Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept

AHA Session 3
American Society of Church History 1
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Salon A (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Andrew G. Hartman, Illinois State University
Andrew G. Hartman, Illinois State University
Adam Laats, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School
Stephen R. Prothero, Boston University
Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University

Session Abstract

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.

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