Terrible Swift Swords

A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars BY Andrew Hartman. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 384 pages. $30.

For plucky upcoming millennials, the culture wars mostly seem a thing of the past, having ended with a collective whimper of toleration instead of a fundamentalist bang. The new consensus, among political commentators and academicians alike, is that the culture wars have run their course, and that the Christian Right has lost.

This verdict isn’t necessarily mistaken, at least from a certain vantage point. The long battle of the Christian Right against, inter alia, modernity, secularity, and (seemingly) the world at large, which has convulsed American debate at least since the insurgent 1992 presidential candidacy of Pat Buchanan and the publication, that same year, of James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, now appears to lack any sure footing. With same-sex-marriage bans about to be overturned by the Supreme Court, and Roe v. Wade not scheduled for any further review even from the high court’s conservative majority, our legal system seems merely to be confirming the sense in the political sphere that the Christian Right’s fire-breathing resistance has sputtered out in so much sound and fury.

Andrew Hartman’s new anatomy of American culture warfare, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, effectively sets off an M-80 at the head of this premature victory parade. Hartman is a close student of past battles over the configuration of American cultural identity; they made up a good deal of his 2011 survey of midcentury curricular struggles, Education and the Cold War. In exhuming and reviving the more broad-ranging culture wars of the past few decades, Hartman again shows an assured feel for the true proportions of these conflicts, which typically extend well beyond the direct-mail campaigns and voter-turnout initiatives of election season, as well as a sensitive eye for their propensity to take on unexpected new forms. The result is a fresh reappraisal of the culture-war age that’s both disarming and revealing.

Hartman’s first correction is to the foreshortened time line that our pundits have assigned to the culture wars. Though the Christian Right did not coalesce until the late 1970s and early ’80s, he goes further back to its roots, in the 1950s. By grounding his account in a broader historical context, he reminds us that the signature battles of contemporary culture warfare—over gay rights, family breakdown, public religious displays, sexual license, and the allegedly corrupting content of mass culture and public-school curricula—represent much more than a short-lived conflict between the Christian Right and the rest of society. Indeed, they’re but the latest installments of much more stubborn quarrels over how the nation’s moral imagination can find coherent expression in public life, quarrels largely forced into being by the ideological confrontations of the Cold War and the politics of democratic protest that took shape in their wake.

From this key insight, Hartman pivots to a second one: The activists of the Christian Right, though enthusiastic partisans in the culture wars, didn’t supply their central intellectual underpinnings. In terms of articulating a full-throated theory of culture warfare, Hartman argues, the relevant authorities weren’t so much campaign apparatchiks, like Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, or politically minded evangelicals, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, but rather the Jewish and secular leaders of the neoconservative movement, such as Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, and Saul Bellow, among others. Hartman’s focus on these figures helps to further fill out the broader ideological backdrop to the resurgence of the culture wars in the Reagan years: He retraces, for example, how once-sturdy New Deal–era alliances between Jews and blacks collapsed alongside the atrophy of Great Society liberalism. Here, too, he isolates a somewhat surprising culprit: the cynical neoconservative critique of affirmative-action quotas as a betrayal of the liberal creed, which became a means of stereotyping onetime black allies as welfare-dependent members of an aggrieved victim class. From this maneuver it was a short step, he argues, to the Christian Right’s demonization of the secular liberal state tout court—and from there to the evangelical-libertarian alliances that fuel the activism of today’s Tea Party Right.

More intriguing yet are Hartman’s theoretical contributions to what we might dub the tactical playbook of the culture wars. He identifies in neoconservatives a tendency to speak as “abstract American[s]” and in so doing to develop the very idea of the American-in-abstract. Hartman reminds us that the culture wars were not principally a struggle for power or public resources, but rather a more basic quarrel over the terms of our national identity: What exactly is it to be an American? What constitute “American” values? This focus helps frame many disparate modern skirmishes—from divorce to homosexuality to war to welfare—as parts of a single, cogent whole concerned with the nature of the abstract American.

It also allows Hartman to unearth, quite surprisingly, a curious sort of rhetorical beauty in the unfolding of the culture wars. Angst over the identity of the American-in-abstract entailed, in part, an earnest, open debate over things that in our own market-addled, technocratic polity sound almost quaintly humanist and idealistic: the civic aims of public education, the moral substance of the arts, the role of the university, the content of the Western intellectual inheritance (aka the canon). Meanwhile, Hartman notes, neoconservatives were equally interested in—and adept at intellectualizing—the concerns of ordinary working-class whites. Thus the neoconservative movement, for better or worse, forms a crucial link between a hitherto anti-intellectual populist tradition and an intellectually charged (if wronghanded) politics.

This is not to say that Hartman gives short shrift to the powerful organizing efforts of the newly ascendant Christian Right. Opposition to the secular state united the Christian Right in an unlikely marriage of political convenience with secular neoconservatives. That coalition laid the groundwork for the Republican majorities of the Reagan age, and it went on to wage war on everything from sex education to the teaching of evolution in science classrooms. Here Hartman’s background in American educational history is especially welcome: The culture wars may be out of sight and mind for many American political observers, but they continue to roil the schoolhouse. And as he rightly notes, these school-based battles are struggles for a handle on the ethical formation of children, who are future voters. This approach sheds a great deal of light on arguments that otherwise get consigned to the sentimentalized (and more than a little cynical) mobilizations of concerned mothers for the culture crusade of the moment.

When it comes to race and gender, Hartman’s treatment is well crafted and careful. One of the book’s more eye-opening sections is his investigation of how spats over the role of women expressed themselves in the furor over Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hartman likewise fleshes out his discussion of hip-hop and rap by channeling both the mood of protest infusing the new genre and the unmoored outrage of its Christian detractors. (It “isn’t even art; it isn’t even music!” one audience member of Phil Donahue’s daytime talk show shrieked.)

Like the culture wars themselves, Hartman’s book has a sometimes dizzyingly wide purview. But he is an extremely entertaining writer, and his nimble turns from pop music to porn to abortion to politics and back make for engaging, smooth reading. “Many of the people who played a prominent role in the late-twentieth-century war for the soul of America are still waving the bloody flag,” he drily observes, as he likens the legacy of our postmodern dustups over our collective cultural identity to the rancorous party politics that took root in the wake of the Civil War.

Should we fail to be convinced by Hartman’s case for the longevity of the culture-wars state, we can just repair to the news cycle, with its pitched arguments over the truth value of American Sniper and the meaning of President Obama’s remarks on the legacy of the Crusades. As another presidential-election cycle starts lurching into gear, watchful students of American moral debate should adopt a Faulknerian credo: The culture wars aren’t dead; they’re not even past.

Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at the New Republic.