by Ed West
Monday, 2
August 2021

It’s the Reformation all over again

Today's culture wars pit factions of post-1968 progressives against each other
by Ed West
Transgender protesters: the old culture wars in a new form?

Back in the olden days of football, Celtic manager Jock Stein said that, if he was offered the choice of two players, one Protestant and one Catholic, he would sign the Protestant “because I know Rangers would never sign the Catholic.” The city’s Protestant club held faster to the tradition of refusing to sign Catholic players, not broken until 1989 with Mo Johnstone.

We call such thinking bigotry today, from the Norman French bigot, an excessively religious person, but during the great religious divide that split Europe for centuries people would have viewed rival interpretations of the faith as genuinely dangerous. If we allowed their faith to proliferate, if we allowed it to be normalised, it would cause genuine harm; we must stop the hate it causes. But in some cases, as with Scotland and Ireland, one side was clearly more fired up by the evils of the other.

Fast forward to the 21st century where, no longer held back by religious superstition, political debate is theoretically made up of pure distilled reason and iron logic.

Except, this time with the internet rather than the printing press, Europe is going through a second Reformation, with daily clashes between followers of the old faith and new. Politics is the new faith — never mind that most people aren’t culture warriors, and just want to be left alone, the same was probably true of most people during the first Reformation.

At the start of Elizabeth I’s reign, and well into it, Catholics and their sympathisers formed a majority of the English population, the new Protestant faith mainly concentrated among a highly-educated elite in the cities. By the end of the reign, the country was almost defined by its opposition to Catholicism. Some believe Shakespeare to be a Catholic or Catholic sympathiser, but most likely he was just the median 16th century floating voter who was reasonably happy as things were before but went along with the new order to get along.

An entirely new moral order had been built, new rules established, with Catholics gradually socially ostracised. They were “cancelled”, in a really serious way. Yet the need for purity meant that many weren’t satisfied by mere reform; the culture wars of that era moved on from Catholics to pitting different Protestant groups against each other, such as the English Civil War with the old believers reluctantly supporting whichever side was less extreme.

A similar transformation of cultural values has occurred during the reign of the second Elizabeth: the country from season one of The Crown is almost unrecognisable today. Indeed it has moved on so much that most “culture war” debate today is between different groups of post-1968 progressives.

The dispute over transgenderism is in some ways the defining debate of our time, and it’s one in which conservatives are almost completely absent, most of the heavy lifting (so to speak) done by feminist writers and activists. After 11 years of a Tory in Downing Street, among the only pushback we’ve seen on social issues, the Government’s distancing from Stonewall,  has been largely thanks to activism by radical feminists.

Many of these radical feminists now appear in conservative publications on this issue, as Suzanne Moore explains today, whereas much fewer conservative writers can be found in Left-wing publications. Perhaps, like the previous culture wars, one side just takes its faith more seriously.

Join the discussion

  • “…and it’s one in which conservatives are almost completely absent, most of the heavy lifting (so to speak) done by feminist writers and activists.”
    I can’t speak for England, but conservatives are not absent so much as having been denied the battlefield here in the US. Which doesn’t make them any less of a fighter in the cultural wars, but more like guerrilla fighters. And that is the main problem. It isn’t so much a fight between various factions of progressivism, but the attempted removal of half of the population from the world of ideas simply because the other half doesn’t like those ideas in the slightest. To say nothing of the reasons that those ideas exist and are followed by millions.
    But of those guerrilla fighters, Unherd is definitely one of them, along with any group or publication that is willing to hold counter-ideas, to push at the bounds of what has been declared by fiat to be acceptable.

  • “no longer held back by religious superstition,”

    WTF? You were talking about a couple decades ago, Religious Superstition? I think the false Liberalism/Religion debate has addled your brain.

    Christian religion is not some superstitious claptrap. It has the most massive intellectualism behind it. 2000 years of devoted intellectual thinking. 100 of the worlds top philosophers were Christian, the Medieval monks in their tens of thousands hand copied books so the ‘university educated, multi-lingual, priests could educate the leaders, it has extremely sophisticated Theology – universities were all Church in origin, science its self came from the Church – without it you would be out in the rain digging turnips with a digging stick and trying to snare a rabbit for your family, awaiting the next plundering hoard. The Church has laws, philosophy, creed and cultus, leadership and hierarchy, and all is based on tens of thousands of books and highly trained Priests. A million have served it, and died for it, that your ilk may live in civilization.

    Liberalism has no BOOK, no structured philosophy, no law, no organized education, no hierarchy – it is mere anarchy of hatred of the system which created it and provided for it. Liberalism is a disorganized cult, it is mere superstition and fallacies, bigotry, foolishness, self harming policy, self loathing, and is a pathology on the world. It is where superstition lays. CRT? 1619? BLM? are those your structures of intellectualism, creeds, laws, and theology? Within 50 years Liberalism will have destroyed the Global Economy and your offspring will be out with their digging sticks grubbing turnips in the rain again.

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