U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Secular Roots of the Culture Wars

Book coverA 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.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for writing an essay highlighting this, Andrew. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what might contribute to this idea being late in coming, as it were. I understand that Hunter set an early framework, but it has also seemed to me that focusing on the religious aspect of the New Right serves some useful functions for those who write about it from a perspective other than being on the Right themselves. When I say this I also have journalistic accounts & discourse in mind.

    The first is that it narrows “the opposition” to a smaller and more manageable group — both in terms of identification and in terms of explaining them. If the New Right is mostly about these crazy religious people (crazy in the minds of those critiquing them, that is) then the solution is sort of obvious — more education, more secularism, and less and less of Old Time Religion. It also kind of acquits all of us Rational People for any responsibility for this stuff. However, if highly educated, elite sorts — some of which even have pretensions of being intellectuals — are also behind this, what to do with them? How to explain them? And how to convince ourselves that the solution is simply one of eroding ignorance and traditional culture?

    The second function function focusing on the Religious Right seems to serve to me is related to the first, but is associated with a slightly (but sometimes overlapping) group of people. It seems to me that the way to answer the above questions is to go back to those old reliable categories – race, class, & gender, and as you’ve laid out here, look at how the 1960s seriously disrupted them all and threatened to overturn the hierarchies that prevailed. However, I think this runs up against an inclination of a lot of scholars of the last few decades to try to listen to religious conservatives in a manner that “takes them seriously,” and, moreover, responds critically to the post-war idea that liberalism has always been the predominant form of American political thought. The good thing about religious conservatives is that they certainly have well-articulated reasons, in their minds, for doing what they do — however weird one might find evangelical Protestant theology (or conservative Catholic theology) to be, we are all generally acclimated to the fact that many people take it very seriously, and we find it convincing as a motivation behind political action. So both the desire to have empathy with our subjects — in the way good historians are supposed to do — and find an explanation for their conduct is satisfied. When we turn to the neo-conservatives, however, it all becomes much harder, on both fronts. How else to explain William F. Buckley arguing that Southern whites were the more advanced race in the South without weighing race heavily, for example? This is especially true because neo-conservatives, on the whole, are less internally consistent — even if you are only looking at one of them! — than religious believers appear to us. They don’t usually rely on an ultimate appeal to some irrational source of knowing and therefore tie themselves in all these knots trying to make 1 and 1 equal 3; knots that will be almost impossible to untie, I think, without an appeal to the explanatory power of race/sex/class. Yet it seems like historians have been looking for something else to say other than, “yeah, clearly this is about racism, sexism, and capitalism” — and traditionalism vs. modernity, I think, especially since the Religious Right is full of people ready to explain themselves extensively, fits right into that.

    Anyway. These are just impressions I’ve formed over the years, but it does seem that, as scholars always will do, we study the subjects that give us the opportunity to practice the kind of metrologies that make us feel like good historians (and make for a compelling “intervention” in the literature). The Religious Right, I think, has enjoyed a lopsided amount of popularity in part because of this dynamic.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Andrew–I’m really enjoying getting to see bits and parts of your book’s arguments as the publication date approaches.

    The answer to my question may just be, wait for the fuller argument in the book, but I’m wondering if you could expand a bit on your use of “secular” here, especially w/r/t the potential differences between figures of Jewish and Christian backgrounds?

  3. Robin Marie: Some great comments. A lot to unpack. Are you saying that historians have paid disproportionate attention to the Christian Right because religious conservatives seem like the proverbial “other” and thus their repugnant politics are easier to make sense of because they are so much unlike most of us secular liberal historians? You may be on to something here, and I hope that my focus on what I call the New Left-neoconservative dialectic that came out of the sixties will serve as somewhat of a corrective to this.

    But on the other hand you seem to be saying that hyper-attention to religious conservatives has distorted our overall view of the political picture not only because we have forgotten about seemingly secular intellectuals like the neocons but also because we have been over-empathetic to the religious views of our subjects. In other words we have bent over backwards in our efforts to explain religious conservative politics as being rooted in explicitly religious sensibilities and have ignored the elephants in the room: racism and sexism most prominently. Our empathy, which all good historians should have, has us all twisted up.

    I’m not sure I agree with the second point.

    It seems to me that whereas a growing number of explicitly religious historians, many of whom are religious themselves, have taken the religious right’s religion seriously as an explanatory factor, too many historians continue to resort to racism as the main cause of the religious right’s politics. So Christian day schools were ONLY about racism and not about religion. As such my chapters on the Christian Right (lest anyone think I ignore religious conservatives in the book–I certainly don’t) take their religious explanations more seriously than many other historians. That said religious explanations cannot always be disentangled from racial or gendered anxieties, but to say as much should not be to dismiss the religious right merely as a bunch of racist crackers who used their religion as a cover for their true motivations. This is the type of reductionism that too many liberal historians partake in.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for this reply!

      You summarize the first point I was trying to make well. The most obvious example of this though comes not usually from scholars but journalists and other people in the liberal camp; the type who seem to focus 90 percent of their energy on being exasperated with those crazy Fundies and the crazy things they do.

      But for historians, who know they’re not supposed to engage in that kind of thing, studying religious people gives them an opportunity to explore what actually still remains an “other” while putting their empathy skills to the test, which I just think they find very attractive, because self-satisfying — and there’s nothing really that wrong with that but it is interesting — but that takes place on a level that it’s difficult for me to find direct evidence of; it’s a hunch, nothing more.

      That being said, I agree you can’t chalk everything up to race. It is important not to. At the same time, as you said, race (or gender) often seems so intertwined with the stuff we might initially label “not about race/gender” that I would go more with the position that it is not that it is *all* about race, but I don’t see how we find a explanatory dynamic that exists separately from it. It’s not that their religion is a “cover” for “true” motivations, but that racial anxieties make up a part of those motivations, which exist among the also equally real motivations rooted in various religious sensibilities and desires. They inform them in their imagination and I just have a hard time parsing them out.

      (Also, quick thought: the banality of evil would tell us that it should be perfectly possible to describe someone as a sincere religious believer, a committed member of his community, a generous father and husband *and* a racist cracker right? Like the opposite of the bad history of starting and ending with racist cracker is not leaving the racist cracker thing entirely in the dust.)

  4. Andy: Thanks for the kind words. I eagerly anticipate hearing your thoughts on the entire book.

    Good question re: secular. I was expecting this question to emerge at the RiAH Blog since many of the bloggers and readers over there come from Religious Studies and have a much more theoretical approach to secular than I displayed in this post. Here I use secular as a common sense concept. Neocons framed their arguments against the New Left–arguments that laid the foundation for the culture wars–by resort to non-religious, hyper-rational argumentation. Common sense secular. The degree to which they were religious Jews (or in the case of a few, religious Catholics)–and most of the key figures were not practicing Jews (this is not the case for the Catholics)–did not enter into their public discourse. Common sense secular. No doubt Religious Studies types, who tend to have more Foucauldian notions of “religious” and “secular” that show these concepts as false binaries, will object to my common sense usage. Ah, well. The common sense usage still makes sense to me.

    That said I admit to overstaying the secular roots of the culture wars in this post in order to generate a controversy about my book’s intervention. I deal with the Christian Right extensively in the book–particularly with regards to public schooling, church-state legal debates, abortion, sexuality, etc. And in these instances my argument is closer to Hunter’s. I’m also influenced by Charles Taylor and David Sehat. In fact in his great book The Myth of American Religious Freedom Sehat has what amounts to a theory of the culture wars: the secularization of the public sphere was part and parcel of the diminishing of the moral establishment, thus fostering the culture wars dynamic. Those who came to the defense of the old-time moral establishment in postwar America became the Christian Right.

    This was a long way saying–read the book! (Pretty please.)

  5. Copied and pasted from the RiaH Blog. Exciting!

    “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 (Fessenden is the beginning and end of this conversation; Christian expansion unfolds due to its secularization). 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!”

  6. Andrew–
    I think I’ve made this comment before at some point, but I think you mischaracterize Hunter’s framework, and import the “mostly secular/mostly religious” distinction into it in a way that is misleading. I understood Hunter to be arguing that the splits over values and ways of understanding were between (mostly!) two kinds of religion. The old distinctions between Catholics, Protestants (and their various denominational orientations), and Jews, in his view had given way to divisions _within_ those groups that put Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Protestants making common cause against Progressive Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. The Progressives did tend to ally themselves with some secular social thought, but held a worldview that was backed by notions of religious and divine purpose unmoored from dogma or fixed certainties about the world. But this view was not “secular,” if what one means by that is a set of understandings that marginalized religious belief as a purely private understanding with no public import. Because Hunter’s Progressives often seemed to support policies that were in agreement with what secular thinkers espoused, there is the temptation to think of them as secular when they really weren’t–at least in Hunter’s analysis. I’m not sure what the implications of this might be for your argument, if any, but I do think we should strive to characterize the argument Hunter makes in a way that is accurate and not misleading. Perhaps you and others disagree with my reading of Hunter, so I’m willing to entertain the possibility that my reading is mistaken.

  7. I think you’re quite right, Andrew. While many (most?) of the rank-and-file who make up the right side of the culture wars are religious people (and the other side has a lot of “nones”), relatively “secular” concerns are the things that get these folks juices flowing. The fairness doctrine. The ACA. The 2d amendment. More defense spending.

    On that last, it can be hard to untangle these things, but if the current culture wars began sometime in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Vietnam (and especially the trial of William Calley) played an immense part. The waste of Vietnam (as a prolonged disastrous quagmire, as the left saw it, or as a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, as the right saw it) made each side livid at the perfidy and betrayal of America they saw in the other. The Calley trial gave each side martyrs and monsters to populate their imaginations.

    Religious people–conservative Catholics and evangelicals, at least–tend towards the most robust support of an aggressive foreign policy and an unquestioning patriotism, and this made the new neoconservative movement attractive to them at the time–even though, on the more “social” issues (abortion, welfare, immigration, etc.)–they were often far from conservative, and, in fact, much more diverse then than now.

  8. Benji: I meant to respond to you at the RiAH Blog but got sidetracked, so thanks for repeating your comments here and giving me a chance to respond to your concerns about the secular/religious bifurcation. As I said in my response to Andy Seal above, I am aware of the pitfalls of my causal common sense use of the term secular. (As I also indicated I have a more theoretically attuned conception of secular in the book when I analyze the so-called rise of what became known as the Christian Right.) I don’t necessarily attach too much secular meaning to the movements of the sixties. But in my common sense view, the sixties were indeed secular because few of the movements that reshaped American political culture during that decade articulated their concerns in explicitly religious terms. Does this deny that some of the rhetoric and logic of the movements (seen especially in such documents as the Port Huron Statement) had religious sensibilities? No. But such recognition is, to me, banal. So what?

    • Agreed on the whole (will have to look back at that), but I would also argue that such a common sense view lets the analysis off the hook when it comes to two very important terms and their deployment in public against a seemingly fallen foe (in fact, there’s a bit of work being done now on historicizing “common sense” and its implications in the secular; John Modern’s “Secularism in Antebellum America” is in this vein). Since my background is in both American history and Religious Studies, I’m often able to sense when one side feels slighted by the other when it comes to intellectual equivalency. In order to be taken seriously by historians, those in Religious Studies have to meet the standards of the historical profession. Historians on the other hand tend not to be subjected to the same evaluative apparatus, i.e. have to read up on theory when it comes to using terms like discourse and secular/secularity/modernity. In other words, one’s banality is another’s argumentative crux. Additionally, the work of Sehat, while admirable, is not entirely accurate when it comes to the secularization of the twentieth century; in fact, it’s arguably the opposite (The argument that Sehat provides an explanation for the culture wars only works if the “moral establishment” is understood as largely conservative across all times and spaces; He’s arguably writing from a post-evangelical anti-conservative evangelical perspective, hence the afterword). The term “moral establishment” is also vague and somewhat imprecise when traversing events from the 1700s to the present. If anything, the moral establishment is not represented by Falwell or Robertson or Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, but rather folks in the NCC and the Christian Century- those communities who were key in keeping folks like Charles Coughlin or any of his ilk off the airwaves back in the 1930s (or Norman Lear for that matter in his attempts to keep Falwell off the air).
      Additionally, I think your conclusion that much of the fervor of the 60s was secular is based on what evidence or data you’re relying on. Hard to argue that the Civil Rights Movement or Whole Earth Catalog community was largely secular despite the work of David Chappell. I think what’s really interesting in the 1970s and 1980s is how words like “religion” and “secular” and “secular humanism” get deployed in public in order to say something about the state of American public life, i.e. The Naked Public Square, against an abhorrent foe. In short, thankful for the discussion!

  9. Dan: This does indeed seem familiar.

    I think we are both correct about JD Hunter’s argument. It is certainly true that Hunter argues the culture wars were about new alliances among religious Americans. Conservative evangelicals formed an uneasy political alliance with conservative Americans from different theological backgrounds. Even fundamentalists, whose insistence upon correct doctrine meant that minor differences in biblical interpretation often led to major schisms, reluctantly joined forces with conservative Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. This was all the more remarkable given that many fundamentalists viewed the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as a sign that the end of times was fast approaching.

    Hunter also argues that liberal Catholics sided with liberal Protestants and liberal Jews in the culture wars. But in this he is very short on detail (unlike his very detailed analysis of how conservatives of different construals came together–and I might add his detailed analysis of the avowedly secular people whom the new religious right opposed). Perhaps this is because this liberal cross-faith alliance was much, much older than the conservative cross-fatih alliance? Perhaps it is this gap that has led me to conclude that what Hunter is really getting at is a secular-religious divide. Of course I admit I could be playing fast and easy with his argument here–transposing more recent arguments, such David Hollinger’s about how liberal Protestantism gave us secular multiculturalism.

  10. Having lived through the 60’s it seemed to me the culture wars would include the effects of Vatican II, the rise of feminism, support of civil rights by the National Council of Churches, and the fight over ERA (I can’t believe the Equal Rights Amendment is not one of the top 10 entries on the Google results for “ERA”)? I’m thinking of Phyllis Schafly as a leading combatant. I also wonder about the effect of women being more religious than men–were conservative women mostly content to be led by men?

  11. John: I don’t deny the importance of Vietnam and more generally US foreign policy in the crystallization of a new political divide. I probably don’t dedicate enough words in my book to this topic as I should have–there’s only so much one can do, there will be other books written, blah blah blah. Certainly these issues came to the fore in the national controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit, which I analyze at length and argue was rooted in a post-Cold War confusion about the nation’s role in the world.

    • Definitely. “Vietnam” was not a topic, per se, in the culture wars (if anything, it was too thoroughly and too quickly forgotten), though the idea of a “Vietnam syndrome” somehow connected to America’s “malaise,” and the idea that a leader who could project more “resolve” because he believed more thoroughly in “American exceptionalism” might “kick” the syndrome “once and for all,” seems to me to be hovering over and energizing almost every subsequent debate we’ve had.

      Here’s something political scientist Christopher Fettweiss wrote, back in 2007, when Iraq was still sliding down:

      “Nowhere will the effects of the Iraq disaster be more apparent than in American politics. Four major trends will probably dominate the postwar era:
      high levels of partisanship, marked by rancor, bitterness, and decreased levels of compromise; a reassertion of the power of the legislative branch at the expense of the executive . . . ; generalized anger at the institutions of government, as much as the individuals that run them; and an eventual reassertion of the right wing . . .” LOSING HURTS TWICE AS BAD, pp. 77-78

      He was assuming Iraq would have a similar effect as Vietnam had had. Moral Majority then, Tea Party now . . .

  12. A reply to Benji’s second comment:

    I’m not explicitly a historian of religion or a religious studies scholar, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. I would never argue that anyone should avoid becoming familiar with religious studies or any other disciplinary approach. But to say that such familiarity is necessary prior to scholarly engagement with the historical object in question would have a paralyzing effect.

    My book is an intellectual history of the culture wars, but perhaps it could be more accurately described as a history of American political culture–a history, that is, of how people thought about and acted on various political ideas broadly conceived. So the degree to which I write about and analyze religion is the degree to which religion as such is a political expression. Same goes for other forms of political expression like popular culture, philosophy, cultural studies, school curriculum, museum exhibits, etc. Common political and epistemological concerns can be threaded across these realms without grounding each and every realm in the disciplinary apparatus attached to it. So to analyze popular culture in relation to the culture wars does necessarily not require a close engagement with media studies (those who wish to take such an approach are free to do so, of course, and by doing so will perhaps enrich our understandings). To analyze how philosophy served as a political expression did not require that I be a philosopher. And so on. Insofar as my book deals with deconstruction or other forms of cultural study it historicizes them in ways that are not beholden to their scholarly theoretical problems.

    As for your critique of Sehat, I definitely disagree with you, but am going to ask David if he’d rather defend himself. We held a roundtable on the book back in June 2011 and at least one of the contributors raised similar such concerns.


    Thanks for the fun debate.

    • Fun indeed! I’m glad for the conversation since not much has been done (till now!) on the culture wars and their study. I’m not sure I’m addressing everything as clearly as I’d like, but here goes.
      As far as not having a dog in this methodological fight, I would argue that studying a subject like the culture wars (as either yourself or Self/Rodgers has done with Rodgers speaking very little of the secular or religion for that matter) is to enter into a multidimensional conversation that ranges from discipline to discipline as you pointed out. Some insights come from sociology and media studies while others come from history and the study of religion. Since you are implicitly and explicitly taking Hunter to task over his understanding of “religion” and its impact on the culture wars (which has been largely overstated based on how I understand your argument), then it makes sense that “secular” is a theme of the monograph in terms of Neo-Conservative thought and the 1960s (and for discussion-generation reasons). The fact that you’re drawing on Taylor and Sehat for your theoretical and methodological background (which is great!) suggests an interest in their analyses as a philosopher and historian of American religion respectively. As such, there is a difference between how you’re historicizing something like deconstruction (which does not require a reading list on Foucault) and your deployment or application of “secular” as an interpretive frame for understanding how political culture gets articulated in public during this period (which may/may not need some background reading beyond Taylor). As a result, because “religion” is understood as overly influencing how scholars read this period, “secular” becomes the preferred designation (this does not mean that we all have to be scholars of secularism per say). In other words, “secular” does not function as a disciplinary apparatus; it’s being used as a category to understand a turbulent period of time in the recent past (minus of course the usages of the term by folks in the 1980s who accused many of secular humanism).
      As for the Sehat work, I’d have to return to its weathered pages before speaking further. Glad my views resonated with others, but more than willing to hear more! For the record, I think much of this conversation is about method versus material, since Self/Hartman/Rodgers traverse very similar territory and subjects in terms of the historical record. Perhaps I’ll speak a bit more on this dimension of the CW scholarship in the review. Great stuff!

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