The Battle Is Over, but the War Goes On

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Perhaps nothing about President Bush's re-election unhinged Democrats more than the roughly 20% of voters who cited "moral values" as their top concern. Never mind the tizzy of soul searching it has provoked among party officials. (Why do churchgoers hate us? Is Howard Dean too godless to head the Democratic National Committee?) You can't even have a beer with a rank-and-file liberal these days without the conversation degenerating into paranoid fantasies about how evangelical leaders are at this very minute hunkered down in Bush überadviser Karl Rove's office plotting to institute an Old Testament theocracy overseen by Attorney General Jerry Falwell.

Even sober liberals express anxiety about the impact the perceived political clout of religious conservatives will have on American society. Will abortion be outlawed? Will stem-cell research be derailed? Will Queer Eye for the Straight Guy get canceled?

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No, no and no (at least not until the ratings tank). With all due respect to conservatives' electoral achievements, the cultural changes that helped drive them to the polls this year — most notably stem-cell research and gay marriage — are still barreling down the pike like souped-up Hummers. Stem-cell science will progress with or without Washington's support. (Indeed, thanks to Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California will be raising $3 billion to advance the cause.) And once the science reaches a certain point, most legislators will undergo a conversion. It's one thing to oppose research that still looks like a barely conceivable long shot. It's another thing to stare at a child with juvenile diabetes or sickle-cell anemia and tell him he can't get a cure developed with embryos by a biotech firm in California.

On the scorching-hot issue of gay marriage, progress is even more certain. The occasional discriminatory ballot initiative notwithstanding, there has been a sea change in public attitudes toward homosexuality since the early 1990s. The mere idea that Will & Grace could have been a mainstream hit 20 years ago is absurd. Today millions of red-state residents enjoy shows like Queer Eye, even if most Americans still aren't ready for his-and-his nuptials. Polls indicate that about half the population supports some form of gay union. And younger Americans (those under 30) are vastly more accepting of gay marriage, gay adoption and homosexuality than the population in general. Simply put: while the Bush White House may be on the side of social conservatives, time is not.

Conservatives see the writing on the wall, and it's the sense that the approaching juggernaut is unstoppable that fuels the political backlash. What conservatives cannot prevent in the broader culture they hope to at least retard, even if only around the edges, through the electoral process. But as with women's rights and civil rights, the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.

Democrats found this election discombobulating because no matter how often they hear about a divided America, most blue staters — especially coastal elite types — still don't quite grasp that their world view is not shared by everyone. Day to day, liberals have the luxury of ignoring conservative America. Only occasionally does some red-state phenomenon like The Passion of the Christ intrude on our consciousness, and even then it's usually because of some outrage it sparks among a particular interest group on the left. Social conservatives, by contrast, cannot escape the world view of blue staters. Every time they go to the movies or turn on the television or open their child's school books they're reminded that traditional values ain't what they used to be. (Many liberals will be horrified to hear that two-thirds of Americans think creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes.) Forget aggressively raunchy shows like Sex and the City or Temptation Island. Even the mainstream megahit Friends featured a parade of bed hopping, divorce, lesbianism and out-of-wedlock births that would have raised howls of protest not so long ago.

If anything, social conservatives don't realize the full depth of blue-state America's condescension. They assume that liberals sit around all day thinking about how much smarter or more sophisticated or more enlightened they are than social conservatives. Truth be told, most of the time liberals don't bother to think about social conservatives at all. Except at election time, when they suddenly become aware of them as some frightening, incomprehensible menace to their otherwise comfortably progressive society.

If you look at the country that way, it's only fair that conservatives have their moment in the sun. They may have won the battle, but their prospects for the broader culture war remain dim.