Is America In A Culture A War? Yes — No — Sort Of

by Rhys H. Williams

Rhys H. Williams, associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is coauthor (with N.J. Demerath III) of A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City. He is editor of Cultural Wars in American Politics: Critical Reviews of a Popular Myth (Aldine de Gruyter, 1997), from which this article is adapted.

The article appeared in The Christian Century magazine November 12, 1997, pp. 1038 – 1043. For more information about The Christian Century see This article was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


The author analyzes the cultural and symbolic aspects of our lives which are deep sources of political motivation.

Abortion clinics are firebombed; Planned Parenthood workers are murdered; an art gallery owner is arrested for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs; a rap group is arrested on obscenity charges; the civil rights -- or "special privileges" -- of gays and lesbians are the subject of controversial referenda; and issues of multiculturahsm, freedom of expression and "political correctness" divide many college campuses. To many Americans, this does not seem like politics as usual. These stories and others like them seem to indicate that a new and different type of political conflict has swept the nation.

This new conflict even gets its own sound bite. We are witnessing a "culture war" we are told. American politics is no longer about class, race or region; rather, the body politic is now rent by a cultural conflict in which values, moral codes and lifestyles are the primary objects of contention.

Patrick Buchanan brought the glare of the national spotlight to the phrase "culture war" when he used his address to the 1992 Republican National Convention to declare a "war for the nation's soul." That moment was both the apex and the nadir of a presidential campaign that styled itself as a moral crusade. Oliver North's 1994 Senate campaign in Virginia echoed those themes. Buchanan's 1996 campaign was no less crusade-like, and the war metaphors were even more prominent as partisans were advised to "lock and load" and "ride to the sound of the gunfire." Other Republican hopefuls, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and such "cultural warriors" as Rush Limbaugh, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, and James Dobson, director of Focus on the Family, have claimed there is an encompassing social divide over morality and values.

Not to be outdone rhetorically, much fund-raising literature for liberal causes uses culture-wars language with similar tones of alarm. The hallowed principles of journalistic, artistic and academic freedom are threatened, they argue, and only a stout defense of the barricades will prevent a "neo-McCarthy" backlash from overwhelming the social and political progress of the last few decades. The nation is threatened by "moral zealots" who want to dictate all manner of life choices according to their strict neo-Puritan prejudices.

Academic observers have also contributed to this view of American public life. The most developed, systematic and sweeping version of the idea of a culture war appeared in the 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist. Hunter portrayed contemporary politics as an increasingly uncivil and conflict-ridden arena split into two competing sides that have little in common but mutual antipathy. The book's tone of urgency and its copious use of war metaphors left many readers with the distinct impression that American politics was experiencing an irreversible decline.

But let's pause for a moment and step back from this heated -- or is it overheated? -- rhetoric. Though there does seem to be a lot of incivility in politics, and no limit to the various soapboxes from which extreme views can be heard, Buchanan, North and others all ran losing campaigns. None of the other cultural warriors I have mentioned hold elective office. Apparently none reflects the views of a majority. Critics from the left and the right launch impassioned attacks on the "system," but at a basic level the system continues to rebuff them. Why?

If we unpack the culture-wars argument carefully, we will see that the answer rests in large part on the differences between the institutions of politics and government and the social movements that are the focus of the culture-wars rhetoric. The organizations of the New Christian Right may motivate highly committed activists to engage in picketing, letter-writing and petition-signing. But few elections are won from the margins, and the art of compromise continues to be the sine qua non of legislating.

Furthermore, the cultural conflict that is taking place is more complicated than the activists on either side tend to suggest. There are actually two versions of the "culture wars" idea -- what I will call the "broad" and the "narrow" versions. Recent research points out that while "culture" plays a critical role in social divisions, the "culture wars" rhetoric is basically inaccurate. The notion of a culture war is plausible -- and a "broad" version of the idea is useful. But if the idea is understood too narrowly, it does more to obscure than to clarify the situation.

So what is the "broad" version, of the notion of a culture war? First and most important, it calls attention to the fact that several of the most contentious and passionate issues in current politics revolve around what can be called "cultural"" concerns. Political analysts often assume that politics is only about economic interests. Moreover, they assume that people who vote or act against their direct economic interests must in some way misperceive their own interests. But politics is more than just a matter of dividing the economic pie. Contrary to economistic, interest-based assumptions, the cultural and symbolic aspects of our lives are deep sources of political motivation. People act in ways that their economic interests alone simply would not predict. They vote against their interests, they risk jail in order to protest injustice, they voluntarily take on hardships in order to uphold moral principles they hold dear.

Of course, people do not make up their moral principles out of thin air. The moral codes people live by come from somewhere, often from religious teachings or beliefs. One source of moral codes is what might be called "public culture." Public culture is composed of ideas and symbols that are widely shared, found in major societal institutions, and do not depend on any one person or one group for their existence. Public culture can shape people's assumptions about what the "good society" is, what we must do to achieve it and what constitutes a "moral" life. When one set of assumptions about what constitutes a moral society is incompatible with rival sets of assumptions, the potential for conflict is evident. Fundamental moral commitments may be at stake, creating conflict not just about one's individual life, but about the very nature of society.

The culture-wars thesis correctly brings to our attention the potential for societal conflict when rival and incompatible moral worldviews collide. When these worldview differences are aligned with other social distinctions -- such as economic class, race, region or religion -- competition can turn from civil politics to cultural war. India, Ulster, Bosnia and Sudan serve as potent reminders of just how volatile a mixture moral commitments and political differences can be.

Indeed, the broad version of "culture wars" is particularly relevant to American politics in large part because of religion's continuing vitality in American life. Religious belief and participation remain higher in the U.S. than in almost any other industrialized country. And religion continues to be an important part of American public culture. Even if that role is not as significant as it once was, many Americans continue to want their society and their politics infused with moral commitment. Thus, religion can be politically effective by motivating individuals to extreme actions or sacrifice -- and by providing the ideas and organizations that spearhead reformist social movements.

Interacting with religion's potency in American culture has been an ambivalence about economic class. Class matters greatly in politics; few would deny that. But Americans don't quite know bow to think about class as a social identity. Class is often individualized, or understood as a matter of "lifestyle," or denied altogether. While there has been and continues to be both class resentment and great economic inequality in America, they have not produced a sustained socialist movement or even a firm commitment to social-welfare policies. Meanwhile, high-class position reflects well on a person's worth only if it is an "achieved" status that one can claim to have attained on one's own. As a result of this cultural ambivalence, class has generally not been a good source of collective identity for political activity. Conversely, religion's vitality ensures that it will be around cultural issues that some of America's most visible political contests take place.

Despite the fact that culture conflict is deeply ingrained in American politics (I am calling this the "broad" version of the culture-wars idea), the "narrow" version of the argument found in Hunter's book (and many activists' rhetoric) is clearly wrong. There are two basic claims in Hunter's Culture Wars that need to be noted. First, Hunter portrays all important political opinion as lined up along one continuum, the poles of which he labels "orthodox" and "progressive." The difference between the orthodox view and the progressive view is where the two sides turn for moral and social authority. The orthodox locate moral authority in transcendent, universal sources (which provide the truth), while the progressive find authority in society, human reason and the here and now. This difference is thought to express the basic division in public political culture. Opinions and attitudes that do not fit easily along this continuum are irrelevant.

Indeed, Hunter claims that opinions, ideas or people that do not align with the progressive-orthodox divide get pushed onto one side or the other as public culture forces people to take sides. An important dimension of this claim is Hunter's attendant position that political activism is largely a matter of small groups of activists who set the terms for public politics as well as grass-roots opinion.

Second, Hunter argues not only that political conflicts run along this single axis, but that political positions cluster around the two poles of that axis. That is, each worldview leads to a cluster of inherently related opinions on issues as varied as abortion, gay rights, welfare reform, school prayer and economic policy. This clustering of issues leads to polarization and conflict, perhaps even violence, because the two poles are grounded in uncompromisable moral worldviews.

Moreover, the polarization represents a significant realignment of social divisions. The orthodox-vs-progressive polarization cuts across many of the social cleavages (such as race or class) that organized American politics in the past. In sum, the "narrow" version of the culture-wars idea is that incompatible worldviews (the orthodox vs. the progressive) force all significant political ideas and public attitudes on to one side of a polarized line. Conflict is inevitable, intractable and escalating.

Is there really only one crucial cultural divide in contemporary culture -- that between an orthodox and progressive vision of moral authority? Is cultural conflict so thorough and so pervasive that our institutions have lost their ability to moderate it? Perhaps most important, is the cultural divide that Hunter claims shapes the conflict between political activists now spreading to the general public?

We can begin answering these questions by stating that it is clearly not true that a single continuum can capture American political opinions, attitudes or values. Nor is it the case that opinions cluster at the poles of the axes that divide American political culture. Surveys show repeatedly that a single axis with polarized-attitude clusters does not represent a majority of opinions. Further, with the exception of attitudes toward abortion, there is evidence that general public opinion is not polarizing at all.

In fact, survey research consistently shows that there are at least two dimensions of political attitudes: one for issues pertaining to economics and political power (what I'll call "justice" issues) and another one for issues of personal behavior and cultural symbolism (what I'll call "morality" issues). And in many cases these dimensions are not related to each other -- that is, those who are "liberals" on one set of issues are not necessarily "liberals" on the other set of issues.

This finding suggests a fourfold distinction rather than a two-sided war. Some people are "libertarian" on both morality and justice issues: they believe that government should not interfere in individuals' lives and that individual rights take precedence over collective needs. Other people are communalist on both types of issues: they favor government regulation of both economic and personal moral behavior. There are also those who are morality libertarians and justice collectivists (sounding much like Great Society Democrats), and those who are morality collectivists and justice libertarians (sounding very much like the current Republican coalition).

So the data on mass opinion do not reveal a culture war of polarized attitude clusters. But we must still consider Hunter's point about political activism being mostly a matter of "elites" or partisan activists. Indeed, it is the rhetoric used by activists that promotes the images of "war." After all, the rhetoric must resonate with some people or it would not continue to be so popular. Certainly there is an uncivil tone to much current political language - although I urge those tempted by nostalgia to read up on the language used in 19th-century American politics. Incivility is hardly new.

Nonetheless, it is true that activists' attitudes are often more polarized than the general public's, and activists often express those attitudes in more uncompromising language than many people feel comfortable with. Hunter is on to something here. But is this rhetoric an accurate reflection of underlying worldviews and the opinions that spring from them, or is it a tool that activists find useful in trying to rally troops to their cause?

Political activists of all stripes have difficulty getting ordinary citizens to care about their issues, and if they do care, to act on them. A longstanding truism in political science is that apathy and a lack of interest are the dominant features of public opinion. Many Americans do not care much about -- or care for -- politics. The falling voting rate is well known and much discussed. According to one estimate, only 5 percent of the general public can be considered politically engaged beyond the level of voting, and thus termed "activist"; concomitantly, a solid 20 percent are resolutely apolitical. The remaining 75 percent can be mobilized and activated, but their interest is intermittent, depending on their own situations and the context in which issues come to their attention.

If movement partisans are to get portions of the public behind them, therefore, they must pitch their appeals in ways that garner attention and motivate action. This need to grab attention explains the activists' moral urgency and war rhetoric. Scholars of social movements have found that before people become politically active they need three particular types of understandings, or "frames" through which to view the issue at hand. First, people need to perceive a situation as an "injustice" -- that something is morally wrong. Second, they need a sense of "identity"" -- that is, they need to be able to identify the victims and the villains who are responsible for the injustice. And third, people must have a sense of "agency," a feeling that their own involvement will make a difference.

War rhetoric obviously fits these three requirements. It names an issue of abiding moral seriousness, it identifies the good guys and the bad guys, and it implores people to get involved lest the cause be lost. Because of the need for a certain amount of the us-vs-them approach, activist rhetoric easily escalates toward uncompromising portrayals of good and evil. That is what Hunter and others discovered in their narrow version of "culture wars" -- the rhetoric of movement partisans trying to break through to the nonactive and prod them to action.

But this is not an ideological divide that pits half of America vs. the other half; this is the hype -- the "pep talk" -- of those who are trying to rally troops to their side. What is often identified as evidence for a culture war has more to do with the requirements of' activist rhetoric than the attitudes or actions of the body politic generally.

Do some people talk in "culture war" terms? Of course they do. Is that talk a good guide to the worldviews, values or opinions of the public? Clearly not. In sum, the narrow version of the culture-war idea ignores the crucial difference between social-movement mobilizing and institutional politics.

While it may be comforting to know that America is not as divided or as unreasonable as the narrow culture-war thesis suggests, that does not make the current state of American politics any easier to take. Many people feel that their involvement is useless. Further, the stridency of much public culture no doubt discourages many people from involvement, even if they do care about an issue. I find myself turning off news programs when I feel that all I am hearing are the prefabricated ideological sound bites of spokespersons from interest groups. What can be done about this? If we care about our collective political life, and want as many people as active in public decision-making as possible -- which is, after all, part of the definition of democracy -- how do we avoid this cycle of polarizing activist rhetoric, public indifference and a resulting escalation of rhetoric?

Before addressing such questions, I want to emphasize that I am in no way opposed to social-movement politics. I have been active in some movements. I am suggesting, however, that there is a problem with a rhetorical cycle that seems to reward an uncompromising, absolutist approach to public life, for it results in as much political disengagement as political mobilization. I am searching for a type of politics that is inclusive and open, even to one's ideological opponents.

I pointed out above that the politicians who campaigned on a strident culture-wars theme were not particularly successful in electoral politics. Though cultural warriors won some primaries, and on occasion a seat in the House of Representatives, at the national and institutional level they lost -- and generally they continue to lose. Elections have provided culture-wars campaigns with a platform, but have denied them power. The institution of the two-party electoral system has historically fostered compromise, moderation and stability. Therefore, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, I think a way to make the political system healthier is to strengthen political parties.

While I admit that the rise of culture-war politics has accompanied the weakening of political parties, I would not necessarily agree that the former caused the latter. Traditionally, American political parties have worked to aggregate interests and opinions, have forced interest groups into compromises and have made voters choose the "better" of two choices. Historically, this has been an institutional mechanism for diffusing conflict and balancing the tendency to polarize. I noted earlier that both parties have internal coalitions that combine individualists with collectivists. Pat Buchanan may speak for a wing of the Republican Party, but he has not attracted the votes of Republicans who are economically conservative but socially tolerant.

I am not claiming that there is necessarily a "strong center" in American life. Rather, I am recognizing that American political institutions cannot, and are not intended to, represent all the opinions of all Americans. They are designed to marginalize uncompromising minorities. By forcing public positions into the center, and by forcing compromise in the formulation of policy, the institutions of American politics have diffused and defused the passion necessary for war.

Even more important from my perspective is that parties offer avenues to political involvement for ordinary people. People who cannot donate large sums of money or who do not have access to the media can still volunteer time and energy to a party. They meet others with similar interests and values (and others who are not so similar) and are rewarded for their loyalty, diligence and energy. It is no surprise that many of the European ethnic groups who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century made their way up the ladder of political influence and into the middle class through the mechanisms of political parties.

Someone may object that, given the current weakness of our political parties, politicians necessarily have to turn to interest groups for their ready-made mailing lists and rely on "fat cat" contributors for large campaign donations. And don't they need such money to buy the media time necessary for reaching voters? True, these things have become common, and one result has been that only those people with large amounts of money, or those with the backing of an activist minority, have any chance in electoral politics. With party organizations less important, it is much harder for ordinary people to rise to positions of influence. Thus, even though parties are often derided as corrupting, the current system of personalistic media politics has resulted in a system in which money and partisan extremism are rewarded. While parties were thought to be ruled by hidden elites in smoke-filled rooms, the weakness of parties has, ironically, led to a less democratic system with fewer avenues open to average people.

The fact that much of the most strident rhetoric of the last few years has come from the post-1994 Republican-dominated Congress reinforces my point. Many of those officials were not elected by the majority of the eligible voters in their districts. In an off-year election with few overarching issues and weakened parties that could not get out the vote effectively, highly partisan and active minorities were able to get their candidates elected. Significantly, 1996 rolled back many of those gains. In a strong two-party system, politicians such as Pat Buchanan or Oliver North are more successful in generating news copy than in winning elections.

Two other factors important to sustaining a democratic politics need to be mentioned. First is strong voluntary associations, such as churches and civic groups, that bring people together around broad common agendas rather than narrow special interests. Despite laments over their decline, such groups remain an important force in American life -- indeed, the recent attention devoted to their so-called decline may actually help their vitality as it emphasizes their importance.

Second is an increasingly constructive media. The reliance on media-centered political strategies has seemed to exacerbate the culture-wars cycle. But there is some evidence that media are beginning to move away from the conflict-obsessed, personality focused, photo-op and sound bite -- centered stories that are used so effectively by candidates such as Buchanan. There have been serious discussions suggesting that the media donate time for candidate messages and that those messages be issue-oriented rather than attack ads. This could help take some of the demand for media money out of the political system.

An increasing number of news stories are centered on issues rather than personalities; for one thing, there seems to be a shift in the public's attention from personal scandal to issues of campaign financing and contributions. These many be small steps, but they are encouraging. While it is unlikely that political parties will regain the strength they once had, neither are the factors that weakened them irreversible.

Many culture-wars analysts suggest that American politics displays the inevitable division between two groups who have fundamentally different worldviews. We have seen that this is a great exaggeration. While culture influences our politics, no culture war dominates them. Nor is the culture war the sole cause of the public incivility and political stagnation that often seem to show up on the evening news.

Rather, the culture war is a style of rhetoric that is useful for political activism in a media age. This style has become more noticeable since the institutions that used to mobilize people for political involvement have become attenuated. Revitalized political parties could undermine the media stranglehold on our political language and provide more avenues for the nonwealthy to get involved in politics.

The style of politics bemoaned by those worried about culture wars will no doubt always be with us. But that style is not all-encompassing. While the culture-wars idea does reflect the demands of certain activists, it is not the only game in town. Indeed, the tendency of American political institutions to produce centrist political solutions is probably usefully offset by the cultural tendency of movement-style politics to inflate ideological differences into "war." Institutional pressures are centripetal -- they force things into the center. Ideological tendencies are centrifugal-they push politics to the margins. This may be a complementary relation. Institutions stagnate without social movements' pressures to change. And if we are weary of a politics that seems to reward the unreasonable -- that seems like a culture war -- the answer may well be in revitalized institutions that can moderate it.