For the past fifty years, to be “counter-cultural” meant to stand in opposition to dominant views of marriage, family, abortion, education, and host of other contentious social issues. Those dominant views—the culture—embraced and advanced the norms of marriage between a man and woman and the expectation that marriage centrally involved conception and raising of children. Toward that end, they sought to encourage responsible and always challenging norms of pre-marital chastity, disapproval of contraceptives, and norms of courtship, and they held that sexual pairing should occur solely within the bounds of marriage. Many people fell short of these norms, but that well-known fact did not neutralize or dislocate those norms as standards that stood as guides to practice. Most institutions, ranging from families and communities to Churches, even to a legal regime that existed to order and shape such decisions, constituted the dominant culture governing the perilous and fraught time of coming-of-age, marriage, and family life.
In the 1960s especially, a movement that came to be known as the “counter-culture” fought against what it regarded to be the unjust and overly-limiting strictures of the dominant culture. It called out hypocrisy of the frequent gap between norm and practice, accusing shortfalls not in practice, but in the norms themselves. It steadily sought to destabilize those standards and replace them with a new set of norms—the broad acceptance of contraceptives, the legalization of abortion on demand, the celebration of pre-marital sex, widespread access and normalization of pornography, and, most recently, the fundamental redefinition of marriage and even gender that has now been re-inscribed in law and pervades the culture.
The transformation of modern American society in the space of fifty years has been unprecedented, dramatic, and breathtaking. Only eight years ago, Senator Obama campaigned as a “conservative” on the question of marriage, opposing the redefinition of marriage to include homosexuals. Today, after a period of “evolution,” his support of homosexual marriage is shared by large percentages of the American public and has been endorsed by the Supreme Court. Those who defend what is now called “traditional marriage” or definitions of gender based in biology are increasingly marginalized by the dominant institutions of American society—in the universities, the media, corporations and major players like the NCAA, NFL, NASCAR, and even Bruce Springsteen.
Ironically, to be “counter-cultural” was also to be an opponent of capitalism, a system that it accused of advancing a rapacious view toward nature and instilling greed as a main motivation of behavior. On this front, the “counter-culture” was less successful and largely made its peace with the market system, with Hillary Clinton being a prime example of erstwhile “counter-culture” warriors who have become exceedingly cozy with Wall Street, while many of leading corporations have signed on to the liberationist sexual project of our age, showing you could love both lucre and liberation.
Because of the breathtaking speed of this transformation, we still tend to think that the liberationist movement of the 1960s constitutes the “counter-culture,” which stands opposed by “conservatives” who seek to defend a host of culture-shaping institutions. This is often the attitude and position of culture warriors on both the Left and the Right. However, today it is clear that those who would defend “traditional” notions of sexuality now constitute the “counter-culture,” while those support the dismantling of whatever sexual norms remain are The Culture. Thus, counter-cultural warriors of yesteryear are today’s “conservatives,” that is, those who seek to defend the dominant culture that is advanced in and through most major institutions of American society, from media to sports to schools and universities to the government. “Liberals” today are more likely than ever to fight to preserve Supreme Court precedents that enshrine this new set of cultural norms, while “conservatives” are increasingly an embattled minority seeking less to roll back this dominant culture than to weather it in whatever institutions that still support traditional norms—and hence their ferocious efforts to secure space for “religious liberty.”
Today’s “conservatives” are misnamed: there is very little for them left to conserve, given the widespread redefinition or dismantling of most tradition-bearing institutions. They are instead the “counter-culture,” opponents of the new norms that are now reinforced in institutions and practices that were once the preserve of tradition. Many conservatives remain locked in the belief that they are an election or Supreme Court appointment away from restoring those institutions to their former glory, and thus that they remain “conservatives” of what they hold to be underlying soundness of those institutions. They have not come to grips with the fact that the culture they seek to defend has been irreparably disassembled for the foreseeable future.
Thus, “conservatives”—or, more accurately, today’s counter-culture—are in an exceedingly difficult situation. Given conservatism’s natural reliance upon norm-shaping institutions to convey and reinforce culture, what can it now do to advance and defend its newly unfashionable views of human flourishing, particularly given the fact that most leading cultural institutions are now opposed to its views?
This question is more than theoretical, since it goes to the heart of how the University of Notre Dame will exist and thrive in a world that regards key Catholic beliefs not only to be unfashionable, but bigoted and even illegal. Notre Dame, for most of its history, sought to gain acceptance and esteem by the broader culture, believing that it could at once advance the condition of its immigrant students while co-existing and even in ways influencing a culture whose norms—if Protestant—were nevertheless broadly shared by Catholics.
In recent years, it has succeeded in ascending to the very heights of respect and esteem by the dominant culture. However, that culture today increasingly stands in opposition to much of the Church’s fundamental teachings, both in morals and economics. We live in an age dominated by libertarian views of sexuality and economics, both at odds with the deepest commitments of Catholic teaching. Notre Dame has spent so much of its existence attempting to become part of the culture that, having succeeded, it is increasingly and deeply compromised by those efforts. As an institution, it is ill-equipped for the position that is increasingly thrust upon it by a transformed age: to succeed in what it claims to be its foremost commitments, Notre Dame will increasingly have to become a counter-cultural institution.
To do that is tantamount to the task of changing the course of the Titanic. Notre Dame has been almost wholly dominated by and committed to the project of wedding itself to the dominant culture of America, believing it to be fundamentally consonant with its Catholic commitments. But it faces a crossroads different and far more imposing than the gigantic edifices it now erects as a testimony to its own success. Can it be true to its deepest beliefs by charting a course as a voice and witness distinctive from the spirit of the age—by being a counter-cultural force for good in the world—or will it maintain its historic institutional mission of joining itself to the dominant culture, even when that culture is now fundamentally defined by hedonism, greed and individualism? If our task is truly to be a force for good in the world, we will not be able to avoid the fateful choice whether to continue to simply go along with the culture or to forge a new path – one of counter-culture – in the hopes that it may someday be the source of a new culture grounded in faith, hope, and love.
Patrick Deneen is an Associate Professor of Political Science and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.