Book Review

Still Separate but Equal: Shannon on Hartman’s War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of America[Introduction: This is review number six, from Christopher Shannon, in our (more than!) weeklong roundtable on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Shannon is an Assistant Professor of History at Christendom College. His contribution comes to us courtesy of a presentation, given just yesterday with Hartman, at the Hauenstein Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The roundtable’s first review came from Bob Hutton, the second was by Vaneesa Cook, the third by Peter Kuryla, the fourth from Michelle Nickerson, and the fifth last Friday from Amy Kittelstrom. Hartman’s reply arrives tomorrow. Enjoy! – TL]

Still Separate but Equal

A War for the Soul of America is a model of what that representative product of academic history, the “monograph,” can be at its best. A comprehensive account of a complex historical phenomenon and laced with critical insights illuminating the ironies and contradictions of an epoch, it is the kind of book that half a lifetime ago inspired me to pursue the study of history as a vocation. Any page picked at random could provide more than enough material for my brief remarks here. Still, I write neither to praise Andrew nor to bury him, but to assess the ways in which his study of the history of the culture wars illuminates and/or obscures our understanding of the divisions that that continue to characterize contemporary American political culture.

Given this context, I suppose I should at least make clear where my comments are coming from politically. If I have a home on the landscape of American political history, it would be as a mid-twentieth century New Deal Catholic Democrat, with a Civil-Rights Era correction on matters of race. This political position was destroyed by the cultural revolution that Andrew charts in his book–a revolution that began as a correction on race and quickly morphed into an assault on a wide range of cultural verities that provided more than a little of the glue that held the New Deal coalition together.

I will go further to say that the pursuit of racial justice provided a cover for a cultural “liberation” that has served the cultural and economic interests of the white middle class far more than those of African-Americans, and far more still than those of the white working class, whose despair has recently become the subject of much middle-class white liberal sympathy in the pages of what were once the national papers of record, The New York Times and The Washington Post. One of the great strengths of Andrew’s book is the recognition that the pursuit of liberation and equality in matters of race, gender and sexuality so often facilitated a widening inequality in areas of class. One of the great weaknesses of the book is the belief that progressives can simply add class to the agenda of liberation and equality to correct for past deficiencies. To be fair, Andrew is wise enough, and dare I say Marxist enough, to acknowledge that this correction is not so easy: the radical individualism of the cultural revolution directly undermines the solidarity necessary for social democracy. Partisan of the “radical” sixties, he nonetheless acknowledges that the common culture of the “conservative” fifties actually showed a greater commitment to economic equality rooted in stable, shared values, particularly with respect to family life and gender relations. In seeking to imagine a synthesis, Andrew turns to radical or queer notions of “kinship rights” as providing the basis for a broader social solidarity beyond the more narrowly bourgeois, individualistic goal of normalizing gay marriage. Really? After having thrown off the oppressive restrictions of bourgeois patriarchy, why should anyone, gay or straight, accept the duties and obligations of “kinship rights?” We’ve gone down this road before, with the romanticization of alterative family structures in the liberal sociology of the black family (e.g. Carol Stack’s All Our Kin). Its dubious accuracy aside, this writing could not establish any alternative family structure as authoritative–it was simply, well, one alternative among many others.

It is tempting to counter Andrew’s ultimately hopeful account of progressive libertarian socialism with a dark and gloomy declension narrative of a fall from communal grace. While there is some truth in this counter narrative, I wish rather to take a step back and reconsider the general categories of progress and reaction, particularly with respect to the issues of inclusion and exclusion that figure so prominently in the progressive narrative. Andrew, along with most self-identified progressives, generally sees America since the sixties as moving toward the ideals of a more inclusive society, with inclusion understood as the expanding of opportunities for women and minorities in mainstream society. The philosophical–and legal–turning point here is undeniably the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared “separate but equal” accommodations for African Americans were in fact not equal and violated the Constitution. Yet within less than ten years, another Supreme Court decision, Engel v. Vitale, effectively established a new beachhead for the principle of separate but equal: religion, most especially Christianity.

I fully acknowledge the thinness, even vacuity, of the civil religion that passed for public Christianity in the 1950s, but the idea that a gag rule on religion in public education could be neutral directly contradicted contemporaneous arguments that segregation of the races in schools actually fostered white racism and African-American self-hatred. As the privatization of prayer morphed into a more general assault on religious pieties throughout the educational-industrial complex, Andrew acknowledges that “for the most part, educators sheathed their liberal curriculum designs in a cloak of professionalism” (204). Still, he quickly moves on and generally presents the conservative critique of secular humanistic dominance in education as yet another instance of the paranoid style in American politics. In contrast, he devotes many sympathetic pages to the Black Power critique of structural racism in education and a whole range of “dominant” institutions. He does not deny secular dominance in education, but simply avoids the questions of power that figure so prominently in his account of race. My question is, can you really have it both ways? Is there anything in the historical evidence that confirms the reality of structural racism yet refutes structural secularism? Is it just a matter of a personal preference against racism and for secularism? Why not simply see this as a case of shifting boundaries of lines of power rather than normative progress?

Andrew’s sensitivity on matters of race is understandable. The denial of basic legal personhood to African Americans is one of the great moral failings in American history. I agree with Andrew that the official affirmation of that full personhood is the great moral achievement of postwar America–though I might quibble that it technically pre-dates the cultural revolution proper. Still, as with Brown and Engel, the historical moment that saw the inclusion of African Americans into full membership in American society saw the exclusion of a previously included group: unborn children. This is not the time or place to get into a substantive debate on abortion, though I hope to argue that the historical and cultural reality of abortion raises serious questions about Andrew’s narrative of inclusion. Whatever Andrew or anyone else may think about the legal status of the human life in a pregnant woman’s womb, up until the 1960s it is safe to say that American law considered that life, if not a “person,” at least in some sense a member of the human family, not merely a lump of tissue. Well into the 1950s, even Planned Parenthood opposed abortion. This attitude changed not because of any scientific breakthroughs–if anything, advances in fetology only confirmed the common sense notion of continuity in development from conception. It changed largely because of the rights revolution and the legitimation of radical notions of individual autonomy, for men as well as women.

This much, I believe, is unobjectionable as history. Yet the story becomes more complicated when one considers the attitudes of inclusion and exclusion at play in the debate about abortion and more broadly birth control. Pregnancy, once understood as a natural consequence of sex (it is a natural consequence of sex!), now appears as somehow unnatural–with autonomy, control and independence now the arbiter of the natural. Children are a threat to autonomy. They must be prevented, or at the very least restricted, at all costs. Like the immigrant hordes in the fantasies of a Donald Trump supporter, future generations–that is, children–are an invading army, threatening our way of life by consuming our scarce resources or taking away our jobs (i.e., preventing us from pursuing our career dreams). The rejection of children in the name of progressive liberation now threatens, in most of the developed world, to liberate us from the future. The societies of the developed world are literally dying, failing to reproduce themselves. The cultural revolution has proven itself to be a culture of death.

Here I invoke a phrase coined by St. John Paul II, whose pontificate spanned most of the years of the culture wars. A darling of conservatives for his strident opposition to communism, John Paul, like most authentically Catholic thinkers, does not fit neatly into the left/right categories of American politics. The phrase “culture of death” comes from his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life]. Writing in wake of the collapse of communism, John Paul offered a critical antidote to the liberal modern triumphalism of the “end of history” prophets of that time. Sounding a note of irony that I hope Andrew can appreciate, John Paul writes:

In this way, and with tragic consequences, a long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of “human rights”–rights inherent in every person and prior to any Constitution and state legislation–is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.[1]

John Paul sees birth control, abortion, and euthanasia, along with the genocidal wars of the twentieth century, as a “conspiracy against life” fueled by “a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands.”[2] Long before the halcyon days of Paris 1968, certain dark strains of modernity–communism and fascism–had declared, in effect, that it is forbidden to forbid. Liberal modernity, once ever-so-tenuously aligned with something like transcendent truth, has at last succumbed to the same ethos of its erstwhile enemies. Here lies the true culture war: the culture of life vs. the culture of death.

Any child of the sixties should be able to appreciate these stark alternatives. In the guise of Eros vs. Thanatos, a version of this battle inspired the Freudian left of figures such as Norman O. Brown. The environmental movement, which receives surprisingly little attention in Andrew’s account of the sixties, certainly judged, and continues to judge, modern industrialism as a kind of culture of death. It has, especially in recent years, proved more than willing to forbid a whole range of activities deemed harmful to nature. Ironically, most secular environmentalists remain fully supportive of the technocratic domination of human nature through birth control, abortion and euthanasia. Catholic thinkers such as St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and, most recently, Pope Francis have sought to overcome this divide between nature and human nature through promoting a consistent life ethic capable of uniting God, man and nature in a relationship of solidarity. Perhaps this tradition could bridge the divide that Andrew sees between cultural liberation and social democracy.



[1] John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1995), 34.

[2] Ibid., 33, 31.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just to clarify, Chris,

    Are you saying that “structural racism” and “structural secularism” are equivalent evils, that each of those forms of discrimination has equivalent socio-economic costs? Or, rather, is the former literally a matter of life-and-death, while the latter is simply about lost status?

    • Mark,

      Thanks for your question. Real quickly, I am not making a moral equivalency argument, I am saying that our analytic categories cannot persuasively make moral distinctions, and so the “power” we tend to focus on depends more on our personal preferences than any shared acceptance of a hierarchy of goods. Thus, the early 21st century crusade for trans-gender bathrooms may be seen as the moral equivalent of the anti-lynching campaigns of the early 20th century.

  2. If you think it’s not the time or the place to get into the history of abortion, then I suggest you should avoid introducing tendentious mischaracterizations of that history into your argument, which is already a hot mess. I guess “structural secularism” must be a real thing in your mind, but it’s not a big problem here in Texas, where the theocrats du jour are doing their part to deprive women in particular of access to affordable health care, including birth control, because we obviously can’t have women enjoying good sex in good health unless they are willing to get knocked up. Gotta keep ’em dependent, suppliant, vulnerable, and needy, for rhe good of the collective.

    • And, as our state’s former solicitor general gleefully reminded us, stimulating one’s genitals is not constitutionally protected.

  3. Wow, this is a tour de force in false equivalents…

    Structural racism vs. structural secularism
    African Americans and immigrants vs. unborn babies
    Communism vs. Fascism
    Birth control and abortion vs. genocide
    Caring for fetuses and sperm=life vs. Caring for women=death

    If this is not post modern sophistry, I don’t know what is.

  4. Partisan of the “radical” sixties, he nonetheless acknowledges that the common culture of the “conservative” fifties actually showed a greater commitment to economic equality rooted in stable, shared values, particularly with respect to family life and gender relations.

    I don’t remember Andrew H. making that point, at least not in that way, but on the substance: in the fifties there were growing labor unions organizing an increasing portion of the industrial (largely white male) work force, there was also (despite the occasional recession) impressive economic growth, the container ship and other developments had not yet facilitated widespread ‘offshoring’ of production and global supply chains: these and other ec. forces have much more to do w the relative ec. equality (at least among white males) of the fifties than the ‘cultural’ factors mentioned in the post. Also, of course, the constricted opportunities for women in a number of fields, the result of stultifying unfair norms confining many or most women to ‘domestic’ roles, meant that male workers faced less competition for jobs.

    Much else to object to in the post (indeed, almost every sentence), but for time reasons I’ll leave it at that.

    • p.s. The mentioned norms are cultural, so I guess the implicit msg of the post here is: women shd be confined to the home b.c that supported (and wd again support) economic equality. By extension, the author of the post shd support de jure segregation if it enhanced ‘ec equality’ among whites in the South. Twisted.

  5. “Partisan of the “radical” sixties, he nonetheless acknowledges that the common culture of the “conservative” fifties actually showed a greater commitment to economic equality rooted in stable, shared values, particularly with respect to family life and gender relations.”

    For a less obfuscated account of what those “shared values,” consisted of, see Kittelstrom’s contribution to this roundtable. You are often right enough that progressives want to have their cake and eat it too; but hilariously, you greatly outstrip them in this regard.

    Moreover, you are also right that Engel v. Vitale represented a loss for non-secular people in politics, although as L.D. points out, the idea that it now reigns supreme everywhere is more than a little problematic. But to the point, yes, that’s what happens in politics: someone wins, and someone else loses. And our “analytical categories” are something only you elevate to the point of being your personal hobbyhorse, because everyone else does go ahead and make moral distinctions — they just do not make them as you would like. Pointing out the hypocritical limitations of progressive political rhetoric does nothing to bolster your own moral distinctions which, once you start making them, are exemplars of intellectual gymnastics built on a lived experience of privilege and power that you overtly champion. So, at least you are (kind of) honest, but I’ll take a less self-aware progressive that doesn’t force me to be pregnant any day over a superficially “consistent” conservative who basically thinks I shouldn’t exist. Sucks man, at the end of the day it *is* about substance.

  6. I am baffled at the parallel drawn here between structural racism and something called ‘structural secularism,’ as the only real structural secularism in the United States is the one implied by the Establishment Clause in the Constitution. Indeed, as many people have noted, it is not even secularism but simply the avoidance of mingling government activity and religious belief, as opposed to a more assertive claim of secularity as in, say, the French constitutional model. One can certainly dispute some of the claims about structural racism on the grounds that aggregate social effects can come into being through a number of things (including individual choice) other than the pressure of structure, or even on the grounds that such structures are, in the last analysis, merely a metaphor for attitudes; but what one cannot do is compare a structure that may exist only as a metaphor with a structure that doesn’t even exist as a metaphor.

  7. While I agree with most of the equivalency criticisms here, I am willing to go a little ways with the notion of “structural secularism”: Engel v. Vitale was the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited religious exercises in public education (though, as Dan Williams points out in “God’s Own Party,” it was Abington v. Schempp that really pissed off evangelicals.) Notwithstanding unlitigated cases in Southern and Midwestern districts, clearly exceptions, Engel has been followed by fifty years of the same type of rulings. In an environment in which unelected judges, administrators, and teachers overrule the will and compromises of local voters, and in which the same groups steadily raise taxes to fund public education, there is certainly an emerging, secular ideological structure at work. Its break in 1961 was not with the mealy public religion of the 1950s, but with the notion of community sovereignty in education.

    The problem, for me, is Shannon’s facile acceptance of “secular structuralism” without examining the changing meaning and significance of the term, the merits of which faded when the Moral Majority started deploying similar rhetoric in the 1970s. It seems much harder to defend the term once it became cynically politicized, used to paint Christians as a minority group (which is not the same thing as being disempowered, which many were), defended racism or other forms of bigotry, or, worst, led conservative groups to abandon their democratic stance and turn to the Courts, trying to beat liberals at their own game. If Shannon wants to draw attention to the deleterious effects of secularism, I think he needs to more clearly identify the values underlying certain visions of conservatism and religiosity (in my mind: local democracy), not merely their existence, and to acknowledge the ways in which they have been misused. It is in that endeavor that one can see the truth and compromises of writers like Lasch, Kirk, Buckley, etc.

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