“Culture wars” became a popular catchphrase during the 1980s and 1990s—especially in 1992 when presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan delivered his campaign speech to the Republican National Convention. Addressing concerns over such controversial issues as abortion, affirmative action, and arts funding, he proclaimed that conservatives must declare a cultural revolution—“a war for the nation’s soul.” Buchanan sees this war as a political and moral battle largely between liberal secular forces and conservative religious forces. In a similar vein, sociologist James Davison Hunter, the author of several books on American political and cultural conflict, defines the culture wars as ongoing ideological debates between two opposing camps. Hunter maintains that these debates typically occur between various “orthodox” (conservative or traditional) and “progressive” (liberal or modern) interests, cutting across the realms of politics, religion, ethics, economics, popular culture, and education.
The phrase “culture wars” is derived from the German word Kulturkampf, which literally means “a struggle for the control of the culture.” In late nineteenth-century Germany, for example, chancellor Otto von Bismarck launched a Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church, expelling Jesuits from the country and passing laws that restricted the church’s influence in education and politics. Due to strong opposition from German citizens, however, Bismarck was forced to abandon his Kulturkampf in 1878.
A significant early battle in America’s Kulturkampf—in this case, a conflict between traditional religion and modern science—occurred during the famous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. John T. Scopes, a science instructor in Tennessee, was found guilty of teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution, which at that time was illegal in his state. Although Scopes was convicted, the Tennessee supreme court eventu11 ally overturned the verdict on a technicality. More importantly, the trial was seen as a victory for supporters of science and modernism because literal interpretations of the Bible were soundly challenged on the witness stand. Subsequently, religious fundamentalists’ attempts to criminalize the teaching of evolution in other states were largely unsuccessful.
As the twentieth century progressed, politically liberal ideals, which tend to emphasize tolerance, collective responsibility, and the use of government to improve social conditions, became increasingly influential. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, activists and legislators won several victories for the civil rights and women’s rights movements. In 1964, Congress passed a Civil Rights Act that prohibited job discrimination based on age, race, religion, gender, or national origin. This legislation had a tremendous impact on American culture: Racial segregation in public facilities was outlawed, affirmative action policies were implemented, and large numbers of women entered the paid workforce. In addition, mounting concern for the poor led to an expansion of government under the “Great Society” programs started by President Lyndon Johnson. While liberals generally view the 1960s and 1970s as watershed decades, conservatives often contend that the decline in the influence of traditional religious values during those years harmed American culture. They decry the 1962 Supreme Court decision outlawing state-sponsored school prayer, for instance, as well as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy.
The late twentieth century, however, witnessed an upsurge in political conservatism—an ideology that champions traditional values, individual responsibility, and the minimal use of government for social support. In 1980, a broad majority of voters elected conservative Republican Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan openly advocated a more conservative approach to politics and culture by opposing government spending, abortion, and restrictions on school prayer. His leadership changed the tenor of national debate, and rightwing religious organizations, such as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, became politically and culturally influential. For example, as the rates of violent crime, drug use, and divorce rose, a growing number of Americans agreed with the conservative argument that such trends were the result of a decline in traditional family values and an amoral popular culture. Moreover, controversies over morality, free speech, and the definition of acceptable cultural standards began to dominate headlines, the courts, and college campuses.
One such dispute emerged over whether the federal government’s National Endowment for the Arts should have funded an exhibition of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs offended some viewers. Another controversy arose over whether school curricula should emphasize the intellectual traditions of Western civilization or adopt a multicultural approach to literature and history. Still another nationwide debate involved the question of whether single- or gay-parented families are as effective as traditional two-parent families at raising children.
In 1992, the conservative-versus-liberal split was apparent in the presidential race between incumbent President George H.W. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton. While Bush ran on a platform emphasizing traditional family values and the importance of personal morality, Clinton stressed the need for economic renewal. Many liberals contended that the disturbing social trends of the previous years had been fueled by the economic recession that occurred during Bush’s presidency. They believed the economic strategy of the Reagan and Bush administrations had exacerbated poverty and placed financial pressures on workers and families—factors which they felt had likely contributed to the increasing crime and divorce rates.
The economy flourished during Clinton’s presidency, and by the mid-1990s some analysts noted that the rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy were actually decreasing. Nevertheless, many conservatives still feared that America was facing serious cultural decline. “Unless the exploding social pathologies of the past thirty years are reversed,” warned conservative analyst William Bennett, “they will lead to the decline and perhaps even to the fall of the American republic.” For a contingent of conservatives, the last few years of Clinton’s presidency seemed to bear this warning out.
In 1998, Clinton was impeached on charges that he had lied under oath and obstructed justice in an attempt to conceal an affair he had had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Although the Senate acquitted Clinton in 1999, his actions sparked a national debate about how a politician’s personal moral standards might affect his or her leadership. Polls taken during the scandal revealed that most Americans agreed that Clinton did not have high moral standards, but they still largely approved of his job performance and opposed congressional attempts to remove him from office. In fact, a survey conducted during the impeachment placed Clinton’s approval rating at 73 percent—the highest of his presidency. Analysts like Paul Weyrich, former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, maintained that the public’s indifference to Clinton’s affair was a sign that conservatives had “probably lost the culture war.” In a widely publicized 1999 statement, Weyrich claimed that American society was becoming an “ever-wider sewer” and that the country was “caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions.” Contending that conservatives had failed to implement a political agenda that would protect the country’s traditional values, Weyrich advised conservatives to “drop out” of American culture and find nonpolitical ways to preserve genuine morality.
Conservative politicians did not, for the most part, follow Weyrich’s advice. In fact, after conservative Republican George W. Bush became president in 2001, many activists redoubled their efforts to promote right-wing agendas in local and national politics. According to liberal commentator Jim Whittle, the White House has “a close alliance with the religious right in the nation’s war over values.” But whether America’s Kulturkampf can ultimately be “won” remains to be seen. History suggests that conservative and progressive ideologies will each continue to challenge and influence the other, with neither side gaining total victory. This is perhaps a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy. Culture Wars: Opposing Viewpoints offers readers a spectrum of opinion on the national Kulturkampf in the following chapters: What Is the State of America’s Culture Wars? Is American Culture in Decline? What Political and Cultural Influences Benefit Society? Should Government Regulate Cultural Values? Analyzing the responses to these questions will give readers a broad contemporary overview of America’s culturally driven debates.