James Davison Hunter Talks About “The Culture Wars”

Hunter Culture WarsAs far as I know, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture wars” in his 1991 book The Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Jason Willick has a feature story on Hunter titled “The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’.” Here is a taste:

In the heat of battle, religious conservatives too have found themselves defending behavior that contradicts their stated moral values. On the relationship between the religious right and the president, he says: If “there is a hope that the state can secure the world, even by someone as imperfect as Trump, ” then “religious people, are willing to make all sorts of accommodations”—willing “to justify pretty much anything.”

Sometimes the culture wars have escalated into real violence, as when white supremacists and antifa extremists clashed in Charlottesville last August a mile down the street from Mr. Hunter’s office. Could there be a risk to the political system itself? Mr. Hunter has written before about the parallels between the American culture wars and religious and moral conflicts that have led to state breakdown abroad. In his 1994 book, “Before the Shooting Begins,” he wondered if America’s mostly peaceful culture wars amount to “our postmodern Bosnia.”

One source of optimism is that the U.S. has a remarkable history of accommodating cultural diversity. “It’s not perfect and certainly not linear, and certainly race has been one of those elements of our past and our present that resists that kind of absorption,” he says. “But you look at the Irish, you look at Catholics, Jews, Mormons.” Perhaps that past can be re-created: “My hope is that we can continue to absorb diversity. But it’s certainly being tested right now.”

The aspiration of the Enlightenment, and of liberal democracy, was always “a political order in which you can have a fair amount of diversity,” Mr. Hunter says. Because of the “epic failure of religion to provide a unifying foundation for society”—as demonstrated by the religious wars in 17th-century Europe—Enlightenment thinkers attempted to “retain Jewish and Christian values, understandings of the world, but without any of the creedal foundations.” This is one way of thinking about the project of today’s culture-war progressives: expanding universal equality and dignity, but without a foundational source of authority outside reason and science.

As to the future of the culture wars, Mr. Hunter is ambivalent. He notes that some progressives have already declared victory and quotes a colleague who said all that remains is “a mopping-up campaign.” Mr. Hunter doesn’t go that far, but he does believe that because “politics is an artifact of culture,” progressives’ disproportionate power in elite institutions “will cash out, politically, in the long term.”

Yet he doubts that reason and science are any better suited than fundamentalist religion to provide a stable basis for morality, even if the West continues to secularize. One challenge of the Enlightenment he says, is that “reason gave us the power to doubt and to question everything, including reason itself.” That “throws us back upon our own subjectivity. . . . You have your truth, I have mine.”

Read the entire article here.

Have Evangelicals Replaced Catholics as the Leaders of the Anti-Abortion Movement?

Pro Life Rally

Writing at New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore makes this argument.  He is correct.  This is not news, but it is certainly an interesting exercise in change over time.  In other words, when did evangelicals overtake Catholics as the leaders of the pro-life movement?

He does not have room in his column to develop the complex history behind evangelicals’ embrace of anti-abortion politics.  For that history I would recommend Daniel Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford, 2016).   Williams was also our guest in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Williams describes how American evangelicalism embraced the anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade.  Before that, the pro-life movement was often understood to be a “Catholic issue.”

Here is a taste of Kilgore’s piece:

But there’s no question the religious community that is far more solidly in the anti-abortion camp is white Evangelical Protestants. In a 2017 survey that broke out this particular segment of the population, Pew found that 70 percent of white Evangelicals thought that all or most abortions should be illegal. Less than half of Catholics (44 percent), black Protestants (41 percent), white mainline Protestants (30 percent), and the unaffiliated (17 percent) agreed with this position.

This is remarkable in no small part because unlike Catholics, white Evangelicals have little traditional investment in the anti-abortion cause. They have no formal hierarchy, no teaching tradition, no papal encyclicals, and no “natural law” philosophy leading them in the direction of regarding abortion as grievously sinful. They purport to follow only the Bible, which never mentions abortion and only obliquely refers to fetal life. Evangelicals, moreover, were not as a group actively engaged in state efforts to keep abortion illegal prior to Roe; many (particularly among Southern Baptists, the largest white Evangelical denomination) favored “liberalized” abortion laws back then.

However you choose to explain the white Evangelical shift toward strongly anti-abortion views — as a moral “awakening” after Roe; a general rejection of liberalism and feminism; a nostalgic embrace of cultural conservatism in all its elements (including patriarchy); or a byproduct of a growing alliance with conservative politics — it’s unmistakable, and it has offset the gradual drift toward pro-choice views among Catholics.

Read the entire piece here.

Notre Dame President: “Dogma Lives Loudly”


You may recall our recent post on Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber’s criticism of the Democratic Senators who may have violated Article VI of the Constitution in their questioning of University of Notre Dame Professor Amy Barrett during her recent confirmation hearings for a federal judgeship.

Over the last several days, a host of smart people have joined Eisgruber in his criticism of Diane Feinstein, Dick Durbin, and Al Franken.  The latest is Notre Dame president John Jenkins.  Here is the bulk of his letter to Feinstein:

Dear Senator Feinstein:

Considering your questioning of my colleague Amy Coney Barrett during the judicial confirmation hearing of September 6, I write to express my confidence in her competence and character, and deep concern at your line of questioning.

Professor Barrett has been a member of our faculty since 2002, and is a graduate of our law school. Her experience as a clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is of the highest order. So, too, is her scholarship in the areas of federal courts, constitutional law and statutory interpretation. I am not a legal scholar, but I have heard no one seriously challenge her impeccable legal credentials.

Your concern, as you expressed it, is that “dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I am one in whose heart “dogma lives loudly,” as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.

Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would “follow unflinchingly” all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself. I can assure you that she is a person of integrity who acts in accord with the principles she articulates.

It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom “dogma lives loudly”—which is a condition we call faith. For the attempt to live such faith while one upholds the law should command respect, not evoke concern.

Many people have defended the Senators’ line of questioning, including some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  They say that if the faith of a religious judge is going to result in taking away the rights of others, then asking questions about religious belief is perfectly fair.  Some can get quite passionate about it.  But the bottom line is this:  The people who have interpreted this line of questioning as a possible violation of Article VI are no intellectual slouches. They also represent, to one degree or another, a significant portion of the American electorate.

This debate over religious liberty and test oaths reveals the deep divide in this country right now.  What makes this so intense is the fact that both sides of the debate appeal to American ideals–religious liberty, individual rights, and the disestablishment of religion, to name only a few.  I am not sure how these social issues can be resolved as long as people like Franken, Durbin, Feinstein, Sanders, the authors of the Nashville Statement, the court evangelicals, and many others continue to dig-in their heels.

Court Evangelical: An “Axis of Evil” is Destroying the Trump Presidency

As many of you know, President George W. Bush used the phrase “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address to describe foreign governments sponsoring terrorism and seeking to build nuclear arsenals.  Bush applied the phrase to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

Jeffress uses “axis of evil” to describe the Democrats and Republicans of the “establishment” who are trying to destroy Donald Trump.  “We cannot allow that to happen,” he says.

Is this a call to a holy war of some type?  Is Jeffress pitting the forces of God against the forces of anti-Trump evil?  Is Jeffress comparing the opponents of Donald Trump to what Bush describes here?:

Seconds before Jeffress came on the air, in the same segment, Lou Dobbs was talking about Pope Francis’s criticism of the Trump administration.  This was the context in which Jeffress used the phrase “axis of evil.”  Is Francis part of this axis of evil? If so, this would not be the first time Jeffress has spewed forth anti-Catholic rhetoric.  Whatever the case, this Dallas court evangelical believes that Trump is God’s anointed one and anyone who opposes God’s anointed one is evil.

And you wonder why I have suggested that the course of American Christianity is changing?

Trump Evangelicals and Pickett’s Charge


Here’s a theory.  Again, just a theory.

Yesterday I was chatting with a pastor about evangelicals who support Donald Trump. This pastor affirmed a lot of my thoughts about the generational make-up of this group. Most (not all, but most) pro-Trump evangelicals (or evangelicals who voted for Trump) who I encounter are older than I am.  This group looks back on the last fifty years and they see increased religious and ethnic diversity, changes in sexual ethics, and an ever- growing number of legal cases related to the separation of church state (think 10 Commandment monuments, “Merry Christmas” and manger scenes, prayers at football games, etc.).  They are afraid.  They are uncomfortable.  They believe America was once “great” and now it needs to be made “great again.”  They have dug in for one last stand in the culture wars. Trump can help them win.

If this generational argument is true, then the pro-Trump evangelicals, and others who live with this fear, will soon fade off the scene.  If my pastor friend is correct, and I think he just might be, younger evangelicals are less fearful, more open to diversity and immigration, and at least willing to treat those with whom they disagree on sexual ethics and marriage with dignity, respect, and civility.  They remain orthodox in their theology,  but they are not culture warriors.

With all of this in mind, the pro-Trump evangelical movement may represent a kind of last-ditch effort by the Moral Majority generation to reclaim the country in the way that they were trained to do by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others back in the 1980s.

Military history teaches us that final assaults are often carried out on a grand scale. Think about Pickett’s Charge–the final engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg.    The Confederate Army attempted to make one last thrust into the Union line before it was turned back once and for all.  Many historians have argued that the loss at Gettysburg sent the Confederate army on a downward spiral that eventually led to its defeat at Appomattox in April 1865.

The Trump evangelicals have found a strongman to lead them.  With control of the White House they are poised, at least for the moment, to initiate a final forward movement  for the purpose of preserving their “way of life” against the social and cultural changes that they have been fighting against for a couple of generations.

Just a theory.  What do you think?

If I am correct here, it seems like the challenge for pastors and Christian leaders is to figure out how to meet the spiritual needs of the Trump evangelicals in their churches. They need to find a way to walk beside them in their place of fear and anxiety and remind them of the “God of all comfort” and the “perfect love” that “casts out fear.”  It would be easy to just dismiss the Trump generation of evangelicals or simply tolerate them until they pass off the scene, but such a demographics-based approach would be a dereliction of pastoral duty.

More Cowbell in the “Swamps of Jersey”

Some context from Backstreets.com:

Check out this rare acoustic version of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” performed live on Boston’s late, great WBCN-FM on April 9, 1974. Bruce Springsteen introduces his backing musicians (shortly after the “percussion solo” that begins around the 3:50 mark) as follows: “Now on the saxophone we got Clarence Clemons, on the accordion Danny Federici, on the tambourine Mr. Dave Sancious, and on the — let me hear the cowbell! — and on the cowbell, Mr. Garry Tallent!”


Another Battle at Gettysburg?


Next weekend marks the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It looks like Gettysburg will once again be a battleground, but this time the “war” is a cultural one, focused on modern debates about free speech, the Trump presidency, and Confederate monuments.

Read Dustin Levy’s piece at the York Daily Record.  Here is a taste:

The Gettysburg National Military Park has issued three special use permits for first amendment activities on July 1, according to a Thursday news release.

“As custodians of land owned by the American people, the National Park Service has a responsibility to make that land available for exercising those rights,” Bill Justice, acting park superintendent, said in the release.

“As with any First Amendment activities, Gettysburg National Military Park’s objectives are to provide for public safety, minimize impacts on historic resources of this park, and afford visitors an enjoyable experience.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans Mechanized Cavalry and Real 3% Risen will gather north of Meade’s Headquarters near 160 Taneytown Road from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The park expects 250 to 500 participants with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and 500 to 1,500 participants with Real 3% Risen, a Facebook group dedicated to protecting American freedoms.

Ski Bischof, of Allentown, helped organize the events with a Facebook event called “Support America and Her History.” Together, they are joining up with the other groups to form a united front against a group that might be there to protest against President Trump and/or the Confederate flag, according to the Facebook event page.

A third group, Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, consisting of about 20 people, is planning to march in formation from the North Carolina Memorial to the Virginia Memorial, with small ceremonies along the way, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The events came about, in part, because of unsubstantiated reports of an activist group coming to the battlefield on July 1. The allegations of this group’s intended activities have spread on social media the past couple weeks, infuriating many.

Read the entire article here.

“That’s why I chose you”


Check out John Allen‘s interview with Father Juan Julian Carron, leader of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation.  Carron offers some important reflections on how Christians need to live in this world.  I hope the court evangelicals are reading.

Here is a taste:

Allen: Rod Dreher recently argued that Christians should abandon the culture wars in the West because we’ve already lost, and the most we can hope for is a ‘Benedict option,’ meaning creatively preserving small islands of the faith amid a decaying and hostile culture. You too seem to be saying that we should get past the culture wars, without abandoning those positions, but for a different reason.

Carron: Certainly, absolutely. It’s always struck me, the contraposition between trying to make Christianity into a civil religion, on the one hand, and on the other, trying to make it entirely private. To me, it’s like trying to amend the design of God. I ask myself, who would ever have bet that God would begin to reach out to the world by calling Abraham? It was the most unlikely, most confusing, way of going about it anyone could have imagined.

The choice can’t come down to either the culture wars or a Christianity emptied of content, because neither of those options has anything to do with Abraham and salvation history. Abraham was chosen by God to begin introducing into history a new way of living life, that could slowly begin to generate an external reality with the capacity to make like dignified, to make it full.

I imagine that if Abraham were around today, in our minority situation, and he went to God and said, ‘Nobody’s paying any attention to me,’ what would God have said? We know very well what he’d say: ‘That’s why I chose you, to begin posing to reality a presence significant enough, even if no one believes it, that I will make of you a people so numerous that your descendants will be like the stars in the sky.’

When he sent his son into the world, stripped of his divine power to become man, he did the same thing. It’s like St. Paul said, he came to give us the capacity to live life in a new way. That’s what generates a culture. The question for us is whether the situation we’re in today gives us the chance to recover the origins of the design of God.

Allen: You seem fairly optimistic that’s still possible.

Carron: Yes, absolutely. I’m completely optimistic, because of the nature of the faith itself. I’m an optimist based on the nature of the Christian experience. It doesn’t depend on my reading of things, my diagnosis of the sociological situation. The problem is that to be able to start over again from this absolutely original point of departure, we have to go back to the roots of the faith itself, in what Jesus said and did.

If there’s a case for pessimism, it’s that too many times we’ve reduced Christianity either to a series of values, an ethics, or simply a philosophical discourse. That’s not attractive, it doesn’t have the power to seduce anyone. People don’t feel the attractive force of Christianity. But precisely because the situation we’re living in today is so dramatic, from every point of view, paradoxically it’s easier to get across the novelty of Christianity.

Read the entire interview here.

Chaplin vs. Cruz: Part 2


As far as I can tell, this is the first thing I have read from Joyce Chaplin since Ted Cruz attacked her on Twitter.  As I have now said a couple of times, I hope she will write something to put this all to bed.  On the other hand, I would fully understand if Chaplin does not want to open herself up to more attacks.

Here is a taste of Joanna Walter’s Guardian piece:

Fighting broke out in Britain’s American colonies on 18 April 1775, at Concord, Massachusetts. On 4 July 1776, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. British forces did not surrender until 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, in Virginia.

In 1783, representatives of King George III met in Paris with Americans including founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Representatives of France and Spain also signed the United States of America into formal, internationally-recognised existence.

Chaplin said: “The Declaration of Independence was necessary but not sufficient. The American patriots knew that they needed international assistance to win the war. Even before [4 July] 1776, they sent a diplomatic envoy to Paris – foreign aid and recognition were top priorities.”

She declined to comment on the tone of Cruz’s criticism and his more personal points, saying: “Personal attacks cannot alter the historical record.”

On the history, she added: “Before they recognised the US, the French referred to the Americans as “insurgents” … not citizens of a separate nation … the full spate of recognitions only came after the treaty. Those who recognised the US before were demonstrating antagonism to Great Britain.”

The 1783 Paris treaty formalised the boundaries of the US: north of Florida to the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi.

“The treaty … in terms of law created the US as one nation among others,” Chaplin said. “By relinquishing claims to the US, Britain also gave force of law to its territorial boundaries, which had not been clear before, from anyone’s perspective …There is scholarly consensus on this.”

She called 4 July 1776 “a first step” on the road to national independence.

Asked if the US now owes it to the rest of the world to stick with the Paris climate deal, Chaplin said that accord was the culmination of centuries of quid pro quo.

“If we turn our backs on the rest of the world now,” she said, “when climate change requires all hands on deck, we are denying centuries of cooperation in a community of nations.”

As linked above, I wrote about this here.

A few more thoughts:

  1. The conservative backlash is very revealing.  Most of it comes from political pundits who, like Cruz, see this as another chance to pounce on so-called liberal Harvard professors.
  2. Cruz and the conservatives, as I wrote in my original post, are incapable of seeing the nuance on this issue because they cannot see Chaplin’s remarks as anything other than politically motivated.  (And yes, Chaplin opened herself up to this critique by making the connection between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017. This is a stretch. It is not as sensitive to change over time as it should be). This is why we need more historical thinking in our schools and in our society.
  3. In reality, the creation of the United States was a very complex process that included the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the years under the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris (international recognition WAS essential), and the Constitution.  When this complex history is subordinated to contemporary politics, any attempt to understand the past in all its fullness stalls.
  4.  Twitter is no place to deal with these complex issues.
  5. Anyone who wants to really explore these issues should begin here:  David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History; Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire; Larrie Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  This is a start.  Feel free to add new works in the comments or via Facebook and Twitter.  Let’s turn this unfortunate incident into an opportunity for learning more about the American Revolution.
  6. Some of the conservative stuff written in defense of Cruz is simply hogwash. This was especially the case with Jay Cost’s piece at The Weekly Standard.  I like John Haas’s take on Cost at his Facebook page.  Here is a taste:

Jay Cost–who knows a thing or two about US history, btw–has weighed into the Twitter kerfuffle that’s erupted between Senator Ted Cruz (a Harvard grad) and Joyce Chaplin (a Harvard historian)…

They both have some of the truth here. If Cruz is insisting that the war was necessary to get Britain to the table, that’s obviously true–but it’s also nothing Chaplin denied. Cruz and his followers are assuming that if Chaplin didn’t mention it, she must be denying its importance. That’s silly. (If Cruz is going further, as many of his followers seem to be going, and is saying our “total victory” over GB allowed us to just dictate terms to them, well, no. There’s such a thing as “total war” I suppose (it’s meaning isn’t entirely clear, but people say it); there is “unconditional surrender”; but I don’t know what “total victory” is.

Chaplin is also correct that without international recognition, you’re not a nation yet. That’s why the Confederate States of America was so eager to gain recognition. Just ask the Basques about that.

As for Cost: This isn’t his finest hour. He makes six points:

1) The Treaty of Paris was bilateral, US and GB, not multilateral. Sure. But now every nation with relations with Great Britain knew the US was now no longer its colonial possession, and was free to treat us as sovereign without incurring the wrath of Great Britain. Point to Chaplin.

2) “The Treaty was a recognition of the facts on the ground, which were that, after their defeat at Yorktown, the British had no chance of reclaiming their American colonies.” A very weak point from Cost. Better to say Britain had no interest in reclaiming the colonies, not “no chance.” As with the US and Vietnam, if GB had really determined to fight that war all out, who knows what might have happened. They were nowhere close to “defeated.” They just lost interest.

3) He says there was no international community. Well, no UN, but sure, there was a community of nations that generally respected each others’ nationhood, accepted their delegations, made treaties with each other, etc.

4) “Insofar as the international community did exist, it was on the side of the United States.” Irrelevant.

5) Also irrelevant.

6) “Chaplin’s logic leads to ridiculous propositions. Did the ‘international community’ sanction the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Of course not. But, per Chaplin’s logic, Queen Elizabeth II is not the legitimate monarch of Great Britain . . .” This is just dumb. The international community did sanction 1688 by treating William & Mary as legitimate. But more important, it wasn’t really a “revolution,” much less a civil war; it was a major assertion of Parliamentarian authority and a change of monarch. Not at all comparable to our Revolution.

Cost calls Professor Chaplin “pathetic,” “ridiculous,” and “embarrassing.” He should probably apologize. But he won’t. It’s the #AgeOfTrump

Court Evangelical Jim Bakker: If Trump Gets Impeached, Christians Must “Come Out of the Shadows” and Wage a “Civil War”

The hits keep coming.

Add Jim Bakker (of PTL fame) to the list of court evangelicals.

In this video he equates support for Trump with living a Christian life.  He applies the biblical passage “faith without works is dead” (James 2) to the potential of Christians starting a civil war in the wake of a possible Trump impeachment.


Beinart: Secularism is Bad for American Politics


I am not used to seeing Peter Beinart write about religion, but his recent piece in The Atlantic makes sense to me.  Here is the argument:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And a taste:

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Evangelicals May Have Forfeited Their Right to Speak to the Moral Coarseness of American Culture

Trump Jeffress

Over the last week I have been watching and reading people like James Dobson, Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Eric Metaxas making “Christian” arguments on behalf of Donald Trump.  As more and more woman come out claiming that Trump abused them, it seems like these Christian leaders are doubling-down in support of this man.  “What he did is horrible, but…”

I understand their arguments. It all comes down to the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  In order to get the justices that they want these evangelicals are willing to back a candidate who, if we believe the women who have spoken-up in the last week, has committed multiple felonies.

Falwell Jr. continues to peddle the idea that Trump is a very different man today because he had a born-again experience.  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may remember that I called this practice–the appeal to an evangelical conversion experience to excuse Trump’s past indiscretions–the “theopolitical equivalent of money-laundering.”

I also wonder if those evangelicals who have endorsed Trump have forfeited the right to speak to the moral coarseness of American culture.  Let’s remember that these evangelicals are supporting a man who, if he gets to the oval office, is one of the leading representatives of the shock-jock (Howard Stern), Hollywood, reality-TV, sex-infused culture that Christians have been fighting against for a long, long time.

For example, here is Metaxas on the importance of cultural narratives and how movies and other forms of popular culture tell stories to unsuspecting young people that prompt them to “soak” in nihilism and sex.  If I had the time I am sure I could probably find similar statements from Dobson, Jeffress, Falwell Jr. and the other Trump evangelicals.

The next time these men, and others like them, try to write a book or give a public address or write a blog post or babble on radio show about the moral degradation of American culture I think it is fair to remind them that they supported a candidate for President of the United States who would contribute to this culture.

A republic–if you can keep it.”

This Guy Fights “Satanic Thought” in Texas History Textbooks


Neil Frey

Neal Frey is one intense guy.  He almost finished a Ph.D in American intellectual history at University of Virginia.  He has a strict diet that includes fasting for days at a time and eating a lot of prunes.  He rarely interacts with other human beings.  He spends his days finding and exposing “Satanic thought” in American history textbooks.  And he has been an influential figure in the Texas culture wars.

Reporting Texas tells Frey’s story here.

A taste:

LONGVIEW — “Satanic thought” and “liberal bias” have infiltrated Texas public school textbooks, Neal Frey says, and the 72-year-old is on a crusade to stop them.

Academic authority might object to Frey’s mission. But he’s undeterred.

“God put us here to win the culture war,” Frey said, as sweat beaded on his forehead during a September interview in his un-air-conditioned office.

Frey runs Educational Research Analysts out of his office in a rundown, 1960s-era strip mall. The organization distributes conservative Christian talking points on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage to like-minded State Board of Education members and works to privately pressure publishers before they submit books to the state board for consideration.

While many of his victories are small, he said they add up to something substantial: textbook content better aligned with a conservative Christian worldview. That means books must stress America’s exceptionalism and its Christian foundations, and include alternative viewpoints on issues such as evolution, which the Educational Research Analysts’ website calls a “natural origins myth.”

East Texans Mel and Norma Gabler founded the nonprofit in 1961. They gained a measure of national fame by railing against perceived un-American and anti-Christian bias in schoolbooks at State Board of Education meetings and on television programs such as “60 Minutes” and “20/20.”

As their fame and influence with textbook decision-makers grew, publishers were compelled to confer with the Gablers, sometimes sending them textbook manuscripts for review. Frey, who took over the organization when Mel Gabler died in 2004, has embraced the less public approach of discretely working directly with publishers.

Read the entire piece here.

In case you didn’t notice, we just did back to back posts on guys named “Frey.”

Thoughts on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

On Thursday morning Barack Obama delivered his last National Prayer Breakfast speech as President of the United States.

He spoke out of his own deep religious convictions and connected the Bible and prayer to American values.

His speech (or should we call it a sermon?) came from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

It is hard not to acknowledge Obama’s debt in this speech to writer Marilynne Robinson and her September 2015 New York Review of Books piece on fear.  Robinson is one of Obama’s favorite authors. The President even spent some time last year interviewing her in Des Moines, Iowa.

I appreciate Obama’s use of history in this speech.  Americans have been through difficult times before.  When we see things with a longer view we realize that Americans have been reacting to change, tragedy, and an assortment of difficult situations for a long time.  In some small way we might be comforted by our connections with the human beings–the Americans–who have gone before us.

Obama used 2 Timothy 1:7 to rehash a common interpretation of the Christian Right and political conservatism generally.  It goes something like this: in times of rapid change people respond in extreme ways that are motivated by fear.

There is truth in this interpretation.  If American history is any indication, nativism, racism, and other forms of discrimination have emerged when people respond in fear to the winds of change.

Future American religious historians will not miss the irony of it all.  When they study this generation they will find people living in fear who embrace a Christian faith that teaches them that they have nothing to fear. As Obama alluded to in his speech, Christ triumphed over death through the resurrection.  Because of this, Christians believe, they too will one day triumph over death. It is a fitting message as we approach the season of Lent.

Obama was very specific about the changes taking place in American society that might elicit fear.  He mentioned terrorism, homelessness, incoming refugees, and eroding shorelines.  When Obama says that Jesus is “pointing us towards what matters,” he means that Christians should not only be unafraid of these developments, but should faithfully work to do something about these problems.

Of course abortion, same-sex marriage, and other conservative moral concerns are apparently not things that “matter.”  These issues are the leftover remnants of a now- antiquated Christian tradition–the kind of tradition that progress, by its very definition, must overcome.

When conservatives in the United States talk about Christianity’s role in public life, they often look backward in order to move forward.  Theirs is an approach to Christianity rooted in historic doctrines and time-honored theological and moral truths.  Obama’s forward-looking faith represents a progressive brand of Christianity centered more on activism and social change than on theology or confessions of faith.

My intention here is not to endorse one approach to Christianity over the other.  That would not make any sense because they are two sides of the same coin.  I will, however, suggest that these differences might be yet another way in which the Christian faith in America has been politicized.

If we learned anything from the visit of Pope Francis last Fall, it is that Christianity does not fit well with any American political party or ideology.  Yet we just can’t help placing it in the Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative boxes that we have constructed for ourselves.

Reader Response: Can We Heal the Culture Wars?



A  reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home recently sent us this message/question.  I told him that I would post it and see how our other readers respond.  –JF


Why is the state of our elected leaders so bad? During the previous few elections I was always skeptical but was at least able to say “I’m okay with this candidate or that. They seem like they could do a decent job.” Now I’m more like “Are there really NO other people in this country who want this position?” It the system so messed up that reasonable people never get a chance to rise to the top? Or is it because the current candidates ARE reasonable people but the media vitriol is more out of control than it was in the past?

In part, from reading your stuff I am seeing how the culture wars are seriously one of the worst things for this country. But it seems to be getting so much worse. I’d like to help make it better. How can normal people, maybe in some small way, “steer this country down the right course.” There doesn’t seem to be a lot of trustworthy sources that “know their stuff” and don’t have an agenda.

What advice would you give this reader? Note:  He is not an academic.

Brantley Gasaway: “Long Live the ‘Culture Wars’?”

GasawayI am very excited to have Brantley Gasaway writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. Brantley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. He is the author of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice. –JF

Long Live the “Culture Wars”?

Many Americans, especially participants in partisan and religious conflicts, likely take for granted the reality of the “culture wars” of the past four decades. Both politicians and the media regularly describe debates about controversial issues such as abortion, feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, the teaching of evolution, gun rights, healthcare, and the broader role of religion in public life as part of ongoing “culture wars.” The term “culture wars” became especially popular with the publication of James Davison Hunter’s 1991 Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America and Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

But how should historians think about these “culture wars”? What constitutes and causes a “culture war”? Are the contemporary culture wars unique or a recurrent aspect of American history? The first session I attended at AHA—“Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept”—addressed this issue.

Andrew G. Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University and author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), began by offering the most circumscribed analysis. The culture wars do not represent an enduring feature of American politics, Hartman argued. Rather, the culture wars are best understood as the divisive disputes over the meaning of “America” (and what it means to be an “American”) that resulted from the profound social transformations initiated by the New Left and secularists in the 1960s and resisted by neo-conservatives and religious traditionalists. In contrast to authors such as Thomas Frank, Hartman insisted that the political, social, and religious conflicts associated with the Culture Wars have been about real, substantive issues throughout the past four decades of unique social changes. While largely agreeing with James Davison Hunter’s analysis of the polarization between “orthodox” and “progressive” groups, Hartman pushed for a deeper historical understanding of the contemporary culture wars.

Adam Laats, a professor at Binghamton University and author of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard University Press, 2015), used the category of “culture wars” to interpret recurrent battles over education (especially textbooks) throughout the past century. Although such conflicts have been consistent, Laats claimed, historians must contextualize each one in order to understand who represented the respective “conservative” and “progressive” positions and what each side wanted. Such an approach helps us avoid imposing our current definitions of “conservative” and “progressive” on previous generations of activists. Not least, Laats concluded, using “culture wars” as an interpretive lens allows historians to see trends and changes over time regarding specific issues such as public acceptance regarding the teaching of evolution.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at the New School and author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), also focused on educational conflicts as a crucible for larger culture wars. Her research has examined debates over both sex education and bilingual education in California in the 1970s. Like Hartman, Petrzela locates the roots of these conflicts in the social revolutions of the 1960s, in particular the sexual revolution and the Chicano/a power movement. Although her work did not touch directly upon the larger usefulness of “culture wars” as a historical category, Petrzela’s case study illustrates the complex ways that both progressive and conservative activists responded to public controversies concerning gender, sexual, familial, and ethnic identities.

Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University and author of the newly published Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) (HarperOne, 2016), presented the most expansive interpretation of American culture wars. The culture wars did not begin in the 1960s, he argued; they began in the early Republican period and have occurred throughout American history. Prothero defined culture wars as heated public disputes—ones that employed belligerent rhetoric—about moral and religious questions concerning the meaning of “America.” He analyzes the nature of American culture wars through five case studies: the 1800 presidential election; anti-Catholicism in the 1830s and 1840s; anti-Mormonism throughout the nineteenth-century; the enactment and repeal of Prohibition; and the familiar “culture wars” over the past several decades. Prothero offered the most provocative thesis of the panel: culture wars are conservative projects, initiated and waged disproportionately by the Right, that ironically fail because they are focused on “lost causes.”

Leo Ribuffo, an esteemed historian at George Washington University, served as the respondent and began with the most memorable line of the session: “The term ‘culture wars’ should be buried deep, deep within a hole alongside nuclear waste.” Ribuffo chided historians for employing loose language and a bad metaphor in subsuming disparate, disconnected, and almost invariably non-violent debates under the category of “culture wars.” Instead, he quipped, “shouting matches” represents a more apt analogy. While offering critical questions for each participant, Ribuffo saved his most pointed ones for Prothero—understandably so in light of Prothero’s sweeping historical analysis of American culture wars. In particular, Ribuffo described Prothero’s description of “culture wars” as conservative projects as self-serving for liberals: when progressives envision and work for change, that is natural, but when conservatives react (or press for change), it is “war.” Ribuffo also suggested that Prothero ignored examples such as anti-Semitism that would complicate his liberal/conservative categories. (I expect that Prothero’s book will be receiving wide exposure and discussion in the coming months.)

Despite Ribuffo’s comments (and his fair questions for Prothero), I left the session convinced that “culture wars” remains a useful interpretive category for historians. To be sure, most public disputes and political controversies throughout American history have not resulted in actual wars (with the grave exception of the Civil War, of course—but that is why no one would describe this as merely a “culture war.”). And, as Hartman emphasized, the details of the contemporary culture wars are unique. But over and over, particular groups have repeatedly felt “embattled” as they perceive threats to their identities, ways of life, and understandings of “America.” While we should be careful to contextualize each conflict (as Laats emphasized), “culture wars” offers a lens for historians to interpret what these distinct actors have believe is at stake and to trace the relationships between these different types of culture wars.

Donald Trump: American

Over at USA Today, Stephen Prothero of Boston University reminds us that the kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric that Donald Trump is spewing has a long history in the United States.  

He is right.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Trump is popular because he is giving voice to anxieties deeply held in the heartland, not least the anxiety that “they” are taking away “our” country. In North Carolina, for example, 40% of Republican voters in a recent Public Policy Polling survey think Islam should be illegal. But Trump also stands in a long line of culture warriors from the late 18th century to today.

Protestants attempted to banish both Catholics and Mormons from the American family on the theory that their religions were incompatible with American values. Just as some today argue that the religious liberties of Muslims should not be respected because Islam is not really a religion, many 19th century Americans claimed that Roman Catholicism was really a political scheme to take over the country and that Mormonism was really an insidious business enterprise. Liberals who allowed Catholics or Mormons to hide behind the cloak of religious liberty were called either dupes or fools (or both) because popes and Mormon presidents alike were considered unrepentant theocrats.

So today’s Islam wars are not an aberration. They are the norm. Culture wars are a recurring feature in U.S. history — episodes in the story of a not-so-indivisible nation forever at war with itself.

Read the rest here.  Prothero blames culture wars on conservatives.  I wonder if any of our readers might take issue with that statement.

Culture Wars at the AHA, Glenn Beck, and "The Fea Incident"

I am still debating whether or not I should attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta from January 7-10, 2016. Though I am not presenting anything at this year’s conference, and my new book will not be out until late March, I am still tempted to make the trip so that I can cover the conference for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  (Stay tuned: I will soon be posting a call for correspondents).

This morning I finally got around to skimming the program.  It is loaded with great sessions. The Mark Noll appreciation events will be hard to pass up.  So will so many intriguing sessions associated with the American Society of Church History.  The stuff on media, podcasting, and historical thinking looks great.

As I was jotting down possible sessions I might want to attend I came across AHA Session 3 on Thursday afternoon: “Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept.”  I was attracted by the high-powered panel of historians–Andrew Hartman, Adam Laats, Natalia Petrzeal, Stephen Prothero, and Leo Ribuffo.  I marked it down as a must-attend panel. 

Then I read the “Session Abstract.”  Here it is:

In 2012, Messiah College history professor John Fea set Glenn Beck and his followers ablaze when he claimed that Barack Obama might be “the most explicitly Christian President in America.”  Responding to the hundreds of angry comments he received, Fea wrote a follow-up post on the need for civility entitled “The Culture Wars Are Real.”  The title of Fea’s essay was old news, as Americans had been talking about the “culture wars” ever since the publication of James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book on the subject.  Yet Fea’s title also betrayed a tone of defensiveness—that maybe, for some, the culture wars weren’t and aren’t real. 
The Fea incident was a reminder of everything that historians still don’t know about one of the most familiar analytical concepts of the past twenty-five years.  What precisely is a “culture war?”  If culture is always contested terrain, how is it possible to periodize just one or a set of battles?  Assuming that we can find beginnings, middles, and ends for America’s contemporary culture wars, is it possible to establish and prioritize causation (i. e., are the culture wars mainly about religion, race, gender, sexuality, science, or other)?  Finally, how do we situate America’s culture wars within larger structural contexts such as the Cold War, consumerism, deindustrialization, and suburban succession?  Considering those questions altogether, we might ask: Is it even possible for historians to narrate the culture wars?
Our five panelists think so.  Andrew Hartman, Stephen Prothero, Natalia Petrzela, and Adam Laats are united in that they each have highly anticipated new books on the culture wars to be published in 2015.  Beyond that, there is much less agreement between them .  In A War for the Soul of America, Hartman locates the origins of the culture wars in the Neoconservative response to the New Left.  To him, resulting struggles over racial, sexual, and religious politics are part of a larger contest over American identity.  Prothero’s Why Liberals Win makes explicit the long duree of the culture wars that Hartman hints at.  Prothero is also the only panelist willing to call a victor in past, present, and future fights over American manners and morals.  In contrast to the grand narratives advanced by Prothero and Hartman, Petrzela (Classroom Wars) and Laats (The Other School Reformers) offer several case studies of conflicts within education in order to illuminate the broader culture wars.  At the same time, Petrzela and Laats disagree about the causes of those battles.  Each presenter, in fact, differs in whether and how they view religion, race, and sex as explanations of American disunion.
As the culture wars necessitate writing history from the right, left, and center “all at the same time,” Leo Ribuffo is the ideal person to offer a final comment on these new works and the topic more generally.  This roundtable should have broad appeal as scholars of politics, culture, and religion continue to fight with each other over what exactly it is that unites and divides America.
I’m not sure how to respond to the fact that one of these fine scholars (the person who wrote the abstract) thought that my experience with Beck was worthy enough to frame a panel on the culture wars.  I think I am happy and flattered that people are reading the blog and taking it seriously. 
By the way, you can read “The Culture Wars Are Real” here.

Southern Baptists Are Not Happy About the New Starbucks’ Holiday Cups

A lot of Christians on my social media sites are asking if anyone out there is actually opposed to the new Starbucks cups.  I initially thought that the Starbucks critique came from one guy–an evangelist named Josh Feuerstein

But I was wrong.  
Richard Land, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the former president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has joined the cause.
I am curious to see what Russell Moore, Land’s successor as the president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has to say about this.  How many Southern Baptists does Land represent?  If what I have read about Moore is any indication, I would think he would rise above this petty issue and keep the Southern Baptist Convention focused on more important things related to its mission. But will he speak out against his predecessor?  (I haven’t seen any commentary by Moore on this.  If he has spoken or written on this topic please let me know).
It is worth noting that in 2012 Moore spoke out against a Christian boycott of Starbucks after the coffee company announced that it would support same-sex marriage.
Al Mohler, another Southern Baptist leader, is not too happy about it either.