A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman, University of Chicago Press
In the last decades of the twentieth century the melting pot of the USA boiled over. Or in the infamous words of conservative Patrick Buchanan, a war for the soul of America was declared. Andrew Hartman has taken this phrase for the title of his summary of this complicated ideological struggle which is often termed, alternatively, ‘the culture wars’.
Hartman takes us on a tour of the various battlegrounds of these wars – the corridors of power, university lecture theatres, the pews of churches – and the issues that were fought over. He rejects the idea that these battles were merely ‘sideshows’ and instead suggests that they are indicative of the way Americans view America. The US is an example of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’, and it was this imaginary, idealised entity – what Hartman simply labels an ‘idea’ – that was so contested. Hartman describes the tectonic movements with regard to race, gender, education, welfare and the relationship of church and state, but underneath and driving this public discourse was a hot mantle of competing ideologies of freedom and responsibility, individualism and community, difference and unity, values all thought to be enshrined in the constitution, or at least in some less tangible ‘idea’ of what America stands for. In fact, Americans hold many and varied ideas of America and they are not always complementary.
Conservatives tended to argue about these issues in religious terms, though sometimes simply because it suited the conservatives’ purposes. The Religious Right arose in this period (spanning the 60s to the 90s in this book), but Hartman focuses equally on neoconservatives, those U-turned liberals who initially supported the Kennedys and progressive policies but who, as the idealistic 60s turned into the bitter 70s, began to fight the relativism that was dominating the universities and leaching out into the wider world. It is not that these neoconservatives were particularly religious. Many took the attitude of Voltaire, who was above such supposed superstition but thought it good for the stability of society. But neoconservatives had their own quasi-religious belief in the moral superiority of the US, and were appalled at the suggestion that the US did not have a unique destiny, that it was not a light on a hill. It was not that they could not understand inequality, although they were often sheltered from the realities of inequality; as Garry Wills so perceptively argued in his classic Nixon Agonistes, they simply believed in the myth of the American starting line – that everyone had the chance to better themselves, including minority groups – and the questioning of that assumption was unsettling.
Elsewhere, of course, there were genuine believers who thought loyalty to America was ipso facto loyalty to God, and that America’s woes were due to the country’s rejection of God and its Christian foundation (the latter a tenuous proposition anyway). Hartman notes that, ironically, the Religious Right was created as a response to the growing rejection by the mainstream of the Right’s definition of how the American ‘soul’ should be configured. Though as Hartman’s book shows, the picture is more complex than a religious Right/irreligious Left divide. The US fractured along many lines, while, less obviously, the arcs of various ideologies sometimes intersected. For example, African Americans argued over whether the ‘idea’ of America contained the seed of their salvation or whether it was rotten to the core. Feminists disagreed amongst themselves regarding pornography, depending on whether they prioritised freedom of speech or freedom from the degradation of women. Meanwhile, those radical feminists advocating against pornography found common ground with evangelicals. Marxists on the Left agreed tentatively with the Right’s rejection of the postmodern relativism that was often merely an excuse for lack of commitment. In contrast to the predominant caricature of American Christians, there was throughout the period solidarity between a secular Left and socially progressive Christians across the denominations. American Catholics marched with civil rights activists, yet were opposed to sexual liberation. A similar mix of conservatism and social progressivism carries through today in varying streams of Christianity, from evangelicals to Catholics to the so-called Emerging Church.
This is a vast area for study, as, to take one example, the three large volumes of Rick Perlstein’s engrossing history of recent American conservatism shows. Hartman’s book is a deft summary, but while attending to the nuances of intellectual America’s various stances, he tends to place those Americans who are not either minorities or elites into a group he calls ‘normative America’, which may be as artificial as Nixon’s ‘silent majority’. In the turbulence of postmodern society there are still discernible currents – consumerism, celebrity culture, a tendency to prioritise economic considerations in politics – and these are not trivial, but it would be wrong to attribute a kind of groupthink to the majority of Americans (and Westerners), especially in such an individualistic culture.
Hartman views these culture wars through red, white and blue coloured glasses, but there is still material here that looks familiar to Australian eyes. While religion, particularly Christianity, is not seen in Australia in such foundational terms, of course we too have dealt and are dealing with the issues of religion in schools, overseas military intervention, gender roles at home and work, and more. We argue likewise about whether history should be honest about national failure or patriotic, and how and where minority religious voices should be heard. Our country’s recent history may also support Hartman’s conclusion that as religious belief is becoming more marginalised, divisions are falling more often along economic rather than ideological lines. But the use of economic utility as an overriding factor in political decision making and public debate is itself an ideological issue, one contested by both the political Left and religious groups. Therefore, also keeping in mind the example of Francis Fukuyama’s premature and discredited ‘end of history’ thesis, it may be hasty to subsequently agree with Hartman that the culture wars have ended. Rather, the ground simply continues to shift.