Culture Wars

Culture wars in the American context refers to the thesis that there is a conflict in America between the holders of two rival sets of cultural values—traditionalist and progressive. Traditionalists are typically portrayed as religiously observant individuals from all religions who hold orthodox beliefs that inform their views of social and political issues. Progressives are typically depicted as religiously nonobservant individuals who hold modernist beliefs in the moral authority of reason and philosophy that inform their views of social and policy issues.

In an American context, the term culture wars is attributed to sociologist James Davidson Hunter who in 1991 wrote a book titled Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter used this term to distinguish the new politically salient division between religiously observant traditionalists and religiously nonobservant progressives from earlier divisions between religions and within religions (e.g., between mainstream and evangelical Christians). He argued that the traditionalist-progressive division replaced the importance of earlier religious and economic differences in social and political issues and became the moral underpinning for the increased ideological polarization and partisanship in America.

One year later conservative spokesperson Patrick Buchanan ( 1938– ) captured the new bellicose tone in a speech delivered at the Republican National Convention in 1992.

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. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him.

“War” is not a term to be treated lightly. Even as a metaphor for a nonviolent conflict, a “war” suggests a conflict that is (1) enduring or at least long lasting; (2) pervasive in the sense that its scope engages many people over numerous issues and over considerable territory; (3) intense in terms of the level of self-identification, emotional investment, and affiliations by the belligerents involved; and (4) high stakes, in this instance, over how America is defined.

On the third criteria of intensity, the results are a subject of much debate along two lines: who is engaged and how intensely? As to the first, Morris Fiorina argued in 2004 and again in 2010 that the culture war metaphor makes good copy for journalists and posturing by elites, but the majority of Americans remain centrist, ambivalent, and closely, but not deeply, divided. Others, such as James Q. Wilson, have found that since 2000 more and more Americans (especially the more attentive) have migrated to the ideological extremes both within and between their parties ( 2006 ). Pollsters such as Gallup in its Annual Values and Belief Poll find Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative. Polls also show, however, that the nation as a whole tends to lean more conservative on economic issues and more liberal on social issues, with a third or more identifying themselves as moderates, down slightly since the early 1990s.

As important, the polarization of American politics runs only so deep. In their nuanced study, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown found that parties use cultural and religious differences “to mobilize voters,” but those voters do not necessarily base their political decisions on religious divisions, and those divisions “are not consistent across all policy domains” ( 2007, 203 ). In sum, not all conservatives are religiously observant, and not all liberals are religiously nonobservant. Diversity remains a hallmark of American politics.

SEE ALSO Partisanship ; Polarization ; Religion and Politics .


Fiorina, Morris, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. 2004; repr., 3rd ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.

Hunter, James Davidson. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Hunter, James Davidson, and Alan Wolfe, eds. Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life.

Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution and Pew Research Center, 2006.

Wald, Kenneth, and Allison Calhoun-Brown. Religion and Politics in the United States. 5th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Wilson, James Q. “How Divided Are We?” Commentary. February 15, 2006. .

Stephen Schechter
Russell Sage College