Politicized culture wars are debilitating because they almost always require partisans to denigrate the moral legitimacy of their opponents, and sometimes to deny their very humanity. It's often not enough to defeat a foe. Satisfaction only comes from an adversary's humiliation.
One other thing about culture wars: One side typically has absolutely no understanding of what the other is trying to say.
That is why the battle over whether religious institutions should be required to cover contraception under the new health-care law was so painful -- and why it was so hard to comprehend why President Barack Obama, who has been a critic of culture wars for so long, did not try to defuse this explosive question from the beginning.
It's also why he was right, finally, to reach a compromise that respected the legitimate concerns of each side. He should have done this at the outset, but far better late than never.
That so many liberal Catholics supported the church's core claim surprised both Catholic conservatives and more secular liberals. There are lessons here, and that includes lessons for Obama.
Those of us who are liberal Catholics have remained in the church for reasons beyond tribal loyalties or a desire to honor the traditions of our parents and grandparents. At the heart of the love many of us have for the church -- despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the sexual-abuse scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due -- is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the gospel demands.
When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers, and laypeople. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.
For liberals who sided with the church in this controversy, the most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception is that it defined "religious" so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their gospel-inspired work was defined as nonreligious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church's social-justice imperatives.
Some conservative Catholics still insist that the relief from regulation that Obama offered is not enough. I hope they reconsider, especially since the Catholic service providers most affected by the revised rule welcomed it. What bothers liberal Catholics about the arguments advanced by some of our conservative friends is that the Catholic right seems so eager to focus the church's witness to the world on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and, now, perhaps, contraception that they would effectively, if not necessarily intentionally, relegate the church's social-justice work and teaching to second-class status.
Liberal Catholics were proud to stand with conservatives in defending the church's religious liberty rights in carrying out its social and charitable mission. Now, we'd ask conservatives to consider that what makes the gospel so compelling -- especially for the young, many of whom are leaving the church -- is the central role it assigns to our responsibilities to act on behalf of the needy, the left-out and the abandoned.
And we'd ask our non-Catholic liberal friends to think about this, too. Many of us agreed that broad contraception coverage was, as a general matter, a good thing, and we shared their concern for women's rights. But we were troubled that some with whom we usually agree seemed to relish a fight with the church and defined any effort to accommodate its anxieties as "selling out."
As a young politician put it in 2006, "There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ëChristian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith."
Barack Obama, who spoke those words, finally figured out that a sensible compromise on contraception was far better than a running cultural and religious war. The administration would do well not to lose track of that guy again.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).