What Do We Miss When We Call Them “Culture Wars”?

By: Bethany Moreton

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

At the 2018 World Congress of Families gathering in Kishiniev, Moldova, ultraconservative Georgian millionaire Levan Vasadze reminded all of us in the audience that the annual gathering of sexual traditionalists has migrated from West to East—though he modestly declined to refer to his own decisive role in this shift. But the oligarch’s personal funding was a decisive factor in bringing the 2016 congress to Tbilisi and ensuring that it would coincide with the local anniversary of a violent attack, led by Orthodox priests, against gay pride demonstrators.

As reporting by Masha Gessen, Peter Montgomery, and Christina Pushow makes clear, Vasadze himself exemplifies the shifting relationship of American conservatives to the former Soviet Union. Recent commentators left and right have remarked on the irony of conservative American indifference to Republican collusion with Putin’s Russia. But in Slouching towards Moscow: American Evangelicals and the Romance of Russia (Harvard University Press, forthcoming), I analyze this relationship from the First Red Scare to the rise of Russian leadership in the international “traditional family” movement. Across this hundred-year history, Russia has provided U.S. religious conservatism with a critical foil for shoring up sexual traditionalism, Christian capitalism, and the white backlash against black liberation domestically and decolonization internationally. The current vogue of Russian authoritarianism and Orthodoxy among the white supremacist right is only the most dramatic expression of an enduring and flexible relationship. 

Vasadze’s career, and the international family values movement more broadly, suggest that the upsurge in sexually traditional, blood-and-soil racist populism is not reducible to symbolic politics. In popular usage, the “culture wars” frame has come to imply emotional, irrational attachments that are manipulated to mask serious political concerns like the distribution of wealth or the organization of labor and resources. Rather, the intense investment in sexual conformity, racial purity, and masculine authority are themselves fundamental economic concerns because they structure the intergenerational distribution of resources, services, risk, debt, and life chances in societies experiencing the dramatic upward redistribution of wealth that has accompanied neoliberal globalization.

Vasadze’s own trajectory was shaped from the outset by the active promotion of corporate free-market principles in religiously affiliated universities of the American South. He spent the summer of 1993 studying at the Advanced Management Institute for Eastern European Executives—a project launched by Georgetown University in conjunction with a retired McKinsey consultant who drew upon his experience aiding the Republican privatization of government departments in the United States to advise the new breed of managers and entrepreneurs from post-Soviet republics. From there, Vasadze moved on to pursue an MBA at Emory University. After graduating, he returned home to senior positions in Russian banking, telecom, and insurance before launching his own private equity firm. He relates this period, however, as one of growing disillusionment with Western economic liberalism and immorality. Vasadze became a public figure in his native Georgia in 2013, when he allied with the Georgian Orthodox Church to mobilize violent anti-gay opposition and began supporting the creation of paramilitary patrols against public LGBT demonstrations. Russia and a Russian-aligned Georgia, he argues, can ground an economic renaissance not by imitating the West but by resisting its decadence.

Speaking at the Kishiniev World Congress of Families, Vasadze stressed that the movement must offer a practical program to halt the slide into “demographic winter,” the term that the movement uses for declining birthrates among European whites. The twentieth century, he explained, gave rise to a new kind of person, “homo urbanicus hedonicus,” among whom “men and women perform identical functions,” so “why NOT men in skirts and high heels?” He urged active government policy to return families to farms, where an extra child is an economic asset. Allan Carlson, the American co-founder of the international family values movement and a student of Southern Agrarianism and Catholic distributism, chaired a panel on “Economy and Demography: Why the Future of Society Depends on the Family.” It included affiliates of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, both creatures of the right-wing libertarian oil fortunes that have poured millions of dollars into climate change denial. Deregulated economies require intensely regulated families to absorb the social costs.

This relationship between seemingly disparate economic and sexual visions has a hallmark of American investments in Russia—spiritual, affective, and institutional—for over a century. At the end of the Cold War, U.S. missionaries made the interdependence of economic liberalism and sexual conservatism thoroughly explicit. For example, right-wing oil and banking billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded the Institute for East-West Christian Studies to host conferences in which American missionaries, Christian academics, and “consultants” from the telecom, finance, and oil industries came together to tutor their new colleagues on the literal sanctity of contracts and to lay out the moral stakes in this moment of opportunity: Prosperity could only be secured through spiritual renewal. In the early nineties, similar missionary enterprises reached thousands of post-Soviet educators through live seminars and video libraries on topics like “The Biblical Portrait of Marriage” and the moral rules of market exchange.

The embrace of an illiberal yet market-oriented vision of the “oikonomeia” can also be seen in the trend toward Orthodox conversion among American conservatives. A dramatic Reagan-era mass evangelical defection to Orthodoxy—17 parishes, 2,000 communicants—was led by men who had devoted years of their lives to some of the most important institutions of American evangelicalism. Celebrity conversions and eruptions of overt support for white ethnonationalism among some new Orthodox communicants and seminarians has kept the issue alive in conservative Christian circles. Issues of sexual purity and patriarchal authority have been paramount among their concerns. Some white Southern traditionalists see the former Confederate states as a particularly promising Orthodox mission ground. 

This history suggests that the “culture wars” cannot be dismissed as the understandable resentment of a downwardly mobile working class snubbed and offended by a cosmopolitan elite: The most reliable predictor of a vote for Donald Trump, after all, was neither low income nor low education, but whiteness and, following that, masculinity; white evangelicals of both sexes, too, unified in overwhelming support. Levan Vasadze and Richard Mellon Scaife understand the foundational link between their economic vision and the “cultural” issues of sexual and racial hierarchy—of reproduction and inheritance—that underwrite it. This frame of reference seems productive for analyzing the current potency of revived traditionalism in both the former Cold War superpowers.

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