I 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.