The July issue of the Forum features Russell Johnson’s (University of Chicago) essay, “The Struggle Is Real: Understanding the American ‘Culture War.’ ” Three recent books all claim the culture war is over, though they come to different conclusions about why. Their different points, this essay argues, illustrate not why the culture war is over, but rather why it is so endlessly fascinating. In response to these books, this essay clarifies what exactly the culture war is, and how to understand in what sense it is still a part of American life. The culture war brings together a diverse array of political, religious, and cultural ideas into a neat dichotomy that has managed to persist through decades of social change.
Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Johnson’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
by Russell Johnson
Three recent books all claim the culture war is over, though they give quite different explanations. I argue that their different interpretations illustrate not why the culture war is over, but rather why it is so endlessly fascinating. In response to these books, this article clarifies what exactly the culture war is, and how to understand in what sense it is still a part of American life.
First, Rod Dreher argues that the culture war is over and religious conservatives have lost, and cites as evidence the nationwide legalization of gay marriage. In response to this widely-shared sentiment, I argue that a closer look at the protean history of the culture war since the early 1960s shows that it cannot be reduced to any one issue, nor should we be too quick to declare it over.
Second, Philip Gorski writes that the idea of two warring sides does not accurately represent the American populace. Americans have both more in common and greater diversity than any attempt to specify two “sides” can capture. I agree with Gorski, but maintain that while the strict dichotomy of the culture war fails as a demographic description, we must nevertheless consider why moral discourse in America tends to fall into dichotomous culture war categories.
Third, historian Andrew Hartman concludes that the culture war is over and capitalism won. Economic factors, he writes, are now more determinative for American behavior and ideology than the two moral narratives of the culture war. I argue that, while it may be true that economic motives, racial motives, and foreign policy motives have recently—especially in Donald Trump’s campaign—been more prevalent than culture war motives, nonetheless this the culture war framework is still salient for most Americans.
I will not engage these specific authors’ arguments in the depth they deserve; I will simply argue that the three positions they represent are each partly true and partly misleading. My conclusion is that anyone hoping to make moral arguments in contemporary America—even arguments about how we need to move beyond the culture war—still needs to take into account the dominant narratives of the culture war.
I. The Struggle to Define America
In Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, arguably this year’s most blogged-about Christian ethics book, the author minces no words about the culture war: “Today the culture war as we know it is over. The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins.”1 For Dreher, the values voters’ last stand was on the issue of gay marriage, and he declares that after Obergefell, “The culture war that began with the sexual revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives.”2 When one understands the history of moral debate over the last half-century, however, it becomes clear that fixating too narrowly on gay marriage legalization underestimates the protean, persistent nature of the culture war.
The American culture war has deep historical roots, going at least as far back as the Civil War. Precursors to the modern culture war include the modernist/fundamentalist controversy at the turn of the century and the Scopes Trial of 1926. After the Second World War, a realignment of political, social, and religious discourse occurred, and a new fault line rose in prominence which relativized denominational and even religious lines.3 This was a gradual development, but a convenient date to mark the beginning of the modern culture war is 1962. In that year, the Supreme Court ruling Engel v. Vitale made mandatory prayer in public schools illegal. This landmark decision galvanized many religious believers—including Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—to reconsider the role of religion in public life. People organized around the idea that certain institutions—families, mainly, but also schools, churches, and the arts—foster moral values and form better citizens. The political order has a vested interest in preserving and strengthening these institutions. Their logic is anticipated by De Tocqueville, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” The instruments of law can and should be used, not to make people moral or religious directly, but to preserve the institutions that foster the virtues essential for good citizenship. This idea became a rallying cry in the 1960s and 1970s.
America in the 1960s also saw the rise of another ethos. Liberation, self-expression, and revolution were the words on everyone’s lips (N.B. also “groovy”). Groups questioned whether established cultural mores, social roles, and artistic conventions stifle authenticity. One aspect of this revolutionary spirit came to be called “identity politics,” as second-wave feminism, the black power movement, and the gay rights movement were all emerging. Though these movements started independently—and in some cases distanced themselves from each other—they gave voice to a common message: groups that have been marginalized by the dominant political system need to stand against oppressive forces. The status quo, they reasoned, was sustained by violence and inequality, therefore efforts to shake things up were needed in the realization of a better world. This political message was expressed in the arts by a rebellious, non-conformist spirit. As Cat Stevens sang in 1970, “You can do what you want/ The opportunity’s on/ And if you can find a new way/ You can do it today/ You can make it all true/ And you can make it undo.” Music, legislation, philosophy, poetry, and activism were all blended together in sixties radicals’ efforts to “make it undo” and “find a new way.”
In different ways, then, both “sides” of the emerging culture war latched onto the idea that the personal is political and the political is personal. That is why so many different realms of culture—education, law, film and television, sex and family life, churches and synagogues, news media, symbols like flags and monuments—could all be framed as battlefronts in the struggle to define America. The two sides are really two narratives about America; we can call these two narratives “social justice” and “traditional values.” The “social justice” narrative is of uneven progress toward greater equality, inclusion, and freedom of self-expression. That narrative ends with a summons to choose for yourself, stand up for the marginalized, and question established norms. The “traditional values” narrative is of decline from religious faithfulness, independence, and moral absolutes. That narrative ends with a summons to cultivate virtue, return to time-tested wisdom, and preserve civilizing institutions. As they have been told since the sixties, both narratives presuppose that changes in one area of culture have effects—sometimes ripples, sometimes shockwaves—on all the others. One song can ignite a revolution. One pill can change a generation. One story can sustain a community. This wide scope, the high stakes, and the ability of the two narratives to connect seemingly disparate dots have contributed to the pervasiveness and longevity of the culture war framework.
Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. This has certainly been the case with the culture war. Over the last fifty-five years, the two narratives have been used to interpret a panoply of events and provide perspectives on a range of issues. So, a college freshman in 2013 who says that Miley Cyrus is not a good role model is unknowingly rehashing criticisms made about the Beatles in the sixties, The Doors in the seventies, Madonna in the eighties, 2 Live Crew in the nineties, and Britney Spears in the aughts. He may have never even heard of Twisted Sister (millennials…) but his criticisms, as it were, rhyme with those made before he was born, and the same could be said of most of the conflicts that make up the culture war. Debates over the HB2 “bathroom bill” in North Carolina rhyme with debates about women in the military. The rhetoric surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest rhymes with the rhetoric surrounding the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. Some of the original controversies that sparked the culture war (over prayer in public schools, for example) are no longer hot-button issues, and some new issues (preteens sexting, for example) were never imagined by sixties culture warriors. The frameworks of moral progress toward freedom and moral decline from truth can accommodate changing circumstances, so no single battle is decisive.
Of course, Dreher and others can accept that the culture war is ongoing but maintain that the victories have overwhelmingly been for one side. The shift from prayer in schools to sexting in schools, and from mop-tops to twerking, show that even if the traditional values voters are still fighting, they have lost ground. But many of the issues that have been disputed for decades—abortion laws, teaching evolution and intelligent design, the Western canon in universities, First Amendment rights, school choice—are still hotly contested. If nothing else, the question of the status of Muslims in America—typically framed in culture war terms—is proof that culture war rhetoric is still galvanizing opinions. When one takes all of these debates, old and new, into account, it is not obvious that one narrative has triumphed over the other in the struggle to define America. (I will add that even attempts to move beyond the culture war, like Dreher’s own “Benedict Option,” sound suspiciously like strategic retreats in the culture war instead of concessions of defeat.)
II. Fighting Words
To delve further into the logic of the culture war, we must distinguish between two senses of “culture war.” In 1992, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, proclaiming that nominee George H.W. Bush was a “champion of the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built,” whereas his opponent Bill Clinton stood for “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat units.” At the climax of the speech, Buchanan said, “My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”4 In Buchanan’s speech, and in much political discourse since then, the “culture war” refers to a divide between two groups of people: religious conservatives and secular liberals. Each group is united in its convictions, if not ideologically homogeneous. On this rendering, the culture war is a demographic reality. There is an “our side” and an “other side,” and we can identify which side an individual is on by a checklist of the stances they take on morally contested issues.
The second sense of “culture war” comes from sociologist James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars, published the year before Buchanan’s speech. According to Hunter’s influential thesis, Americans hold a wide range of moral commitments, but these get framed in public discourse as one epic struggle between two competing worldviews. A host of debated issues, each with a range of possible positions, get clustered together in the media into two opposing sides. These sides, both misleadingly monolithic, are “fundamentally opposing visions of the meaning of America: what it has been, what it is, and what it should be.”5 Hunter’s book was an attempt to explain how previous cultural divisions, such as between Protestants and Catholics, had since the 1960s been superseded in the American imagination by this new cultural fault line. The book also explains how, although the majority of Americans hold views between or outside this binary, the voices that shape public debate nonetheless fall along culture war lines. “Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment,” Hunter writes, “get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”6 The second sense of “culture war,” then, is Hunter’s understanding of culture war as a rhetorical phenomenon.
Philip Gorksi, in American Covenant, argues that the idea of two ideological monoliths does not do justice to the web of overlapping traditions that make up the American moral imagination.7 Like Gorski, many sociologists have pointed out that the culture-war-as-demographic-reality idea does not accurately represent present-day America.8 When polled or interviewed, Americans show a remarkable diversity of views on social issues, and at the same time show widespread agreement on moral principles. To isolate two opposing sides does injustice to both the diversity and unanimity of opinion in the U.S. This is not a disproof of Hunter’s original thesis, it is in fact a key part of Hunter’s argument. “Without a doubt,” Hunter writes, “public discourse is more polarized than the American public itself.” Hunter argues that the culture war is more characteristic of institutions and the media than individuals’ beliefs, writing, “It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of that vast majority of citizens who position themselves ‘somewhere in the middle’ of these debates.”9
The culture war does not reflect a simple divide between people’s worldviews, so much as it is something that happens when people argue with one another in public. The two narratives—traditional values and social justice—frame the debate, even for the majority of people whose beliefs do not fall neatly in line with either side.
The narratives function as what ancient Greeks call topoi, commonplaces that serve as bridges between the customary and the new. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke argues that humans use topoi to create identifications: this is like that, so think and feel about this the way you think and feel about that. We make sense of unfamiliar events by using symbols to connect them to familiar ones. For example, the current investigation of President Trump is framed as either a “witch hunt” or a “Watergate moment.” In a similar fashion, the two opposing narratives of the culture war provide readymade frameworks through which people interpret current events. Through the ways we talk about them, new developments become only the latest instances of familiar trends—of liberation, of perseverance, of injustice, of decadence. A person who finds one of these narratives compelling will tend to respond positively to advocacy that presupposes that narrative. Hence, advocacy for a moral position on an issue often gets framed in terms of one of these two narratives. As speakers and writers appeal to them to create identifications in their audiences’ minds, these narratives are nourished and transformed through continued use. As Hunter says, public discourse takes on “a life of its own.”
Now, it is worth mentioning that few people adhere exclusively to one of these two narratives. Even among the most fervent culture warriors on both sides, some things are getting better but others are getting worse. There are some timeless moral truths but there is some room for innovation and reinterpretation. It is perfectly reasonable to believe in both identity politics and family values. Individuals can thus reject the way events get framed, or find themselves telling different narratives for different issues.
Of course, we also spend most of our daily lives without thinking about these moral narratives, so middle-class Americans on opposing sides of culture-war-as-demographic-description tend to live remarkably similar lives. We drive to work, pet dogs, celebrate birthdays, buy shoes, and watch basketball. We bake cupcakes, listen to Adele, and think about jogging but decide not to. Polarization thrives, not in our everyday lives, but in the media we consume and produce. When we read the news, get in arguments on Facebook, make signs for a protest, watch late night comedy, or listen to stump speeches, we find ourselves on the front lines of the culture war.
Given that people have so many different moral and political commitments, why is it that two and only two narratives set the agenda for moral discourse in America? Why is it that even people who want to promote alternate moral visions have to position themselves in relation to these two sides? In trying to answer this question, Hunter emphasizes that the culture war is a product of elites and institutions, and that alternate visions often lack the cultural capital to make themselves heard. I do not dispute this, but talking in terms of elites and institutions can give the impression of a conspiracy. These politicians, lobbyists, writers, and advocacy groups are the primary agents of culture war polarization, but they, too, are swept up in patterns of discourse that have taken on “a life of their own.” Drawing on political theory and social psychology, I will now give a brief outline of how this binary is sustained.
In the 1950s, a sociologist named Maurice Duverger theorized that in a winner-takes-all political system, a multiplicity of viewpoints will tend to condense into two major parties. People with varying concerns form coalitions in order to improve their chances of securing at least some of their goals. We see the Duverger effect quite clearly in the American primary system and the continued pressure to abandon third party candidates. A vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump, pundits warned, and a vote for Evan McMullin is a vote for Hillary. Americans have widely diverse political concerns, but because only one candidate can win, the system tends toward two alternatives simply because people think pragmatically about how to avert their own worst case scenarios.
The culture war follows an analogous logic. People form strategic coalitions to defeat the ideas and institutions they believe to be harmful. People intuit connections between one issue and another issue in an effort to persuade others, and issues become linked in their minds. As people take public stands on these issues, there is pressure to preserve a relatively stable front lest the other side gain any ground. Uncertainties, ambiguities, concessions, and middling positions get pushed aside as the pressure to be either “for” or “against” grows stronger. Individuals borrow arguments, slogans, and ideas from public figures on their side in order to persuade others, in the process absorbing some of the assumptions of those authors even if these assumptions are at odds with an individual’s convictions. As psychologists have observed, we tend to accept the attitudes and beliefs of those we spend time with and consider part of an “us.” What starts out as a loose coalition becomes more cohesive and uniform through continued social interaction.10 As other contested issues emerge and new events call for interpretation, these coalitions adapt, expand, and reinforce their own narratives for the sake of consistency, relevance, and steering public opinion. By exposure to each other’s arguments and stories, as well as social pressure to conform, members of an intellectually diverse group come to share attitudes and beliefs on a range of issues. Even when there are intramural disagreements, the felt need to present a unified front makes members sound like one another in public. Since we typically come to believe what we argue for, this too has a homogenizing effect on the speakers.11 All of these factors are at work in the rhetorical phenomenon Hunter describes, “However individuals or organizations align themselves on particular issues, they become subservient to, and if unwilling must struggle against, the dominating and almost irresistible categories and logic of the opposing visions and rhetoric of the culture war.”12
Thus, though Gorski and others are correct to insist that Americans are both more ideologically diverse and more ideologically unified than the strict bipolarity of the culture war framework, culture war rhetoric nonetheless dominates the media. Recognizing that the culture war is primarily a media phenomenon does not make it any less real. After all, the Spanish-American war was largely prompted by the media. Those tempted to dismiss the culture war as “mere rhetoric” would do well to remember the Maine. The culture war as a rhetorical phenomenon has the potential to mobilize, convert, divide, and provoke, and the stark dichotomy of culture war rhetoric is contributing factor to the negative opinions people have of their political opponents.13 To say that people are not actually polarized even though they feel that way is like saying people are not actually sad even though they feel that way. Feelings, attitudes, and impressions are politically significant realities. Even if, as we will discuss next, one believes that culture war rhetoric is a façade that covers deeper motivating forces, the fact that people express their commitments in culture war terms and respond to culture war rhetoric cannot be dismissed as window-dressing.
III. Different Frames
Our third and final book is Andrew Hartman’s 2015 A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Hartman gives a sweeping, readable history of the key figures and debates that make up the culture war. Though the book’s title comes from Pat Buchanan’s speech, Hartman does not limit his analysis to politicians and Religious Right figures. The reader not only encounters Falwells and Dobsons, but professors, lawyers, filmmakers, museum curators, and Ice-T. At the end of this wide-ranging survey, Hartman writes, “This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history. The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.” The culture war has lost its energy, he observes, and leaves only “lingering residues.”14
Like Dreher, Hartman believes that the culture war is over, but unlike Dreher, Hartman does not believe that one side won. Rather, capitalism won the culture war. The ethos that represents American culture is the one “promulgated by Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley.”15 Commercialization has absorbed the critical edge of the social justice narrative and eroded the moral heritage of the traditional values narrative. Hartman does not argue this point at length—in his three-hundred-page book, it is consigned to a seven-page conclusion—but it is a compelling hypothesis.
Of course, one could argue that economics and economic culture has always been more determinative for American politics than the culture war. Remember that the same year Pat Buchanan gave his “cultural war” speech, the Clinton campaign mantra was “it’s the economy stupid”… and Clinton won. Some go further and argue that the culture war was always a distraction from the class war, and that capital is the moving force in American history regardless of the moral narratives we tell ourselves. I will not address these arguments here. Rather, in this final section, I will argue that the culture war framework is one among several frameworks, each of which is necessary but not sufficient to make sense of American public opinion. Even if the culture war framework is less useful than it once was for accounting for contemporary political, artistic, and social behavior, it still has salience for the majority of Americans.
To illustrate this point, let us focus solely on voting and specifically on the Republican Party. The culture war continues to set the terms of the moral debate over, as Hunter puts it, “the meaning of America: what it has been, what it is, and what it should be.” But moral considerations about the meaning of America are not the only concerns people have in mind when they go to the polls. There are a range of concerns that incline people’s opinions, and any candidate with a chance at winning needs to address several of them. It must be remembered that both of the major political parties in America are coalitions of different groups with different principal concerns. The present-day Republican Party in America, for instance, is a coalition of: (1) advocates of libertarian freedom and self-reliance, (2) believers in free market economics, (3) interventionist neoconservatives, (4) white nationalists, and (5) evangelical traditionalists. This is only a partial list, and a deeper typology would involve anti-Communism, isolationism, fiscal responsibility, and Trumpism, not to mention single-issue voters of various stripes and voters who just despise Democratic leaders. Despite substantial overlaps, these groups bring different concerns into their voting booths. A candidate hoping to win the support of these groups has to address their disparate concerns.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a brilliant piece of persuasive rhetoric.16 This slogan—necessarily vague—can be interpreted in different ways by different groups. To free market enthusiasts, it means “make America prosperous again.” To neoconservatives, it means “make America a global powerhouse again.” To white nationalists, it means “make America white again.” Most importantly for our purposes, to believers in the traditional values narrative, it means “make America virtuous again.” Anyone hoping to understand Trump’s victory needs to understand how his campaign appealed to these various groups, including those for whom this moral narrative is particularly salient. And anyone hoping to understand how this current presidency is affecting Americans’ moral imaginations needs to consider what being a part of this coalition does to “traditional values” advocates.
In Trump’s campaign, the rhetoric of the culture war was less important than language that appealed explicitly to voters’ economic interests, racial prejudices, or foreign policy aspirations. But it was still omnipresent in conversations surrounding his candidacy, as values voters questioned whether Trump would represent their commitments. If we define “culture warrior” as a person who regularly draws on the rhetoric of the culture war narratives to interpret events and influence opinions, then Trump is at best a half-hearted culture warrior. But even if culture war reasoning was on the back-burner, it was never wholly absent from Trump’s campaign. In fact, the priorities of the contemporary American Right may be symbolized by the fact that the president is a big-business caricature while the vice president is a traditional culture warrior. This lends credence to Hartman’s hypothesis that economic concerns are more determinative of public opinion than culture war morality. But though culture war rhetoric has taken a back seat for those on the right (and it is not as clear that the same has happened on the left), it still emerges when people talk about morality and the meaning of America.
In conclusion, even if we are in the midst of a new realignment, akin to the one that happened in the sixties, the narratives and categories of the culture war are still setting the moral agenda for churches, schools, and advocacy in the media. A survey of the history of this conflict—which, again, has roots that go back centuries— indicates that these narratives will persist in American public discourse. The question that remains is whether these narratives’ interaction needs to persist as a culture war, or whether a less oppositional way through cultural conflict is possible. Can we, as Gorski advocates, come together over a shared civil religion and disagree with one another in a more constructive, sympathetic way? Should we, as Dreher advocates, focus our energy less on winning the soul of the nation and more on investing in local communities? Is the next step, as Hartman suggests, to turn our attention to economic ideology and the power it has over our moral imaginations? Though these authors are too quick to declare that the culture war is over, they are helpful to the extent that they envision ways to go on for culture warriors beyond simply continuing to fight. ♦
Russell Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on conflict and antagonism, particularly the ways these contribute to misunderstanding and dehumanization. In his dissertation, he develops an ethics of communication inspired by the nonviolent direct action of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. His blog can be found at forthesakeofarguments.com.
- Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 79. ↩
- Dreher, The Benedict Option, 3. ↩
- Hunter details this in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 67-106. ↩
- http://buchanan.org/blog/1992-republican-national-convention-speech-148 ↩
- Hunter, Culture Wars, 63. ↩
- Hunter, Culture Wars, 161. ↩
- Philip Gorksi, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2017). ↩
- See, among others, Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998); Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005); and Irene Taviss Thomson, Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Hunter talks about a “small cottage industry” of books and articles pointing out that the culture war does not accurately represent the American populace; for an overview see Is There a Culture War?, James Davison Hunter and Alan Wolfe (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2006). ↩
- Hunter, Culture Wars, 159-160. ↩
- See, for example, the Dynamic Social Interaction Theory of Bibb Latané. ↩
- See the classic study by I.L. Janis and B.T. King, “The Influence of Role-playing on Opinion Change” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49 (1954), 211–218. ↩
- Hunter, Culture Wars, 291. ↩
- https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/upshot/how-we-became-bitter-political-enemies.html ↩
- Hartman, A War for the Soul of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 285. ↩
- Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 289. ↩
- To see the two competing narratives of America’s past on stark display, watch the following segment from The Daily Show, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVQvWwHM5kM. ↩