Contemporary politics in the United States is often described as involving a "culture war." The central claim of those describing a culture war is that the major political cleavage in contemporary American politics is no longer economic class, race, gender, geographical region, or any of the many "social structural" differences that divide our population. Rather, the idea is that a major realignment of sensibilities and controversial issues has occurred since the 1960s, and now the body politic is rent by a cultural conflict in which values, moral codes, and lifestyles are the primary objects of contention. Issues such as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and drug use are the typical points of culture wars contention; others have used the phrase to discuss issues of multiculturalism, diversity, and school curricula. Religious commitments, symbols, and groups have been strongly connected to culture wars politics.
The "culture war" idea has been promoted by journalists, academics, campaigning politicians, and social movement activists. The most developed and systematic academic version of the thesis appeared in sociologist James Davison Hunter's 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.
The Genesis of the Culture War Idea
In The Restructuring of American Religion (1988), Robert Wuthnow argued that since World War II, changes in American culture and institutions—in particular the rise of mass access to higher education, and the divisive politics of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War—had produced a new cleavage in American religion: The older divisions of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have been crosscut by a liberal-conservative divide running through all three groups. Where religious and denominational identity, largely articulated in terms of doctrine, theology, and religious practices, had once been the focus of conflict, now issues of ideology and culture crosscut identity divisions. As a result, conservative Protestants, for example, now have more in common with conservative Catholics and Jews than they do with liberal Protestants.
Martin Marty (1970) articulated another restructuring when he noted the "public-private" dichotomy in American religion. Marty distinguished public from private denominations by their attitudes and strategy toward the church and society. Public groups articulated a plan of social reconstruction through institutional change, and they entered the public arena through political and social activism. In the 1950s and 1960s these were the liberal, mainline denominations. Private groups understood change as occurring through a "hearts and minds" strategy of individual conversion, generally eschewing public politics. Evangelical Protestant denominations represented this orientation. The rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s, among other changes, has led scholars to question this particular distinction.
Hunter's Culture Wars expanded the scope of Wuthnow's claims even as it narrowed the source of, and explanation for, the conflict. Hunter divided Americans into two opposing camps, the "orthodox" and the "progressives," based on a single dimension, where they locate the source of moral and social authority. The orthodox believe that authority emanates only from transcendent sources—that is, authority is external to society. Progressives, on the other hand, find authority within society, in human-generated knowledge, moral codes, and culture. This division is intractable, in Hunter's view, and has an internal logic that leads inevitably to escalating conflict. While the origins of these worldviews clearly relate to religious outlooks, culture war proponents claim that the division between the sides has expanded beyond religion, into secular politics. Hunter's book had a tone of urgency and sweeping analyses that painted a gloomy portrait of our political present and future; similarly, most other academic and journalistic accounts of the culture war find the conflict to be uncompromising and growing. Indeed, Hunter maintains that even recognizing the potential authenticity of the rival world view can be a threat to the authority and coherence of one's own. This leads away from moderation.
Testing the Culture Wars Idea
A number of scholars have begun to test these assertions with a variety of empirical evidence. In general, whether one studies individual attitudes, subcultural values, political party dynamics, or culturewide ideological currents, the culture wars ideological divide is found to be overly simplistic. Careful analysis of American public opinion finds it more diverse and complex than the culture wars idea will admit. Further, it is clear that "cultural warriors" such as politician Pat Buchanan are more successful in generating media attention than in winning elections.
Nonetheless, if it is articulated broadly enough, there is something in the culture wars idea. Certainly the rhetoric resonates with portions of the electorate, and because it does, it can be a successful mobilizing metaphor for certain kinds of politicians and issue activists. Also, several of the most contentious and passionate issues in current politics revolve around what can be called "cultural" issues. The culture wars idea calls attention to the extent to which politics is more than just a matter of dividing the economic pie. The symbolic aspects of our collective life are great sources of both conflict and solidarity. People do act in the public arena on the basis of assumptions about what the "good society" is, what we must do to achieve it, and what constitutes a "moral" life. Sometimes these assumptions about the public moral order are indeed incompatible with rival assumptions; and when moral worldviews align with social structural differences, political conflict can turn from civil politics to cultural war. In sum, a broad reading of "culture wars" has much to recommend it and has great relevance to American politics, where religion has often been and continues to be a potent force.
However, the narrower version of the culture wars idea ignores a crucial paradox in American politics. That paradox is built on the tendency of American political institutions to produce centrist solutions, while social movement–style politics tends to inflate rhetorical and ideological differences into cultural "war." Institutional pressures force political parties and interest group organizations into behaving more and more similarly. But social movement activists need dire and dramatic symbols to motivate people to action. Thus organizational pressures are centripetal even as ideological tendencies are centrifugal. Institutions aggregate differences, force compromise, and facilitate crosscutting cooperation. Social movements polarize political identities and tend toward uncompromising, moral absolutist rhetoric. Too many culture wars proponents mistake the latter for the central feature of American politics, when in fact it is but one dimension. And this leads to the clear implication that the culture wars idea is both simultaneously true and mistaken.
Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. 1995.
Green, John C., James L. Guth, Corwin E. Smidt, and Lyman A. Kellstedt. Religion and the Culture Wars:Dispatches from the Front. 1996.
Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins:Search for Democracy in America's Culture War. 1994.
Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle toDefine America. 1991.
Marty, Martin E. Righteous Empire. 1970.
Nolan, James, ed. The American Culture Wars: CurrentContests and Future Prospects. 1996.
Williams, Rhys H. "Is America in a Culture War? Yes–No—Sort of." The Christian Century (November 12, 1997): 1038–1043.
Williams, Rhys H., ed. Cultural Wars in American Politics: Critical Reviews of a Popular Myth. 1997.
Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II. 1988.
Rhys H. Williams