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The culture war will continue to rage in 2021

Abortion, cancel culture and other issues that will define the struggle over America’s soul

Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

Twelve years ago, when historian Andrew Hartman began compiling a history of the culture war in the U.S., he wrote in past tense. Hartman believed that an existential struggle over the values that defined the country was no longer a current event.

Similarly, a few years earlier, Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, argued at a public forum that the culture war was a temporary skirmish that lacked “deep roots.”

“I think that even at the elite level, our culture war is increasingly something we are going to talk about in the past tense,” Wolfe said.

Both scholars have since changed their minds as the culture war of the 1980s and ’90s persisted and, like kudzu, entwined around almost every aspect of American life.

No longer confined to politics and academia, the culture war even erupted in December in the most innocent of tableaus: a child visiting Santa at a shopping mall, where a shy request for a toy gun evoked a rebuke.

That Santa, it was said, was “woke.” And if you have strong feelings, one way or the other, about what he said about the appropriateness of toy guns you, too, may be a soldier in America’s culture war.

It rages in Twitter bios and at kitchen tables; in the acrimonious debate over masks, in the tearing down of statues, in the renaming of mascots and schools. It often shows up for the Super Bowl halftime show, and sometimes the Oscars.

The culture war, in fact, has become America’s most enduring conflict, present for longer than we’ve been in Afghanistan. It has sputtered at times, but found oxygen and fresh purpose in the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump, who has been called America’s preeminent cultural warrior.

And even with President-elect Joe Biden waiting to replace him, the culture war won’t subside, social scientists and political analysts say. Biden talks of being a president for all Americans, but skeptics on the right say that his Cabinet choices suggest otherwise.

 In this Jan. 16, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, about proposals to reduce gun violence. President Barack Obama promised after the Newtown shootings to put his full weight behind gun control, but lasting change did not emerge as divides could not be bridged. AP JAN. 16, 2013..
President Barack Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, about proposals to reduce gun violence on Jan. 16, 2013. Obama promised after the Newtown shootings to put his full weight behind gun control, but lasting change did not emerge as divides could not be bridged.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

As such, the culture war of 2021 arrived early, the first week of December, when Biden announced his choice of Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Here’s a look at where — and why — it will continue to rage this year. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., predicts “It’s going to be the A to Z of cultural conflict.”

Self-selecting camps

According to Hartman, author of “A War for the Soul of America” and a history professor at Illinois State University, the culture war had no memorable opening shot, like that in Lexington, Massachusetts or Fort Sumter, but rather was the result of a gradual friction that built up in the country between the 1960s and 1980s.

During this time, a view of what Hartman called a “normative America” was seen by conservatives as something in the rear-view mirror. “Normative Americans prized hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility and other values that middle-class whites recognized as their own,” Hartman wrote.

Conflict emerged as conservatives got the sense that normative America was retreating, and in many ways it was. In the 1980s, the left was perceived to be winning many cultural struggles, such as what was being taught in schools or shown in movies, Hartman said. “Conservatives organized and reacted and caused this friction,” he said.

The term “culture war” became part of the American lexicon after the publication of James Davison Hunter’s book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America” in 1991. The next year, Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was cheered at the Republican National Convention when he said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan pauses in his speech to the Arizona Reublican Assembly in their second annual convention in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, April 23, 1995. (AP Photo/John Miller)
GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan pauses in his speech to the Arizona Reublican Assembly in their second annual convention in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, April 23, 1995.
John Miller, Associated Press

The culture wars were off and running, even as Wolfe tried to ramp down their significance. Appearing at a Pew Forum in 2006 with Hunter to debate “Is there a culture war?” Wolfe, whose books include “One Nation After All,” argued that the culture war, inasmuch as it existed, was a sort of plaything of cultural elites, “that it did not have deep roots in the culture.”

Wolfe maintained that the country was not divided into opposing camps of traditionalists and modernists, but that individuals were — that we all, in some ways, struggle with allegiance to the past while trying to welcome the future.

It is, he said, “a division inside every person, or at least almost every person in the United States. And so I tended to argue that the culture war would not be a permanent and long-term force in American life.”

Today, he says he was wrong about that.

“I would never apply that conclusion to today. Today, I am very pessimistic about any chance of tying the country back together again, and I say that with great regret,” said Wolfe, now professor emeritus of history at Boston College.

Wolfe said the culture wars continued, and in fact intensified, because of the development of “closet-like media.” In previous generations, “People were open to various opinions because the media tended to be more balanced. There wasn’t this kind of silo effect. Now, it’s so extreme that people on the right are not finding even Fox News acceptable anymore. That’s a big deal,” he said.

Another factor, he said, is a lack of leaders who look out for the country as a whole, rather than their party. “The elder (George H.W.) Bush was the quintessential (example) of that kind of Republican,” he said, lamenting the decline in leaders who see their job as to elevate and educate.

Like Wolfe, Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history and religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, sees partisan media as one factor in the escalation of the culture war.

“Different parts of the country are entering into distinct media bubbles. We are consuming news that reinforces a particular way of looking at the world,” Bowman said. There is also ongoing “self-selection” that is splitting Americans into distinct camps geographically. “Increasingly, cities are becoming more educated, and rural areas are becoming less educated, and that’s a factor as well,” he said.

A culture-war slogan?

Pat Buchanan saw the combatants of the culture war as religious versus secular, but Bowman noted that even though evangelical Christians were seen as the prima-facie culture warriors, that has changed over time. There are people of opposing sides in the culture war even among the devoutly religious. For example, Bowman said, “Many conservative Roman Catholics are skeptical of Pope Francis.”

The brightest line between opposite sides in the culture war, however, is the partisan divide, which has become more distinct under President Donald Trump.

“Trump intensified the culture war. The whole premise of his original campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, is a culture-war slogan,” Hartman said.

Trump wasn’t the first to use it; Ronald Reagan urged “Let’s Make America Great Again” in 1980. But for many people, Trump’s slogan was a powerful call to restore “normative America” as the nation stands at the brink of historic demographic change, with whites expected to be a minority in the U.S. in 25 years, according to census projections.

Other factors in the deepening divide include rapidly changing mores on issues such as gay marriage, and a growing population of Americans who never attend religious services. Add a new president of a different political party, and 2021 looks to be a year of unprecedented cultural conflict, said Mohler, of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The issues will range from the long-standing — such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and end-of-life issues — to the new, including questions of policing and systemic evil, Mohler said.

“None of these things will remain dormant. These are active arguments, and the arguments have to eventually spill over into debates about public policy,” Mohler said, adding that he is not optimistic that any sort of cooling off will take place in the coming year. “We are headed into a really tumultuous time.”

Hartman also sees an escalation in the coming year. “I don’t foresee Trump going anywhere, and I don’t see Back Lives Matter going anywhere, and these are the two opposing sides of the culture wars currently. And a lot of Trump supporters are going to work from the premise that Democrats stole the White House from him fraudulently.

“In the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, conservatives might have hated the liberals who seemed to them to control Hollywood, but there was never the sense that Bill Clinton was illegally in the White House,” Harman said. “It’s hard to see that these things are going to calm down.”

Hartman also believes that the economic struggles facing some people as the world enters the second year of a global pandemic will exacerbate cultural tensions. “That, to me, has been the saddest thing in all of this is how the coronavirus itself has become a culture-war issue, rather than something we could collectively come together to solve.”

‘More profound than politics’

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter brought the term “culture war” into the American vernacular with his 1991 book “Culture Wars, The Struggle to Define America.” Executive director of the university’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Hunter has argued that critics should not dismiss skirmishes over culture as being less important from policy issues.

“Politics is sexier than culture. It is certainly more immediate than culture. Its movements are more obvious. But culture is more profound than politics. It is prior to and it leads politics,” Hunter said at the Pew Forum in 2006. “Therefore, in my opinion, it is more important than politics in tracking the nature of the social order and its changes.”

Like Wolfe, Hunter then believed that the average American wasn’t often caught up in the war unless something happened in their families that thrust them into a national skirmish, such as a daughter getting pregnant out of wedlock.

But by 2018, when Politico Magazine published “How Everything Became the Culture War,” by Michael Grunwald, it was widely accepted that the fight was indeed one that could move to a child sitting on Santa’s lap at an Illinois mall.

“It’s as if the rowdy cultural slap-fight the kids were having in the back seat has moved into the front, threatening to swerve the national car off the road,” Grunwald wrote. “Transforming difficult analytical questions into knee-jerk emotional battlegrounds will dramatically increase the danger that thoughtless short-term choices will throw off our long-term national trajectory.”

That worries Mohler and other thought leaders who see the country heading into a time of endless agitation. “Moral consensus requires a vast landscape of moral agreement, and the deepest concern I have about this country is that the landscape of moral agreement is growing smaller and smaller. So now everything is politicized,” he said.

“We can’t bear this for long; it’s just too much pressure. But for now, it looks like we are going to be stuck in a context of rival arguments that are going to have to be played out hour by hour.”

Hope is local

The political issues include the granddaddy of all culture-war issues, abortion, which will be in the spotlight on the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in the same week as the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration.

Tim Carney, the author of “Alienated America” and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is among conservatives who is already disappointed with the Biden administration because of the president-elect’s choice of Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. (Critics say his actions as attorney general of California show that he is hostile to abortion opponents and supports Medicare for all.)

“I thought it was possible Joe Biden meant it when he said he wanted to be the president of all Americans. I didn’t ever think he would appoint anyone pro-life to head HHS, but by appointing someone who uses his power to go after pro-lifers, that’s certainly stepping away from idea that he was going to be a president for pro-lifers,” Carney said, adding that he sees Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “as a cultural warrior who is going to use the power of government to go after religious conservative pro-lifers.”

Bowman, at Claremont Graduate University, noted that the Supreme Court may play a bigger role in the abortion debate if a case comes that allows the conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade. In fact, such a decision might, oddly enough, be what ramps the culture war down, at least when it comes to abortion, since decisions about abortion would then return to the states.

To Bowman, a big culture-war issue is one that is often overlooked, and it’s the matter of trust in public life. Americans’ trust in institutions, from government to media to corporations to religious groups, is declining. “The sense of common authority, that is about culture as much as anything else. We don’t accept the same authorities. That will have a really negative impact on our common goals and our sense of ourselves as a nation,” he said.

If there’s any hope on the horizon, Americans will likely find it in their communities, not in Washington, Mohler said.

“People who live among each other often find ways to work out the larger area of consensus than those who merely tweet at each other,” he said. “Where life is lived in community, we have reason to hope we can make a real difference.”