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  • Introduction:Ceasefire or New Battle? The Politics of Culture Wars in Obama's Time
  • Frédérick Gagnon (bio)

In this highly partisan year [of 2009], we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture . . . The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

E.J. Dionne

America faces a new culture war . . . It is a struggle between two competing visions of America's future. In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income redistribution, and government-controlled corporations. These competing visions are not reconcilable: We must choose.

Arthur Brooks


The year 2012 was an important one in the United States. It marked the first presidential contest after the "historic" one that led to the election of the first black president in US history. It also marked the twentieth anniversary of ultraconservative Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the Republican Party's national convention in 1992. In this speech, Buchanan insisted that a "culture war" was raging in the United States. He saw it as a fight to define the American people's national identity—what America means as a society, what Americans were in the past, what they are today, and what they will become in the future. "There is a religious war going on in this country," he said.

It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. [End Page 261]

Buchanan's vision of American politics embraced at least two ideas. The first was that American values and society were threatened by the Left (including Clinton & Clinton). The second was that conservatives and Republicans should stop compromising with liberals and Democrats. Two years later, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years, most of them, especially Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, decided to follow Buchanan's advice. They refused to collaborate with President Bill Clinton on many issues, such as the budget, and even tried to impeach him in 1998-9. This prompted many observers to claim that US politics became increasingly polarized during the 1990s (Theriault; Mann and Ornstein).

Sociologist James Davison Hunter was the first expert to describe what America's culture war means and is about. In his 1991 book entitled Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, he states, "America is in the midst of a culture war that has had and will continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere" (34). According to Hunter, the US culture war can be defined as "political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding" and in competing definitions of who Americans are and should be (42). He contends that many issues are at the forefront of these wars: abortion, gay rights, funding for the arts, values in public education, affirmative action and quotas, and multiculturalism (42). Conflicts on these issues set in opposition individuals and groups who try to "determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, and so on" (42).

In Hunter's view, one distinctive feature of America's culture wars is that they cut across "old lines of conflict, making the distinctions that long divided Americans—those between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—virtually irrelevant" (43). Thus America's culture wars do not set Catholics against Protestants or Jews against Catholics. They oppose two groups Hunter calls the Orthodox and the Progressive. On the one hand, orthodoxy is "the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority" that defines a "consistent, unchangeable measure of value, purpose, goodness, and identity, both personal and collective" (44). For instance, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann may be said to be orthodox when she writes, "God has imprinted certain truths on the hearts...


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pp. 261-273
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