U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Culture Wars Trump Sectarian Strife

As Ben pointed out yesterday, the Republican presidential ticket consists of a Mormon and a Catholic. This is remarkable given that the GOP has been home to the vast majority of America’s large white evangelical population: by many counts, almost 80% of white evangelicals voted for Nixon in 1972, and almost 70% for Reagan in 1980. Reagan’s 1980 electoral haul of white evangelicals particularly demonstrated GOP strength with that demographic since his interest in B’hai, astrology, and the Shroud of Turin, not to mention his divorce, hardly made him theologically palatable to white evangelicals in relation to his white, born-again evangelical counterpart Jimmy Carter (even given Reagan’s Hal Lindsey-inspired propensity for premillennial dispensationalism). But what is more remarkable than the theological diversity of the GOP ticket is that this fact seems rather unremarkable to so many people. What explains this?
Whose Family Values?
It’s the culture wars, stupid. That is, the culture wars are the reason that the American right—including conservative white evangelicals—is fine with the GOP’s relatively newfound love of religious diversity. As James Davison Hunter pointed out more than two decades ago in his now classic book, Culture Wars, religious Americans gave up their sectarian prejudices in order to form political and ideological alliances in the culture wars. Conservative evangelicals came to love, or at least tolerate, conservative Catholics, Jews, and even Mormons. These “orthodox” Americans, to borrow Hunter’s language, found that they had more in common with each other than they did with “progressive” Americans, more even than with progressive coreligionists. This was also, remarkably, true of most Protestant fundamentalists, those whose identities were formed earlier in the twentieth century by sectarian strife and doctrinal dispute. Many fundamentalists, for example, believed that the election of JFK signaled the end times in 1960. And yet, the vast majority of fundamentalists eventually came around to the view that conservative Catholics were their spiritual allies against the secular humanists who ushered in legal abortion. This is why, as I argued last week, a modernist fundamentalist like Francis Schaeffer was so important to the Christian Right. He helped make a limited form of ecumenicalism palatable, especially over the issue of abortion. Jerry Falwell and Randall Terry both claimed that Schaeffer convinced them anti-abortion was not just a Catholic thing.
Abortion was just one issue over which conservative religious Americans found common cause in the 1970s. During that decade theocons were faced with what seemed like a perfect storm of secular power that they deemed a threat to their way of life, and to the Christian nation they believed the United States once was and should be again. Some of the issues that animated them were explicitly about church and state. Not only had school prayer been rendered unconstitutional, for example, but the IRS was coming after the tax-exempt status of the Christian day schools where millions sent their children for Christian inculcation (not where they sent them, in most cases, to avoid black children). Other issues, less explicitly religious and more about sex and gender, were equally offensive to conservative religious Americans, including abortion, feminism, and gay rights. Combined, these sex- and gender-related issues fell under an umbrella referent new to the 1970s: “family values.” Family values, more than anything else, gave life to the culture wars of the Christian Right.
There is now a growing historiography to help us deal with the rise of family values. I will briefly describe two new additions to this literature. The first book is J. Brooks Flippen’s Jimmy Carter, the Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. In terms of analysis, Flippen does not offer anything new to the larger body of conservatism historiography. Rather, it’s a narrative of how the politics of family values brought conservative Christians together in the political arena during the 1970s, and how issues like abortion became strictly partisan, even virtual Rorschach tests. Like I said, nothing new analytically, but Flippen’s book is extremely well researched and, as such, a good chronological primer on the topic.
The second new book on family values is Robert Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Self’s book is different than Flippen’s in that it’s grander in chronological scope. But more importantly, Self seeks to analyze the most important political transformations of the last fifty years using family values as an analytical window. He argues, to put it in simple terms, that family values rhetoric helped shift American political culture rightward. This narrative is not necessarily new, but Self uses some fresh elocutions. From 1964 to 2004, Self contends that there was a shift from “breadwinner liberalism” to “breadwinner conservatism.” This transformation tracked with the shift in the centripetal rhetorical force in American politics from “equal rights” to “family values.” Like Flippen, Self documents the conservatives who rallied around the family in the 1970s. But he also argues that those who challenged mainstream assumptions about sex and sexuality in the 1960s and afterwards—feminists, gay rights activists, and assorted cultural radicals—unintentionally helped pave the way for “breadwinner conservatism” by rendering “breadwinner liberalism” indefensibly patriarchal. I find this argument compelling—ironic?—and have said so at this blog on several occasions, beginning with this post on a Nancy Fraser articlefrom a few years back, in which she contends that feminism helped pave the road to neoliberalism.
Whether or not the cultural left gave way to neoliberalism is arguable. But what is irrefutable is that the cultural left helped give us the culture wars. In other words, the ways in which the left helped remake the national culture animated its dialectic cultural force, the religious right. And these political, cultural, and religious realignments—the realignments of the culture wars—now matter much more than the old sectarian divisions that often gave rise to American cultural politics.
And here I just wrote a whole blog post implicitly about Paul Ryan without once mentioning Ayn Rand.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I find it very interesting how doctrinal debates have been pushed to the fringes of American Christianities. Sure, there are plenty of people who remain very concerned with exactly how to get into heaven (and, as a corollary, exactly who will fail to get in), but the shift to ideological alliance is one of the defining features of religion in American today. I think you’re right on the money saying that the emergence of the left as a political force created the need for what seemed to be irreconcilable differences to be pushed aside in favor of developing a unified political front on the religious right.

    I think this is also why we’re hearing so much about threats to religious liberty now. It might be the all-time great rallying issue for the right: those secularists on the left don’t want you to be able to practice your religion as you want–and as the founders intended–and they think they’re so much smarter than you!

  2. Wonderful post, Andrew. I think Self’s point about the radical liberal debunking of Cold War liberalism opening the door for the new/neo/New Right conservatives is spot on. I’ve started teaching my students that liberals didn’t really lose out to conservatives–they imploded, and conservative groups just stepped in to rebuild the blast zone. Jonah Goldberg’s reliance on James Weinstein and Gabriel Kolko during his critique of “corporate liberalism” (in LIBERAL FASCISM) is case in point about the confluence of the New Left and neoconservativism.

    On another point, it seems white evangelicals were pretty resistant to Romney in 2008 due almost solely to his faith. They could afford to be choosey then, or so they thought, because they had Huckabee. Also, when white evangelicals gathered earlier this year in Texas to pick, er, discern God’s candidate, they chose Santorum. And yet Liberty University has had two consecutive years of Mormon commencement speakers, so maybe Hunter will still be proven right.

  3. Really good stuff, Andrew. What do you do with those on the religious left who were, at once, anti-abortion but more liberal on other social configurations usually grouped under family values? I think Mark Edwards might have something to say on this as well. I know that Dan Williams is looking into this interesting relationship. I wonder how the dialectic you propose between the cultural left and the religious right illustrates the eclipse (?) of the religious left. As you know, my interest in these questions also goes to the idea of what different groups believed would ultimately unite Americans. Do you see the cultural left and the religious right believing with the same intensity that such unity was either possible or desirable?

  4. Very good questions, Raymond. Assuming that present-day polarization is a social and not just political phenomenon, we should expect to see more and more groups trying to take stands that try to transcend single-issue polarization. I think the Jim Wallis evangelical left (is that what you mean by religious left?) is not just tired of divisiveness but is in favor of what they see as a more comprehensive and consistent Christian world view. Their efforts to be holistic in regards to family values in many ways pale in comparison to those of the old Protestant left (of the Federal Council of Churches and World Council of Churches type). While researching my book, it was amazing to find the FCC and WCC promoting democratic socialism and so-called “family preservation” movements simultaneously. Ecumenical Protestants saw conservative socialism and social conservativism as two sides of the same coin. Of course, the old Protestant left were among the first Americans pushing to relax abortion restrictions and to promote womens and gay civil rights. Many of their descendants still retain a conservationist attitude toward small groups and local community consistent with the overarching family values agenda. All that is to say that deliberate defiance of liberal-conservative dichotomies has a long history.

  5. Thanks for the excellent comments, all. Regarding the irony that the New Left helped pave the way for conservatives because it helped delegitimize liberalism, at least liberalism of the Cold War variety: what do we make of Jim Livingston’s argument, which he has stated over and over again, that the left won the culture wars, evident in the mainstreaming of cultural radicalism in popular culture? This is a question I’ve been working hard to sort through, with no good answers. In other words, how do we make sense of conservative political victories alongside liberal or even leftist cultural victories?

    Ray: Sadly, I don’t pay too much attention to anti-abortion liberals, because they don’t play a very important role in the dialectical propulsions of the culture wars. Abortion was not a partisan issue prior to Roe v. Wade, or even prior to 1976. But by 1980, it and all the other “family value” issues were deeply partisan.

    I try to point towards those intellectuals who sought to transcend the culture wars–someone like Christopher Lasch comes to mind in particular. But try as such people might, they get assigned roles in the culture wars–Lasch as a raving antifeminist by Susan Faludi.

    • Let me add one more potential wrinkle to your Jim Livingston question: while the New Left unquestionably politically challenged liberalism rather directly in the 1960s, some have suggested that “cultural radicalism” (of the sort that Livingston sees as triumphant) grew more organically out of the Cold War liberal mainstream. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Frank’s CONQUEST OF COOL.

    • Interesting wrinkle, Ben. I definitely place the cultural radicalism of the New Left in a historical arc that traces back at least to the early twentieth century, with the New Masses crowd. But I think the cultural radicalism that emerged in the 60s, from the counterculture to Black Power to feminism to gay rights, directly challenged much of what had until then defined Cold War liberalism. As Self argues in his book on family politics, this was particularly true regarding the challenges that feminism represented to “breadwinner liberalism,” a form of social welfare that relied upon the traditional concept of the family, with one, usually male breadwinner.

    • Yes…but the possibility raised by Frank (if I’m remembering the argument of Conquest of Cool correctly…it’s been awhile since I read it) is that these new attitudes come less from the New Left proper (i.e. those engaged in a distinct, political critique of liberalism) and more from a (perhaps geographically and class-defined) subset of the old liberal consensus: the urban, upper-middle class. While a lot of the New Left came from this group, as well, the new cultural attitudes (again, according to Frank) were simultaneously embraced by, e.g., Madison Avenue types who were not otherwise associated with the New Left. I’m not denying the falling apart of “breadwinner liberalism,” in part due to these cultural challenges. I’m just raising the possibility that these challenges did not come exclusively from the New Left (bits of which could, in fact, be rather retrograde on gender and sexuality issues).

    • Lasch would certainly qualify as someone in defiance of the culture war (see Eric Miller’s recent biography of Lasch, HOPE IN A SCATTERING TIME), but your point about how such persons still “get assigned” is well taken. Sometimes they get appropriated by both sides, too, as in the case of Reinhold Niebuhr.

    • Mark: Miller’s Lasch biography is excellent. I reviewed it, alongside a biography of Norman Podhoretz, for Reviews in American History–here.

      I’ve also written an article about Lasch for Rethinking History–here.

  6. It’s funny how a post about the decline of Protestant essentialism (the transformation of David Sehat’s Moral Establishment?) has rolled into a debate about the New Left and its role in creating the New Right. But as someone who is writing a book about Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., one thing I have been struck by is by how much their critiques of Eisenhower’s America overlapped. They both hated the mainstream liberalism of the 1950s, and if you look at the early editions of Buckley’s National Review and of Mailer and friend’s Village Voice (begun within weeks of each other in 1955), their starting sentiments are identical: mid-century liberalism was sapping people of their individualism and their freedoms, it was a sanitary culture where “every child had his own social worker” (that, by the way, is the Village Voice, not the National Review), it was a muted America that had no voice, no expression, nothing interesting to say or do.

    Where the two guys went from there is of course the rest of the story (here perhaps Hunter’s distinctions help, and also one’s Catholicism versus the others Judaism), but it’s shocking at how much the starting critiques were the same.

  7. What everyonewriting here seems to ignore is the increasing alienation of the Catholic world–of which the United States is a very small, but significant part–from neo-liberal economics. Unlike Protestant denominations, the universal Church has a coherent set of teachings regarding social and economic justice, and those teachings simply do not square with “conservative” American economic theory, such as what Ryan, for instance, advocates. During the reaction against Vatican II and against 60s sexual morality, led by two extremely conservative popes (t’would have been quite different had John Paul I lived), the growing concern of Latin, African and Asian hierarchies over the economic colonization and cultural eviscerations of their societies has been obfuscated, but that concern is coming back to the fore, and will play a large role at the papal conclave to select Benedict XVI’s successor. The American Catholic Church is likely to someday soon find their concerns over local “culture wars” in the United States very much overshadowed by the Vatican’s concern regarding social and economic justice. I can very readily foresee a time when a Roman Catholic pope has a much more benign attitude toward “liberation theology,” and when that change of focus angers the culturally “Protestantized” Catholics of America. Just two elections ago, when a cardinal of the Roman Curia was being asked by an American journalist if the Vatican didn’t look with favour upon the “family values” of the “conservative” Republican political candidates in America, he responded that, yes, such considerations were useful in helping American Catholics to make political decisions, but that they were also ignoring “the elephant in their living rooms.” When asked what that “elephant” was, he replied that it was the ever-increasing “neo-liberal” economic injustices that were being wreaked upon traditionally Catholic societies by America. That cardinal was considered to be papabile at the last conclave. Could you imagine HIM keeping his lips as buttoned as John Paul II’s or Benedict XVI’s were, in the presence of an American President? I firmly believe that the political alliance between mainstream Catholicism (which America’s form of it isn’t) and Evangelical Protestant “conservatism” isn’t going to last far into the 21st century.

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