U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Civil Religion and Culture Wars

The greatest culture war in American history led to its most destructive war.  Or so argued James Davison Hunter in Before the Shooting Begins, the 1994 follow-up to his provocative and influential book Culture Wars (1992).  “Culture wars always precede shooting wars,” he wrote, “otherwise, as Philip Rieff reminds us, the latter wars are utter madness: outbreaks of the most severe and suicidal efforts to escape the implications of any kind of normative order.  Indeed the last time this country ‘debated’ issued of human life, personhood, liberty, and the rights of citizenship all together, the result was the bloodiest war ever to take place on this continent, the Civil War.” (emphasis in the original)

In the abstract, then, culture wars describe the contest over the question of how a people–a society–ought to order its life together.  Hunter contended that by the early 1990s the national debate over the language people used to describe themselves, their opponents, and their nation had utterly broken down.  Thus the rhetoric of war aptly described the impasse reached in this national conversation. For our own Andrew Hartman, the culture wars describe the messy assembling of new conversations in the wake of the demise of the kind of common culture that Hunter seemed to mourn.  For Hartman, culture wars operate on many levels, rhetorically, philosophically, politically, and socially.  In this way, he offers the term as the defining narrative of postmodern America.

And it is a term with immediate, almost visceral connotations.  As Patrick Buchanan notoriously declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention: “There is a religious war going on in this country.  It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.  For this war is for the soul of America.”  War–Soul–Nation: these are also the elements of a term that is often seen as the opposite of culture wars–civil religion.

Rhetorically, civil religion appears to be opposed to conflict and war; practically, though, it is deeply indebted to both.  For if civil religion is the appropriation of religion by politics, there is nothing more serious for politicians to do than to justify killing and dying, and nothing gets that job done better than coupling religion and war.  If we carry Hunter’s statement above to its conclusion we might note how the culture wars begat the Civil War which begat an American civil religion.  Religious historian Harry Stout argued as much in his recent book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: “The Civil War taught Americans that they really were a Union, and it absolutely required a baptism of blood to unveil transcendent dimensions of that union.” (xxi)

It is that transcendent understanding of America which has fractured since the 1970s.  And Americans have lived with two overlapping, at times mutually influential spheres of war–the culture wars and wars to affirm an American civil religion.  War is at the heart of the relationship between culture wars and civil religion; war links them, but with an irony. The culture wars emerged in the twilight of the cold war and the humiliating aftermath of Vietnam–in short, in the absence of war, the culture wars had room to grow.  The rise of the culture wars narrative eclipsed the civil religion that had been manufactured from the last years of the Second World War through Vietnam.  And yet, throughout the years of the culture wars–when the language of war grew dominant–a civil religion began to slowly re-emerge, constructed as it has been since the Civil War through a new American experience in war.

When 9/11 happened and God and war came roaring back into political rhetoric, religious scholar Mark Silk captured the moment appropriately.  Writing about George W. Bush’s speech at the National Cathedral, Silk observed, “If civil religion is about anything, it’s about war and those who die in it.”  His comments echoed not merely what he heard from Bush, but what Americans have memorialized from Lincoln–the original culture warrior, who in his Gettysburg Address dedicated the killing and dying that remained in the war to those who had given their last full measure of devotion to the nation and what he hoped that nation might ultimately become. 

We live, therefore, in a space between and within the spheres of culture wars and civil religion. At once appropriating the language and power of war rhetorically to thump our opponents and rally people to our side while we memorialize a mythical nation through the sacrifices made in real war.  If the term ‘culture wars’ resonates with us more than civil religion it might be because we understand ourselves as a people–both united and divided–through the idea of war.  

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This post makes me think of Kevin Phillips, “The Cousins Wars”. Would you consider today’s culture wars “descendents” of these earlier cultural and religious conflicts? Is there a deterministic quality to the nature of these conflicts, can we expect an end? Or are they like a virus that goes dormant for a time and then rise up again and again?

  2. In my humble opinion, the culture wars are as American as Mom, the Flag, and Apple Pie. I guess this narrative choice makes my stance clear on the “descendent” question.

    Marshall Smelser back in the 1950s characterized the period up to Jefferson’s inauguration as an “Age of Passion.” All of the phenomena which we modern historians characterize as “the culture wars” are observable then. The cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment gave way to the parochial Romantic American exceptionalism of the nineteenth century. Rogers Smith delineated some of the changes over time in his Civic Ideals. I also recommend Douglas Branburn’s The Citizenship Revolution, and I especially recommend Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism. Cotlar also provided an excerpt in Beyond the Founders, edited by Pasley, et. al.

    I wish I was more knowledgeable about revitalization movement theory and whether it would be applicable to study of modern culture wars.

    Thanks for a thought provoking series of posts.

  3. Thanks to you both and to all those who read and responded to my other posts on civil religion. I know that civil religion seems to describe something that is quaint–the hope (against reality) that Americans should want to come together around a set of ideals. Alternatively, the culture wars describe the reality of American life and the dark side of that hope. Through out American history, we see groups isolated and marginalized from the manufactured idea of a nation conversation or consensus. So I settled on civil religion not to affirm the existence of consensus or a national mind but to suggest that the culture wars narrative–while dominant–has a corollary in a civil religion made evident (but not normative) through the most extraordinary experience of war. I don’t know how these two constructs interact in all ways, but I do see them overlapping. Perhaps as Brian suggests revitalization theory would this interaction intellectual structure. In any case, I think it worthwhile to consider how civil religion can be fluid in ways made more apparent because of our study of the culture wars.

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