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For the final post in this month’s issue of the Forum, Russell Johnson (University of Chicago) responds to the three scholars who commented throughout the month on his essay, “The Struggle Is Real: Understanding the American ‘Culture War,’ ” which is featured in the July issue of the Forum. 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.

We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.


War Forms Its Own Culture

by Russell Johnson


Regarding the phrase “culture war,” James Davison Hunter writes, “The phrase is a metaphor, and the appropriateness of any metaphor is measured by how well it fits the subject it describes. To those engaged in this conflict—the activists who are involved in the divisions and the citizens who get caught up in its logic—this is just the right metaphor. Repeatedly one will hear people say that ‘war’ is exactly what it feels like.”1 Hunter is exactly right. To conclude this roundtable, I will discuss some of the ways the American culture war has transpired like an actual war, and in the process address some of the points and questions raised by my respondents. Before doing so, I should express my gratitude to my respondents, all three of whom are sensitive to historical realities and insightful about possible futures.2

Seth Dowland and L. Benjamin Rolsky both bring up the different disciplines represented by the authors I discuss, and they point out—astutely—that these disciplines color the authors’ approaches. It behooves me, then, to put my own disciplinary cards on the table. I am not a historian, but a philosopher of conflict and communication. I became interested in the culture war when as a college student I found myself living on both sides of it. During the summers I worked at a conservative evangelical camp, and during the school year I attended a largely liberal, secular university. I felt at home in both communities, but I was astonished by the amount of vitriol and misunderstanding between the two “sides.” I turned to the study of conflict to make sense of how loving, reasonable people become polarized against one another. A few insights from that field stand out as relevant to the culture war:


I. The Art of Culture War

One of the most compelling ideas in conflict theory is that antagonism can take on a life of its own in the minds of those engaged in conflict. “One of the legacies of war is a habit of simple distinction, simplification, and opposition,” Wilhem Verwoerd writes, “which continues to do much of our thinking for us.”3 This effect, as I argued in my original article, takes place in the American culture war. The idea of an irreconcilable “us versus them” divide becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, becoming ever more reified the more we rely on it. In the process, individuals’ motivations and conclusions are transformed. Conflict does not simply happen when two fully-formed ideological camps happen to bump into one another; rather individuals’ positions are shaped in and through the conflict itself. As conflict theorist Lawrence Kriesberg writes, “Adversaries significantly help shape each other’s contentious goals. A potential conflict group may formulate objectives that in some way mimic those of its opponent or develop ones that magnify the difference.”4 We can conclude that the American right and the American left are what they are today not simply due to their abiding ideological commitments but because their views have in some sense been re-forged through the fires of the culture war.

Andrew Hartman’s criticism is on-target when he writes that I emphasized the role that coalitions play in the formation of culture war sides, and that I did so at the expense of the role ideas play. I did this in part as a corrective, to counter-balance the assumption that there are in America two discrete worldviews, each monolithic and more or less self-consistent, that inform the two major political parties. Coalitions aren’t more important than ideas, only more overlooked. I also wanted to draw attention to the role that historical contingency has played in the formation of the two sides. Why, for example, is environmentalism associated with the left? Conserving what has lasted for millennia even if it comes at the expense of short-term gains seems, if anything, a conservative idea. Combined with biblical teachings about stewardship of creation, it is not difficult to imagine a counterfactual history in which conservative evangelicals rallied around environmental causes rather than viewing them with suspicion. To explain why this is largely not the case, it is helpful to not only study the rational connections between ideas and the justifications given by public figures, but to acknowledge contingent historical factors such as the building of coalitions for the purpose of making social change.

My emphasis on coalitions was also prompted by the fact that last year 81% of white evangelical registered voters supported Donald Trump, a man whose commitments seem clearly at odds with evangelical Christianity.5 For many evangelicals, Trump’s nomination was a wake-up call, and the question “how did we get here?”—perhaps long overdue—has been the subject of much soul-searching in that community. My argument, that the pressures of winning the culture war led evangelicals to forge tactical alliances and ultimately to absorb assumptions in tension with some of their ethical convictions, is my attempt to answer the question “how did we get here?” in a way that invites reflection and realignment.


II. Culture War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

I applaud Hartman and Rolsky for their suggestion that we should make a distinction between ongoing “cultural warfare” and “the Era of the Culture Wars” proper. Just as we talk about “the Jazz Age” even as people still play jazz, and “the Civil Rights Era” even as people still fight for civil rights, so too we can distinguish between the 1980s-1990s heyday of culture war antagonism and other periods of religiously-inflected polarization.

Rolsky’s response brings up a fascinating question of when to date the beginning of the culture war. This is something I wish I had handled more cautiously in the original article, because this is not simply a question for historians to bicker over, like the origin of Brunswick Stew. Indeed, the question of how the culture war started is incredibly consequential. Both sides tend to frame their activism as defensive, and all the more justified because of it. As Kriesberg writes, “Each side in a conflict usually blames the other for the conflict, citing aggressive behavior by the other party.”6 Though they do not agree on the date, conservative evangelicals tend to accuse the left of firing the first shot in the culture war. Similarly, progressives tend to view the rise of the Religious Right as the emergence of a new, aggressive challenge to the separation of church and state. I tried to tell two parallel stories about the 1960s as a way of avoiding this question and as a way of attesting to the interactive, emergent quality of conflict. But as Rolsky notes, using the school prayer ruling of 1962 as a starting point is counter-productive.

Perhaps rather than identifying a starting point, we can think of the culture war as akin to the Cold War. That is, a prolonged tension with no clear beginning, in which a number of local conflicts got interpreted as proxy battles in what scholars call a “focal conflict.” The school prayer ruling, its rationale and its aftermath, should be fairly treated as one episode in an escalating cultural conflict, alongside other battles over sitcoms, syllabi, and Senate seats.


III. Culture War and Peace

One of the key elements of conflict theory is the study of attribution, that is, how each side interprets the other side’s actions and motivations. In conflict situations, we tend to interpret our opponents through the lens of stereotypes and shallow, dehumanizing descriptions. Conflict scholar Ho-won Jeong writes, “By discounting the values and motivations behind the actions of their opponents, in-group members treat out-group members in a manner that is consistent with their expectations rather than actual traits.”7 Confirmation bias exacerbates this tendency; the more people rely on shallow characterizations of their opponents, the harder it becomes to make sense of the opponents’ real commitments and motivations. This misunderstanding leads to miscommunication, as opponents assume from the outset a lack of common ground. As Jeong writes, it also leads to irrational reactions, as people respond more to their own half-imagined enemies than to the realities of situation.

The problem of collective misjudgment, well-documented in cases of war, is a major factor in American political and cultural polarization. Many conservatives believe that there is a leftist agenda which involves willfully imploding America with unsustainable economic policies and moral erosion, and that your average liberal is what Lenin called a “useful idiot” in this socialist plot. Many liberals believe that conservatism is nothing but corporate greed masquerading as religious righteousness to intentionally con ignorant rural Americans into voting against their own interests. There may be a glimmer of truth in these descriptions— “Enemies are neither ‘merely’ projections, nor are they ‘merely’ real,”8 as H.F. Stein writes—but neither side recognizes itself in its opponents’ interpretation.

Knowing that this psychological effect is in play, scholars ought to be careful in representing the different sides of the culture war. Every attempt to comment on the culture war is itself a potential maneuver in the culture war. As much as possible, then, sticking to self-attributions when writing helps to combat the tendency to attribute motives to one’s subjects that those subjects would not recognize in themselves. There is a time for showing people that they are self-deceived about their own motives, to be sure, but this should only be attempted after one has secured their trust by demonstrating one follows their reasoning.

This is why I find it worthwhile to recount the two narratives that make up the culture war in terms that their advocates can hopefully recognize. Doing so can help to counteract some of the effects of misattribution. It is also why I think the culture war is still worth writing about. Whatever historical forces—economic, racial, evolutionary—may ultimately have the most merit in explaining the events of the last fifty years, it nonetheless remains significant that millions of people have understood—and still understand— themselves to be part of a conflict between two competing visions of America. To dismiss this self-understanding completely and interpret their behavior strictly through the lens of, say, class warfare is more likely to exacerbate the problem of vicious misattribution than to resolve it. The academic tendency to treat everything in terms of money, power, and social location is part of the reason many conservatives see themselves as unheard and misrepresented by liberal elites. And the conservative tendency to find conspiracy in every liberal protest is part of the reason liberals find it pointless to argue about morality with conservatives. My hope in telling the story the way I did was to narrate the culture war in a way that takes each side’s story about itself charitably, while taking each side’s story about its opponents more critically.

Descriptions like this make it easier for proponents of different ideas to talk to one another instead of merely talking about one another. My goals in the article were to do justice to the historical record, of course, but first and foremost to re-narrate ongoing cultural warfare in a way that makes conflict transformation possible. Scholars distinguish between conflict resolution, which aims at a relatively static peace, and conflict transformation, which aims at a dynamic culture in which disagreements and grievances can be addressed constructively.9 In order to transform a conflict, participants need to think about their opponents differently but also think differently about the conflict itself. “Transforming transitions come about,” Kriesberg writes, “when a new way of thinking about their conflict becomes dominant in each of the primary adversaries.”10 If we think of American cultural-political conflict not as a clash between two incommensurable ideologies, but rather as a collection of different disputes brought together as much by rhetorical strategy as by rational implication, then we can argue together about these issues freed from the distorting effects of an all-dividing “us versus them” antagonism.



Hunter argues that the culture war is not demographically representative, but many people experience it as a war and their interpretations cannot be brushed aside. It should be clear now that my answer to “Why is it still worthwhile to talk about the culture war?” is quite simply, “Because people I care about think this way.”

Though I hope this conversation continues, for now the last word will be given to Dowland. In his response, he beckons us into the spaces where relationships call our stereotypes into question, where we find deeper allegiances than our political coalitions, and where profound stories loosen the grip of culture war narratives on our imaginations.

In any conflict situation, de-escalation depends on meaningful communication, often outside the public eye. As Jeong writes, “Improvement in the accurate interpretation of an adversary’s messages is an essential step toward constructive exchanges. A structurally balanced form of communication is based on respectful and attentive listening about deep-rooted feelings, beliefs, and experiences.”11 Personal communication between opponents can foster the kind of understanding needed to work through disagreements constructively. This is unlikely to happen in public media, where pressure to maintain a unified front and cede nothing to a demonized enemy makes meaningful dialogue all but impossible. Finding and creating spaces where we can disagree about what we disagree about without misrepresentations, dismissive explanations, or the burden of a focal conflict is a task to which students of all disciplines can dedicate themselves. ♦

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


* Image via ShutterStock

  1. James Davison Hunter, Is There a Culture War? (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 2006), 35.
  2. The title of this response comes from Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 3.
  3. Quoted in Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull (New York: Random House, 1999), 126.
  4. Lawrence Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 83.
  5. There are some caveats to the widely reported 81% figure, which are noted here.
  6. Kriesberg, 28.
  7. Ho-won Jeong, Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis (London: SAGE, 2008), 75-6.
  8. Quoted in Vamik Volkan, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1988), 264.
  9. See John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: Institute of Peace, 1997).
  10. Kriesberg, 228.
  11. Jeong, 223.