Culture war

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For the "Culture war" between the German state and Roman Catholic Church between 1871-1878, see Kulturkampf.

A culture war (or culture wars) is a struggle between two or more sets of conflicting cultural values. In American usage the term culture war is used to claim that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. The culture wars influenced the debate over public school history curricula, along with many other issues, in the United States in the 1990s and thereafter.

The expression was introduced into cultural and political debate in the US in the 1991 publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Hunter described what he saw as a dramatic realignment and polarization that had transformed American politics and culture (e.g., abortion, gun politics, global warming, immigration, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship).

The "Culture war" (or "culture wars") in Canada describes the polarization between the different values of Canadians. This can be West versus East, rural versus urban, or traditional values versus progressive values.[1]


The phrase "culture war" represents a loan translation (calque) from the German Kulturkampf. The German word Kulturkampf (culture struggle), refers to the clash between cultural and religious groups in the campaign from 1871 to 1878 under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of the German Empire against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.[2]

United States of America[edit]

In American usage the term culture war is used to claim that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. It originated in the 1920s when urban and rural American values came into clear conflict. This followed several decades of immigration to the States by people considered alien to earlier European immigrants. It was also a result of the cultural shifts and modernizing trends of the Roaring 20s, culminating in the presidential campaign of Al Smith.[3][4] However, the "culture war" in United States of America was redefined by James Davison Hunter's 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. In this work, it is traced to the 1960s.[5] The perceived focus of the American culture war and its definition have taken various forms since then.


The expression was introduced again by the 1991 publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Hunter described what he saw as a dramatic realignment and polarization that had transformed American politics and culture.

He argued that on an increasing number of 'hot-button' defining issues — abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, censorship — there existed two definable polarities. Furthermore, not only were there a number of divisive issues, but society had divided along essentially the same lines on these issues, so as to constitute two warring groups, defined primarily not by nominal religion, ethnicity, social class, or even political affiliation, but rather by ideological world views.

Hunter characterized this polarity as stemming from opposite impulses, toward what he referred to as Progressivism and Orthodoxy. Others have adopted the dichotomy with varying labels. For example, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly emphasizes differences between "Secular-Progressives" and "Traditionalists."

Patrick Buchanan, pictured in 2008.

In 1990, commentator Pat Buchanan mounted a campaign for the Republican nomination for President of the United States against incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992. He received a prime time speech slot at the 1992 Republican National Convention, which is sometimes dubbed the "'culture war' speech."[6] During his speech, he claimed: "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."[7] In addition to criticizing environmental extremists and radical feminism, he said public morality was a defining issue:

The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units — that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country.[7]

A month later, Buchanan said that the conflict was about power over society's definition of right and wrong. He named abortion, sexual orientation and popular culture as major fronts – and mentioned other controversies, including clashes over the Confederate Flag, Christmas and taxpayer-funded art. He also said that the negative attention his "culture war" speech received was itself evidence of America's polarization.[8]

When Buchanan ran for President in 1996, he promised to fight for the conservative side of the culture war:

I will use the bully pulpit of the Presidency of the United States, to the full extent of my power and ability, to defend American traditions and the values of faith, family, and country, from any and all directions. And, together, we will chase the purveyors of sex and violence back beneath the rocks whence they came.[9]

Culture war disputes are considered by many to have had significant impacts on national politics in the United States in the 1990s. Some say extreme conservative rhetoric of the Christian Coalition of America hurt then-president George H.W. Bush's chances for reelection in 1992 and helped his successor, Bill Clinton, win reelection in 1996.[10] On the other hand, the rhetoric of conservative "cultural warriors" helped Republicans gain control of Congress in 1994, and the subsequent impeachment of Clinton by Congress over a sex scandal is widely understood as having been a divisive "culture war" battle.[11]

The culture wars influenced the debate over public school history curricula in the United States in the 1990s. In particular, debates over the development of national educational standards in 1994 revolved around whether the study of American history should be a "celebratory" or "critical" undertaking and involved such prominent public figures as Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and historian Gary Nash.[12][13]


In a 2004 column, Pat Buchanan said the culture war had reignited and that certain groups of Americans no longer inhabited the same moral universe. He gave such examples as same-sex civil unions, the "crudity of the MTV crowd," and the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. He wrote:

Who is in your face here? Who started this? Who is on the offensive? Who is pushing the envelope? The answer is obvious. A radical Left aided by a cultural elite that detests Christianity and finds Christian moral tenets reactionary and repressive is hell-bent on pushing its amoral values and imposing its ideology on our nation. The unwisdom of what the Hollywood and the Left are about should be transparent to all.[14]

Peter Beinart, best known as a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a January 2009 column for The Daily Beast that the new election of Barack Obama as President could be the beginning of the end for the American culture war. He wrote:

When it comes to culture, Obama doesn't have a public agenda; he has a public anti-agenda. He wants to remove culture from the political debate. He wants to cut our three-sided political game back down to two.... Barack Obama was more successful than John Kerry in reaching out to moderate white evangelicals in part because he struck them as more authentically Christian. That's the foundation on which Obama now seeks to build. He seems to think there are large numbers of conservative white Protestants and Catholics who will look beyond culture when they enter the voting booth as long as he and other Democrats don't ram cultural liberalism down their throats.[15]

In response, author and writer Rod Dreher stated in a RealClearPolitics column that the rhetoric of a culture war disguises the fact that American society truly is deeply divided on some moral issues, which is not an artificial creation of political parties seeking to drum up support. He wrote that the economic positions of the Democratic Party are generally popular enough that, if it chose to drop polarizing social issues, it would become a majority party in ongoing control. He describes the culture war as "inevitable."[16] Columnist Ross Douthat, then with The Atlantic, wrote that he had "a lot to agree with" Beinart, but he stated that what Obama and his supporters seem to be doing is "winning" the culture wars for their side rather than coming to some kind of compromise.[17]

In a February 2009 column in The New York Times, William Saletan stated that a holistic mix of left-wing and right-wing ideas would come out of the culture war. He wrote, "morality has to be practical, and that practicality requires morals." He concluded that conservatives should embrace family planning as a way to reduce abortion and government assistance while liberals should embrace personal responsibility, which means that unprotected sex is criticized "bluntly". He also advocated same sex marriage as a way to lead LGBT Americans to an "ethic of mutual support and sacrifice" involving stricter personal responsibility.[18]



"Culture war" (or "culture wars") in Canada describes the polarization between the different values of Canadians. This can be West versus East, rural versus urban, or traditional values versus progressive values.[19] "Culture war" is a relatively new phrase in Canadian political commentary. It can still be used to describe historical events in Canada, such as the Rebellions of 1837, Western Alienation, Quebec sovereignty movement, and any Aboriginal conflicts in Canada, but is more relevant to current events such as the Caledonia conflict with Natives and the increasing hostility between conservative and liberal Canadians. Controversy erupted in 2010 when pollster Frank Graves suggested that the Liberal Party launch a "culture war" against the Conservative Party. "I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don't like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin."[20] The culture wars has also been used to describe the Harper government's attitude towards the arts community. Andrew Coyne termed this negative policy towards the arts community as 'class warfare'.[21] Its use has increased considerably recently on account of prorogation rallies, abortion, and the gun registry.[22]


Main article: History wars

Interpretations of Aboriginal history became part of the wider political debate sometimes called the 'culture wars' during the tenure of the Coalition government from 1996–2007, with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard publicly championing the views of some of those associated with Quadrant.[23] This debate extended into a controversy over the way history was presented in the National Museum of Australia and in high school history curricula.[24][25] It also migrated into the general Australian media, with regular opinion pieces being published in major broadsheets such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Marcia Langton has referred to much of this wider debate as 'war porn'[26] and an 'intellectual dead end'[27]

Two Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, were major participants in the "wars". According to the analysis for the Australian Parliamentary Library of Dr Mark McKenna,[28] Paul Keating (1991–1996) was believed by John Howard (1996–2007) to portray Australia pre-Whitlam in an unduly negative light; while Keating sought to distance the modern Labor movement from its historical support for the Monarchy and the White Australia policy by arguing that it was the Conservative Australian Parties who had been barriers to national progress and excessively loyal to the British Empire. He accused Britain of having abandoned Australia during World War II. Keating was a staunch advocate of a symbolic apology to indigenous people for the misdeeds of past governments, and outlined his view of the origins and potential solutions to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage in his Redfern Park Speech (drafted with the assistance of historian Don Watson). In 1999, following the release of the 1998 Bringing Them Home Report, Howard passed a Parliamentary Motion of Reconciliation describing treatment of Aborigines as the "most blemished chapter" in Australian history, but he did not make a Parliamentary apology.[29] Howard argued that an apology was inappropriate as it would imply "intergeneration guilt" and said that "practical" measures were a better response to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage. Keating has argued for the eradication of remaining symbols linked to British origins: including deference for ANZAC Day, the Australian Flag and the Monarchy in Australia, while Howard was a supporter of these institutions. Unlike fellow Labor leaders and contemporaries, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, Keating never traveled to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day ceremonies. In 2008 he described those who gathered there as "misguided".[30]

In 2006, John Howard said in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of Quadrant that "Political Correctness" was dead in Australia but: "we should not underestimate the degree to which the soft-left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australia's universities"; and in 2006, Sydney Morning Herald Political Editor Peter Hartcher reported that Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd was entering the philosophical debate by arguing in response that "John Howard, is guilty of perpetrating 'a fraud' in his so-called culture wars... designed not to make real change but to mask the damage inflicted by the Government's economic policies".[31]

The defeat of the Howard government in the Australian Federal election of 2007, and its replacement by the Rudd Labor government has altered the dynamic of the debate. Rudd made an official apology to the Stolen Generation[32] with bi-partisan support.[33] Like Keating, Rudd supports an Australian Republic, but in contrast to Keating, Rudd has declared support for the Australian flag and supports the commemoration of ANZAC Day and expressed admiration for Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies.[34][35]

Since the change of government, and the passage, with support from all parties, of a Parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians, Professor of Australian Studies Richard Nile has argued: "the culture and history wars are over and with them should also go the adversarial nature of intellectual debate",[36] a view contested by others, including conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen.[37] An intention to reengage in the history wars has been indicated by the Federal Opposition's Christopher Pyne.[38]

See also[edit]

Battleground issues in the "culture wars"[edit]


  1. ^ "Culture clash splits Canadians over basic values". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). October 20, 2012. 
  2. ^ Martin Spahn, "Kulturkampf", The Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 8, Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
  3. ^ Seminar on the Culture Wars of the 1920s
  4. ^ "Culture Wars: How 2004" Article by E.J. Dionne
  5. ^ Holt, Douglas; Cameron, Douglas (2010). Cultural Strategy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-958740-7. 
  6. ^ "Not since Pat Buchanan's famous "culture war" speech in 1992 has a major speaker at a national political convention spoken so hatefully, at such length, about the opposition."
    "Dogs of War". New Donkey. 2004-09-02. Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2006-08-29. 
  7. ^ a b Buchanan, Patrick (1992-08-17). 1992 Republican National Convention Speech (Speech). Retrieved 2014-11-03. 
  8. ^ The Cultural War for the Soul of America by Patrick Buchanan
  9. ^ Patrick Buchanan (March 20, 1995). Announcement Speech (Speech). Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved March 5, 2015. 
  10. ^ Chapman, Roger (2010). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-7656-1761-3. 
  11. ^ Chapman, Roger (2010). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. Armonk, NY.: M.E. Sharpe. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-7656-1761-3. 
  12. ^ Eric Foner, "Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World". New York: Hill & Wang, 2002.
  13. ^ Gary B. Nash, Crabtree, Charlotte, and Ross E. Dunn, "History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past". New York: Knopf, 1997.
  14. ^ Pat Buchanan (March 8, 2004). "The Aggressors in the Culture Wars". Retrieved January 26, 2009. 
  15. ^ Peter Beinart (January 26, 2009). "The End of the Culture Wars". The Daily Beast. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  16. ^ Rod Dreher (February 16, 2009). "Obama Won't End the Culture Wars". RealClearPolitics. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  17. ^ Ross Douthat (January 28, 2009). "Ending or Winning?". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  18. ^ William Saletan (February 21, 2009). "This Is the Way the Culture Wars End". The New York Times. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  19. ^ "Culture clash splits Canadians over basic values". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). October 20, 2012. 
  20. ^ "EKOS pollster ignites furor over divisive ‘culture wars’ advice". Canuck Politics. April 23, 2010. 
  21. ^ Andrew Coyne (October 2, 2008). "Coyne: This isn't a culture war, it's a good old class war". Macleans. 
  22. ^ Paul W. Bennett (May 27, 2012). "Richler on front line of culture war". The Chronicle Herald. 
  23. ^ Robert Manne, "What is Rudd’s Agenda?", The Monthly, November 2008.
  24. ^ Guy Rundle writes: (28 June 2007). "1915 and all that: History in a holding pattern". Crikey. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  25. ^ Justine Ferrari, Education writer (14 October 2008). "History curriculum author defies his critics to find bias". The Australian. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  26. ^ Baudrillard J. War porn. Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1, 86-88 (2006) doi:10.1177/147041290600500107
  27. ^ Langton M. Essay: Trapped in the aboriginal reality show. Griffith Review 2007, 19:Re-imagining Australia.
  28. ^ Dr. Mark McKenna (10 November 1997). "Different Perspectives on Black Armband History". Parliamentary Library: Research Paper 5 1997-98. The Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  29. ^ "The History of Apologies Down Under | Thinking Faith". 21 February 2008. Archived from the original on 2014-11-02. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  30. ^ Wright, Tony (31 October 2008). "A nation reborn at Anzac Cove? Utter nonsense: Keating". The Age (Melbourne). Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  31. ^ "PM's culture wars a fraud: Rudd - National". The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 October 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  32. ^ "Full text of Australia's apology to Aborigines". CNN. 12 February 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  33. ^ "Brendan Nelson's sorry speech". The Sydney Morning Herald. 13 February 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  34. ^ [1]
  35. ^ "Is Rudd having a Bob each way? - Opinion". The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 October 2004. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  36. ^ "End of the culture wars | Richard Nile Blog, The Australian". 28 November 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  37. ^ "Orwellian Left quick to unveil totalitarian heart". The Australian. 12 December 2007. 
  38. ^ Julia Baird, (27 April 2013), Don't dismiss nation's blemishes Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, p. 12
  39. ^ Climate Science as Culture War: The public debate around climate change is no longer about science—it's about values, culture, and ideology Fall 2012 Stanford Social Innovation Review

Further reading[edit]

  • Buchanan, Patrick J., The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2002 ISBN 0-312-30259-2
  • D'Antonio, William V., Steven A. Tuch and Josiah R. Baker, Religion, Politics, and Polarization: How Religiopolitical Conflict Is Changing Congress and American Democracy, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013 ISBN 1442223979 ISBN 978-1442223974
  • Fiorina, Morris P., with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America, London: Longman, 2004 ISBN 0-321-27640-X
  • Gerald Graff. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992)
  • Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, New York: Basic Books, 1992 ISBN 0-465-01534-4
  • Jay, Gregory S., American Literature and the Culture Wars, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997 ISBN 0-8014-3393-2 ISBN 978-0801433931
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Culture Wars, 1965-1995: A Historian's Map" Journal of Social History 29 (Oct 1995) 17-37.
  • Jones, E. Michael, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity As Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, Ft. Collins, CO: Ignatius Press, 1993 ISBN 0-89870-447-2
  • Shapiro, Ben, Bullies: How the Left's Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America, New York City: Threshold Editions, 2013 ISBN 1476710015
  • Strauss, William & Howe, Neil, The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous With Destiny, 1998, Broadway Books, New York
  • Thomson, Irene Tavis., Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010 ISBN 978-0-472-07088-6
  • Walsh, Andrew D., Religion, Economics, and Public Policy: Ironies, Tragedies, and Absurdities of the Contemporary Culture Wars, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000 ISBN 0-275-96611-9
  • Webb, Adam K., Beyond the Global Culture War, Routledge, Jan 2006 ISBN 0-415-95313-8
  • Zimmerman, Jonathan, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, Harvard University Press, 2002 ISBN 0-674-01860-5

External links[edit]

United States[edit]


  • [2] John Howard, speech: A sense of balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006, prime ministerial address to the National Press Club, 25 January 2006.