U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars History? Part IV

The following guest post, by Stephen Prothero, is the fourth in our AHA roundtable on culture wars historiography. For an introduction to the roundtable and the first entry, by me (Andrew Hartman), click here. For the second entry, by Adam Laats, go here. And for the third, by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, here. The final entry, comments offered by Leo Ribuffo, is forthcoming.

liberalswin-3dNeverending Culture Wars

By Stephen Prothero

We misunderstand the culture wars if we see them as a one-off. The culture wars did not start with the Moral Majority. And as one glance at the culture warrior du jour, Donald Trump, attests, they did not end with Obergefell v. Hodges.

The culture wars have been with us roughly since the start of the republic, more specifically since the French Revolution helped to usher in modern Anglo-American conservatism. This should not be surprising, because culture wars, as I understand them, are conservative projects, typically initiated by cultural conservatives and largely prosecuted by them.

If we look solely at our contemporary cultural battles, we might be led to imagine (with James Davison Hunter) that culture wars are battles between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Or that they are battles between religious folk and secularists. But that is not the case with prior culture wars, which typically pitted religious people against religious people, and with nary a moral relativist to be found.


So what are we talking about here? What is a culture war? As I understand it, culture wars exhibit four features:

  • First, they are public disputes recorded in such sources as presidential speeches, the Congressional Record, and popular magazines and newspapers.
  • Second, these disputes extend beyond economic questions of taxing and spending to moral, cultural, and religious concerns that are typically less open to negotiation and compromise.
  • Third, they give rise to larger questions about the meaning of America and who is and who is not a true American.
  • Fourth, they are heated, fueled by a rhetoric of war and driven by the conviction that one’s political opponents are also the enemies of the nation.

So the term culture wars, as I understand it, refers to angry (even violent) public disputes that are simultaneously moral, religious, and cultural and address the meaning of America.


So much for definitions. What sorts of arguments am I making here? The first argument I have already mentioned: Culture wars recur throughout US history.

Philosopher Horace Kallen has described the United States as an “orchestration of mankind” in which people of many different races and religions contribute to a “symphony of civilization,” but the United States has also been a Babel of civilizations in which people of different races and religions turned the nation into something akin to Tennyson’s vision of the state of nature, “red in tooth and claw.” [i] In fact, it is hard to find moments in U.S. history when our politics were not tied up in clashes of religious identities and cultural commitments. Because Americans have not inherited an ancient culture, they have had to invent one (or more). But Americans have always disagreed about which of these inventions they should value most highly. So culture here has always been hotly contested.

In fact, Americans have been engaging in the cultural equivalent of war at least since the elections of 1796 and 1800. (You may have heard about them in the Broadway musical Hamilton). Puritans likely played a role here, by twisting God and governance tight and transforming their America into a land of moralists ever on the lookout for demons in their ranks. But whatever culture wars were prosecuted in the colonies were muted in the early national period, as hatred of the British and love of George Washington kept the nation (relatively) united. After Washington bid adieu to public life and fears of the French Revolution gave birth to modern American conservatism, however, Americans turned on one another in a series of culture wars about the meanings and ends of their nation. On questions as varied as polygamy and freethought, Catholicism and Mormonism, saloons and abortion clinics, they denounced their fellow Americans as ungodly, immoral, and un-American.


My book tells five stories about five culture wars. The first was the election of 1800. In this culture war, a Federalist paper called Jeffersonians “the very refuse and filth of society.” One Democratic-Republican paper called Adams “blind, bald, crippled, toothless” while another accused him of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Meanwhile, Jefferson called Federalists “enemies of our Constitution” and their time in power as “reign of witches.” Alexander Hamilton spoke of saving USA from “fangs of Jefferson.”

This election concerned a wide variety of constitutional, economic, and foreign policy questions. Just as the contemporary culture wars are a referendum on the 1960s, this was a referendum on the French Revolution. According to Federalists, Jeffersonians were French-loving anarchists willing and eager to sacrifice social order on the altar of liberty. According to Jeffersonians, Federalists were Tories in disguise—“an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratic party” consisting of “timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty”.

But this culture war turned on Thomas Jefferson’s religion. Was he, as Massachusetts Federalist divined, the “great arch priest of Jacobinism and infidelity”? Or was he, as the Connecticut Courant intimated, a secret Jew or Muslim?—a believer in the “alcoran”? [ii] (Barack Obama was not the first U.S. president to be accused of being a secret Muslim.)

The second chapter in this book explores anti-Catholicism in the early nineteenth century. It focuses on the burning of a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834 and on the Philadelphia Bible riots of 1844. Here Protestants advanced three main arguments against the dangers of “popery.” Catholics, as they saw it, were moral villains, theological imposters, and traitors to the nation.

Anti-Mormonism comprises the book’s third culture war. Hostility toward Mormons focused at first on the Book of Mormon as founder Joseph Smith Jr. as a faker. But after Mormons moved west into the Utah territory the debate shifted to polygamy and theocracy. Mormons called their critics un-American for warring on religious liberty and trampling the Constitution. They also defended polygamy on sociological and biblical grounds. Arguing that there was no constitutional cover for heathenism, critics accused the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of “treason against the government of God” and “total subversion of Republicanism.”

This culture war, the most wide-ranging assault on any religion in U.S. history, started with a mob assination of the founder of the country’s most successful new religious movement but it eventually extended to attacks on Mormonism by all three branches of the federal government.

The fourth episode in the book examines the battle between “wets” and “drys” during the Prohibition and Repeal era of the 1920s and 1930s. Here the protagonists included evangelist Billy Sunday, who denounced prohibition as the “mother of all sins” and Carrie Nation who performed her trademark “hatchetations” in her hated saloons.

But this culture war was not just about booze. It was about jazz, organized crime, the automobile, sex, and racial mixing. The core tension, visible here but present in other culture wars, pitted diversity against homogeneity—the centrifugal culture of multiculturalists thrilled by an increasingly diverse nation; and the centripetal culture of monoculturalists mourning the loss of a more homogeneous past.

The subject of two of the other four books on this panel, the contemporary culture wars, as I call them, started in my view not in the 1960s but in 1970s debates over the Sixties. And they are still going today. One key catalyst was the 1978 IRS ruling stripping all-white segregation academies of their tax-exempt status. But these culture wars pivoted in my reading first from race to family (to abortion, homosexuality, for example) and then from race to religion (via accusations that the IRS ruling was discriminating against religion in the name of the new state faith of “secular humanism”). In this way, Jerry Falwell and others on the Religious Right cleverly positioned themselves not as bigots but as victims of bigotry.

Here again we see two different understandings of American culture. Is there one sort of American family or many? Does an artwork such as Serrano’s Piss Christ have multiple meanings or just one? Is the United States a “Christian nation” or, as President Obama put it in his first inaugural address, “a nation of Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, and nonbelievers.” Is this a country in which only one race is at home or is it (in the words of Frederick Douglass) a “composite nation”?

As I tell these five stories I make three additional arguments.


The first is that culture wars are conservative projects. Culture wars are battles between conservatives and liberals but they are only superficially so. At a deeper level they are conservative morality plays in which liberals play minor parts.

Though many have attempted to reduce it to anti-intellectualism, paranoia, or some other pathology, modern American conservatism has at its heart an idea. That idea is not states’ rights or individual liberty or free markets or limited government or federalism, because over the course of U.S. history conservatives have argued for and against each of these principles. The big idea behind modern American conservatism is this: a form of culture is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive it. What activates this idea is a combination of anxiety and fear. And what turns it toward action is a narrative of loss and restoration. Or, to put it in Trumpian terms: the nation has been schlonged but it will be great again.

Political scientist Corey Robin is right to see modern conservatism as an effort to maintain hierarchies. Conservatives fight to protect the privileges of superiors—what Edmund Burke called the “chain of subordination” of soldiers to their officers, workers to their employers, tenants to their landlords, and children to their parents. But conservatives will also go to the mat to defend cultural, moral, and theological hierarchies. And they fight most fiercely to defend those hierarchies that are falling away.

In this respect, modern American conservatism has obvious affinities with evangelicalism, which also offers meaning amid uncertainty via narratives of loss and restoration—of lost souls at revivals and a “Christian America” stolen away by secular humanists. Conservatism has elective affinities with biblical narratives, too. As Adam and Eve look over their shoulders on their exodus from Eden—as they mourn their loss and plot its reversal—they become the first conservatives.

Of course, there is much debate about whether today’s culture wars started on the left or the right. Conservatives repeatedly claim that the left started it in the social revolutions of the “Bad Sixties.” And many left historians say the same. But over the longue durée I explore in this book, conservatives typically fire the first shots.

Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were not backlash movements against revolutions from the left. They were reactions to the immigration of Catholics and the invention of Mormonism. Similarly, the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were responses to the rise of the saloon—to mixed drinks and interracial dating.

But the culture wars are not just instigated on the right. They are waged disproportionately by the right. Most of the shots in the Concords and Lexingtons of our culture wars were fired by those who had the most to lose as the nation opened its borders to Irish Catholics and its arms to lesbians and gay men. To be sure, the left responded in each case, and provoked skirmishes of its own. But if you are looking for an “infatuation with violence” (both real and imagined) you are going to find it more often and more floridly on the right [iii]


My third argument is that America’s culture wars have typically been won by pluralists on the left. Culture wars may be conservative morality plays but in the end gays and lesbians get marriage. A “papist” and an “infidel” get the White House. In almost every case, those who declared war on Jefferson or Catholics or Mormons or the sins of the 1920s or the abominations of the 1960s go down to defeat.

Liberals may win our culture wars for philosophical reasons (because the constitutional principle of liberty is on their side) or for practical ones (because the nation is becoming more Catholic or more brown). But the most important reason they win is because their opponents attach themselves to lost causes. In culture wars from 1800 to the twenty-first century, conservatives picked fights they were already losing, and once any given fight was over the liberals had won. This strategy makes no sense if the goal is to win. But that is not the goal of culture warriors. Their goal is to gain political power by preaching a gospel of salvation to the fallen and the lost—by demonstrating just how far America has descended from the glory of its founding and promising to recover and restore forms of life now threatened with extinction.

Culture wars begin with an anxiety. This anxiety is then expressed in two forms: first, as a narrower complaint about a specific public policy or cultural fact; second as a broader lament about how badly the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately it is in need of deliverance. But the fight is fiercest when the cause at hand is already well on its way to being lost. Conservatives mobilize against Catholics only when it is becoming clear that the Catholic population is growing too quickly to remain on the margins; they attack gay marriage only when attitudes toward homosexuality are gravitating toward acceptance.


To conclude, I see in American history a culture war cycle that spins from one cultural conflict to the next.

This cycle begins on the right, with conservatives anxious about some cultural change they are experiencing as a loss. This anxiety is different in each case. During the election of 1800, which was held amid the aftershocks of the French Revolution, Federalists are anxious about their country falling into chaos. During the anti-Catholic culture war, Protestants are anxious about the ways that immigrants are remaking their society. The anxiety catalyzing the anti-Mormon culture war concerns the breakdown of “family values.” The drama of prohibition and repeal is about alcohol of course, but it is activated by an anxiety about the blooming, buzzing confusion of modern life. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives give voice to their anxieties about the browning of their population and, with it, the demise of white, Christian America.

In the face of each of these anxieties, conservatives launch an attack, blaming their political opponents for the loss they are experiencing, and for threatening the health and welfare of the nation in the process. The result is an attack on “them” in the name of “us.”

After the right strikes out, the left strikes back. In the second stage in the cycle, progressives launch a counterattack, responding either by defending the change as a positive good or (more often) by appealing to the American principle of liberty to insist that U.S. citizens have every right to run for office without being Protestants, or to drink a beer after work, or to secure an abortion.

Next comes some sort of accommodation. Culture wars are characterized by a rhetoric of “no compromise”—by appeals to moral absolutes and unchanging divine commandments. But they are typically resolved via some sort of accommodation. Yes, Catholicism comes to be accepted as a legitimate American religion, but only after Catholics accept the separation of church and state. And Mormons become “quintessential Americans” only after they give up on polygamy.

In the fourth stage of the culture wars cycle, conservatives lose and liberals win. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives won on guns. They killed the ERA. And they carved out a much broader space for religion in the public square. But they lost on tax exemptions for segregation academies, on school prayer, on abortion (still legal in every state), on the counterculture (which became the culture), on marijuana, on Clinton’s impeachment, on the NEA, on the “breadwinner” family, and most strikingly (and quickly) on same-sex marriage.

But liberals did not just win the contemporary culture wars. All the culture wars explored in my book went their way. The Federalists lost. The anti-Catholics lost. The anti-Mormons lost. And prohibition was repealed.

There will always be culture warriors who want to retire after losing a big fight. But for most conservatives any given loss energizes them for the next conflict, not least because it confirms their victimhood. Having lost one culture war, conservatives become even more convinced that other Americans are out to get them. They become more fearful that American society is going to hell. So they cast about for another grievance, something else that is precious and is passing away. “All conservatism begins with loss,” writes Andrew Sullivan. [iv] And so it goes with America’s culture wars, which (at least for conservatives) end with loss as well.

[i] Kallen, “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot,” Nation, February 25, 1915, 220.

[ii] Theophilus Parsons to John Jay, May 5, 1800, in Henry P. Johnson, ed., The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 4.270. No one seems to know, the Connecticut Courant complained on August 18, 1800, “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or, in the alcoran [Quran]; whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all” (quoted in Dunn, Jefferson’s Second Revolution, 148).

[iii] Robin, Reactionary Mind, 38.

[iv] Sullivan, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (New York: Harper, 2006), 9.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Stephen: Excellent. I hadn’t arrived at this articulation, but your view corresponds with mine–i.e. culture wars ongoing, defined by episodes. That said, I think there is some cause to designate the latest episode, the one Andrew studied, as “The Culture Wars.” Why? Although I agree with your semi-anthropological definition of ‘culture’ that includes elements beyond its traditional definition (e.g. objects of art, literature, music, theater, intellectual institutions, philosophical debates, etc.), in Andrew’s period of concern there really was a substantial concern with those traditional objects. The only other episode that corresponds is the 1920s, when there was concern for modern art. Even so, actors in the 1980s and 1990s specifically designated their episode as ‘cultural’ or ‘culture wars’. – TL

  2. What a great and truthful essay Professor Prothero! Indeed I would go so far as to say that in this one blog post is an explanation of a lot of the woes affecting the body politic in the present.

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