The Secular Roots of the Culture Wars
The following is a guest post by Andrew Hartman. Andrew is Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University and a former Fulbright Distinguished Scholar. He is a past President and current blogger at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH). He is also chair of S-USIH's Seventh Annual Conference to be held in Washington, DC this October (deadline for proposals is fast approaching!). Finally, Andrew is the author of two books, including the excellent forthcoming study, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, May 2015). Here is a brief taste of what will be one of his more interesting arguments for RIAH readers.
Many historians assume that the culture wars (those series of angry quarrels about what it means to be an American that dominated national headlines during the 1980s and 1990s) boiled down to a growing divide between religious and nonreligious Americans. James Davison Hunter had a lot to do with such an understanding thanks to his 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, the standard-bearer in the scholarship of the culture wars.
This is correct as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
I argue that many of the battles of the culture wars—battles over divisive issues such as affirmative action, multiculturalism, intelligence testing, and the canon—had little to do with Hunter’s religious divide. These debates were often secular reactions to the secular social movements of the sixties that made up the New Left. As an intellectual historian I noticed that New Left thinkers and activists had disturbed normative conceptions of American identity to an unprecedented degree. I also noted that those who challenged such New Left sensibilities most vociferously were those whom came to be called “neoconservatives.” By focusing on the sixties, my book relocates the origins of the culture wars away from debates about religion and towards the mostly secular shouting matches between New Leftists and neoconservatives.
None of this is to say that religion did not factor into the culture wars. The growing alienation that religious conservatives felt at living in an increasingly secular nation was a crucial factor in their fighting the culture wars. But many such conservative Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced the chaos of modernity as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the 1960s that many conservatives recognized the threat to their once great nation. And it was the neocons who first recognized this threat, first taught Americans how to be afraid, and first taught Americans, including religious conservatives, how to fight back.