. Those voices must be silenced. And it is this battle for cultural supremacy—the contest over the range of acceptable voices and views—that represents what matters most about the Trump presidency. We are once again in a contest over the meaning of national identity.

The battle rages across the country, on job sites and factory floors as much as courtrooms and capitols. One skirmish—minor in the scheme of things but important for what it represents—is underway in San Diego. Earlier this month, the San Diego School District announced that it was developing a plan to combat Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslim students in San Diego schools. The announcement came after a survey by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that over half the Muslim students in California had been bullied or harassed at school because of their religion.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, school calendars will show Islamic holidays, students will learn about Islam in social studies, and safe places for Muslim students will be created on school grounds. The plan will also take a novel approach toward students who bully their Muslim peers. Rather than being placed in detention, “the school will use a restorative-justice method involving the student who did the bullying speaking with [the Muslim student].” Sounds pretty radical.

Despite its evident moderation, the school district has been pilloried for its abject capitulation to Islamic radicals and terrorists. At the website of the Angry Patriot, for instance, 35,000 people “liked” an article with the headline, “Islamic Takeover CONFIRMED—American School Surrenders to SHARIA LAW.” Among other things, the anonymous author railed against restorative justice as forcing the bully “to be BRAINWASHED into accepting Sharia law.” Some of the coverage of this brouhaha is available here and here. The school district’s response to some of the more common questions and misconceptions can be found here.

Responses like these typify a particular cultural vision that has always existed in the United States but that has been greatly emboldened by the Trump campaign and presidency. Its supporters are dangerous, and in some parts of the country represent a meaningful constituency, but their views are so out of touch with reality that they remain marginal. Or so I would like to believe.

More interesting is the claim that the San Diego plan runs afoul of the law. A group calling itself “Citizens for Quality Education—San Diego” denounced the school board’s proposal as an unlawful entanglement of church and state. According to the group’s founder, “Students may be taught about religion in its historical context, but public schools may not teach religion and its tenets.”

That’s silly, of course. More than fifty years ago, the Supreme Court considered whether a school district violated the First Amendment when it obligated all students to begin the day by reading along as a teacher read ten verses from the King James Bible, followed by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which the students and teacher recited in unison. The Court struck down the practice but drew a distinction worth recalling:

[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.

In short, teaching about religion—or about any particular religion—is emphatically not the same as either promoting one religion at the expense of another, or of promoting religiosity at the expense of agnosticism or atheism. I for one think students should study “religion and its tenets.” Students ought to study the Bible, just as they should study the Torah, the Koran, and many other religious texts. Such study tends to impart a much-needed sense of tolerance. At least in this respect, I agree with the late Justice Scalia, who believed that government has an interest in “fostering respect for religion generally,” and that “maintaining respect for the religious observances of others is a fundamental civic virtue that government (including the public schools) can and should cultivate.” By teaching about Islam and promoting a safe climate of respect and toleration, the San Diego school district has done nothing wrong.

But all of this is merely the detritus of war. In the Age of Trump, the question is whether those who believe in a culture free of fear and intimidation will regain or retain the upper hand. In a legalistic society, the law naturally finds itself within the theater of operations, but so too is the public square. It is far too early to say which side will prevail, and I do not have enough faith in the country to hazard a prediction. Much depends on whether Trump decides to fan the populist, racist flames as he did during the campaign. So far at least, the San Diego School Board shows no sign of backing down. For now, the rampart holds.

3 responses to “What We Really Mean by the Culture War”

  1. ingeborg oppenheimer says:

    i agree with the professor’s argument, but only so long as the tenets of all religions are taught, not just those of islam. the approach should be something like: “these are the beliefs of [judaism, catholicism, protestantism, hinduism, islam, etc]. and course materials must be prepared in such a way that they do not reflect a preference – either explicitly or in some subtle way – of one religion over others. that may present a huge challenge for strictly believing teachers and school official, but it’s certainly worth the effort.

  2. Malcolm Little says:

    Schools should teach American students about religion and Islam in particular as most will be victimized by Islamic hatred at some point in their life. For instance, students should be told that Malcolm X was the original 9/11 mastermind who instructed Muslims, “to slap airplanes out of the sky to kill white crackers in the name of Allah.” Malcolm X traveled to the Middle East to promote this violence to other Muslims including a young and impressionable Osama Bin Laden.

  3. Diana Potter says:

    Excellent. Thank you. We can only hope that other school systems will adopt this way of dealing with the despicable bigotry that Trump has loosed from under the rock where, though we thought it was at least moribund if not dead, it was only hiding until Trump officially sanctioned its release.