The Secular Roots of the Culture Wars



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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. 

Andrew Hartman

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.

Hunter’s thesis, which proved convincing to most observers, was that American society had become increasingly divided between mostly secular “progressives” and mostly religious “traditionalists.” Hunter’s smoking gun was the fact that conservative Americans who had previously been pitted against one another over different religious traditions—Protestants versus Catholics, to name the most obvious example—were then joining forces in their recognition that secular forces were the real threat to their values.

This is correct as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
A War for the Soul of America revises Hunter’s argument by emphasizing the ways in which the "secular sixties" gave shape to the culture wars.  Hunter does mention that the tumultuous events of the 1960s played some role in constructing this new polarization. But on the whole he avoids historicizing this divide, working from the assumption that it is merely a byproduct of the much longer history of evangelical push back against modernist forms of knowledge that fanned the flames of religious skepticism, such as biblical criticism and Darwinism. That Hunter gave us a vocabulary and an analytic model for understanding this new cultural and political polarization is admirable. But Hunter does nothing to shed light on how the sixties gave birth to the culture wars. As a sociologist of religion, he focused his attention on those who framed the debate in solely religious terms—militant Christian Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell, and militant secular liberal leaders such as Norman Lear.

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.







12 comments:

Trevor Burrows at: February 23, 2015 at 6:31 AM said...

Really looking forward to reading the book, Andrew!

Anthony Petro at: February 23, 2015 at 7:09 AM said...

Can't wait to read this book! This seems to be a moment for historians thinking through/past the culture wars -- Natalia Mehlman Petrzela's Classroom Wars and Stephen Prothero's Why Liberals Win are also due out soon.

Andrew Hartman at: February 23, 2015 at 8:07 AM said...

Thanks to you both. Indeed it is a boom year for culture wars historiography.

Heather R. White at: February 23, 2015 at 8:46 AM said...

Looking forward to reading this and other efforts to reassess the culture wars. I'll have my own book in the mix this fall, which highlights liberal Protestant influences on both sides of pro/anti gay politics. UNC press, _Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights_

Stephen Prothero at: February 23, 2015 at 8:51 AM said...

Thanks, Andrew. If you take a long view of the culture wars (as a perennial in U.S. history) then the secular/religious divide breaks down almost immediately. I had thought I was going to call my book "Jefferson vs. Jesus" until I figured out that culture wars in the longue duree are battles AMONG religious people--between Protestants and Catholics, for example, or Protestants and Mormons. Only recently has the "religious right" turned on "secular humanism."

Andrew Hartman at: February 23, 2015 at 9:52 AM said...

Heather: Thanks for adding to the growing historiography of the culture wars--I look forward to reading your book.

Stephen: I think you are exactly correct when thinking about the culture wars in terms of the longue durée. The ongoing debate over normative Americanism was almost always a debate within and between religious discourses when the nation was overwhelmingly religious. My book however is about the "culture wars" proper, if you will--the shouting matches of the 80s and 90s. This more specific and recent history was on the one hand more about the secular-religious divide than ever before, but as I also argue (in this post and in the book) less about religion at all. Or rather, the genuine alienation that many conservative Christians felt about secular modernity was wrapped up in their anxieties about the menacing hordes. Whereas someone like James Davison Hunter only really focused on the alienation part, I tie these two threads together, thus putting race and gender front and center. This is why I put so much historical emphasis on the neoconservatives.

Hal Bush at: February 23, 2015 at 10:11 AM said...

This sounds intriguing. Personally it's the creation/evolution divide that I find endlessly fascinating, and frankly shameful: polls show the numbers actually on the increase, who are anti-science. Do you talk about that at all?? Finally, surely most readers on here already know: but Hunter's book TO CHANGE THE WORLD is stellar: and I think very convincing about the alienation you mention: which he describes as a sort of Nietzschean resentiment. His account of the Neo-Anabaptists is terrific! -hb

Andrew Hartman at: February 23, 2015 at 10:38 AM said...

Thanks for the comment Hal. Yes I deal with the debates over teaching evolution versus creationism in my chapter on public schooling. I especially focus on the conservative legal struggle to inject creationism into the classroom in the 80s and 90s, and how their strategies and conceptions of church-state changed as a result of these struggles.

Anthony Petro at: February 23, 2015 at 11:38 AM said...

Andrew, thanks for the link to your piece! Along with Heather White's book -- which is going to make huge waves in the historiography of sexuality and American religion -- my book (After the Wrath of God, due out this summer with OUP) also tries to work across the common divisions of the culture wars. I found the term morality quite key here, as it served -- especially in discussions of sexuality and AIDS -- as a key point for translation between historically secular and religious forms of argument, in large measure, I argue, because it belongs to the vocabulary of both.

Very excited to see historians thinking seriously about the 1980s and 1990s (in addition to the longue duree that Steve's writing about!).

Benji Rolsky at: February 25, 2015 at 6:44 AM said...

Here here, Professor Petro! Me too. In my estimation, this statement by Professor Hartman gets the ball rolling when it comes to both method and the historiography of the culture wars, "That Hunter gave us a vocabulary and an analytic model for understanding this new cultural and political polarization is admirable. But Hunter does nothing to shed light on how the sixties gave birth to the culture wars."
The link between 1960s unrest and the recent religious past as understood through the "culture wars" framework certainly needs more emphasis in regards to causation and context, but this link is also tenuous and complex in regards to the emergence of the Christian Right and the subsequent anxiety-ridden abhorrence expressed by the political and religious left. American Studies scholar Axel R. Schäfer has written some very compelling treatments of this period that question the all but assumed dichotomy between countercultural sentiment and evangelical sensibilities in the 1960s, something that Professor Hartman addresses through his criticisms of Hunter. Locating the origins or beginnings of such culture wars beyond the 1960s is also debated by historians such as Barry Hankins and Matt Sutton.
My concern with the discussion thus far is terminology, particularly when it comes to the binary of religious/secular. Emphasizing the role of neoconservative thought in shaping the terms of debate within the culture wars themselves is a significant contribution to the literature, yet this contribution comes at the expense of naming the 1960s as "secular," especially in light of all of the work being done on these terms and their histories. Additionally, these terms are extremely important for my own work on the largely unified response of folks like Norman Lear and others against the insidious forces of the Christian Right (I would also argue that the anxiety assigned to early and mid-century conservative Protestants by folks like Lipset, Hofstadter, and Lear himself is mislabeled. If anything, it was the other way around).
I think Professor Prothero has a point when he contends that such debates took place among "religious people," but I'm not sure we can read the culture wars as defined by Hartman back in time to 1800. For me, Hunter's framework is certainly limited in the ways identified by Professor Hartman, but the text itself is so much more valuable beyond its somewhat presentist statements and concerns as a Sociologist of American Religion. At the same time, Hunter's work as a whole in regards to these conversations is so much more expansive than his Culture Wars text of the early 1990s- a text built largely on the empirical data and qualitative argumentation of fellow Sociologist Robert Wuthnow.
I'm very excited about the upcoming texts from Petro, White, Hartman, Prothero, and others. Can't wait!

Mark T. Edwards at: February 27, 2015 at 10:30 AM said...

FYI: This essay has been cross-posted at the US Intellectual History blog; you can follow the growing debate there:

http://s-usih.org/2015/02/the-secular-roots-of-the-culture-wars.html#comment-33236

Tom Van Dyke at: March 3, 2015 at 11:40 PM said...

I've enjoyed your comments to and fro on this, Benji.

At the same time, Hunter's work as a whole in regards to these conversations is so much more expansive than his Culture Wars text of the early 1990s- a text built largely on the empirical data and qualitative argumentation of fellow Sociologist Robert Wuthnow.

I'm always happy to see "data" raise its hoary head in these discussions of what can only be seen as sociology. The highest peaks and lowest valleys tend to get the notoriety, but there's a lot of land and sea in between Mt. Everest and the Marianas Trench.

A year after The Summer of Love, Richard Nixon was elected president. Three Novembers after The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nixon won 49 states, Gallup polls showing strong approval of his handling of the Vietnam problem.

There's an art to these things but there must also be a science.

The link between 1960s unrest and the recent religious past as understood through the "culture wars" framework certainly needs more emphasis in regards to causation and context, but this link is also tenuous and complex in regards to the emergence of the Christian Right and the subsequent anxiety-ridden abhorrence expressed by the political and religious left.

The warnings of an impending "American Theocracy" have remained unrealized. It's not as though Jerry Falwell left behind a single memorable quote or coherent idea. His model of "leadership" was a classic example of finding a parade and standing in front of it.

[Francis Schaeffer was actually the intellectual godfather of all that, that traditionalists should make common cause despite doctrinal differences.]

The culture war may be good for political fundraising appeals, but American society sits sloppily between Everest and the Marianas, at worst "slouching toward Gomorrah," at best [as Steven Pinker notes] we're murdering each other at a vastly lower rate than any other time in human history.

We can safely call that "progress." The view of the Culture War from 30,000 feet is that as wars go, it's the best one ever.

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