A version of this essay appeared at the Religion in American History Blog. My thanks to Mark Edwards for inviting me to write something for the RiAH readers—and to Paul Harvey for creating a blog on religious history where I could argue that religion doesn’t matter as much as most people think.
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-secular 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 (as opposed to a sociologist of religion) 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.