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Rally for Proposition 8, an item on the 2008 California ballot to ban same-sex marriage
Rally for Proposition 8, an item on the 2008 California ballot to ban same-sex marriage

Culture war is the cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices.[1] It commonly refers to the hot button topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values is seen.

The term is commonly used to describe contemporary politics in the United States,[2] with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, multiculturalism, and other cultural conflicts based on values, morality, and lifestyle being described as the major political cleavage.[2]

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Bismarck (left) and the Pope, from the German satirical magazine Kladderadatsch, 1875
Bismarck (left) and the Pope, from the German satirical magazine Kladderadatsch, 1875

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.[3] The translation was printed in some American newspapers at the time.[4]

United States

The expression "culture war" was published occasionally in American newspapers during the 20th century,[5][6] but only joined the vocabulary of United States politics with the publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter in 1991. Hunter perceived a dramatic realignment and polarization that had transformed United States politics and culture, including the issues of abortion, federal and state gun laws, global warming, immigration, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, LGBT rights, and censorship.

In American usage the term "culture war" may imply 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.[7] This followed several decades of immigration to the States by people who earlier European immigrants considered "alien". It was also a result of the cultural shifts and modernizing trends of the Roaring 20s, culminating in the presidential campaign of Al Smith[8] in 1928. However, James Davison Hunter's 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America redefined the "culture war" in the United States of America. Hunter traces the concept to the 1960s.[9] The perceived focus of the American culture war and its definition have taken various forms since then.[10]


James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, introduced the expression again in his 1991 publication, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. 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 as 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 in 2008
Patrick Buchanan in 2008

During the 1992 presidential election, commentator Pat Buchanan mounted a campaign for the Republican nomination for President against incumbent George H. W. Bush. In a prime-time slot at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan gave his speech on the culture war.[11] He argued: "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."[12] In addition to criticizing environmentalists and feminism, he portrayed public morality as 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.[12]

A month later, Buchanan characterized the conflict as 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.[13]

The culture war had significant impact on national politics in the 1990s.[10] The rhetoric of the Christian Coalition of America may have weakened president George H. W. Bush's chances for reelection in 1992 and helped his successor, Bill Clinton, win reelection in 1996.[14] On the other hand, the rhetoric of conservative cultural warriors helped Republicans gain control of Congress in 1994.[15]

The culture wars influenced the debate over state-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.[16][17]

21st century

43rd President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were prominent neo-conservatives of the 2000s.
43rd President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were prominent neo-conservatives of the 2000s.

A worldview called neo-conservatism shifted the terms of the debate in the early 2000s. Neo-conservatives differed from their opponents in that they interpreted problems facing the nation as moral issues rather than economic or political issues. For example, neo-conservatives saw the decline of the traditional family structure as a spiritual crisis that required a spiritual response. Critics accused neo-conservatives of confusing cause and effect.[18]

During the 2000s, voting patterns began tracking heavily with attendance at a house of worship. Those who identify as "traditionalist" or "orthodox" began voting for Republican Party candidates, while those who identify as "liberal" or "modernist" began voting for Democrats.[19] This mostly occurred irrespective of religious sect.

The abortion debate continues to be an important focal point in the culture wars around religion and gender.[20]


In Canada, "culture war" refers to differing values between Western versus Eastern Canada, urban versus rural Canada, as well as conservatism versus liberalism.[21] A divide between French and English is also a consistent part of Canadian society.

The phrase "culture war" (or "culture wars") in Canada describes the polarization between the different values of Canadians.[citation needed] This can be West versus East, rural versus urban, or traditional values versus progressive values.[22][failed verification] "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, the Quebec sovereignty movement, and any Aboriginal conflicts in Canada, but is more relevant to current events such as the Grand River land dispute and the increasing hostility between conservative and liberal Canadians.[citation needed] The phrase "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 'class warfare'.[23]


Interpretations of  Aboriginal history became part of the wider political debate sometimes called the "culture wars" during the tenure of the  Liberal–National Coalition government of 1996 to 2007, with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard publicly championing the views of some of those associated with Quadrant.[24] This debate extended into a controversy over the presentation of history in the National Museum of Australia and in  high-school history curricula.[25][26] It also migrated into the general Australian media, with major broadsheets such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age regularly publishing opinion pieces on the topic. Marcia Langton has referred to much of this wider debate as "war porn"[27] and as an "intellectual dead end".[28]

Two Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Keating (in office 1991–1996) and John Howard (in office 1996–2007), became major participants in the "wars". According to Mark McKenna's analysis for the Australian Parliamentary Library,[29] John Howard believed that Paul Keating portrayed Australia pre-Whitlam (Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975) in an unduly negative light; while Keating sought to distance the modern  Labor movement from its historical support for the monarchy and for the White Australia policy by arguing that it was the conservative Australian parties which had been barriers to national progress and excessively loyal to the British Empire. He accused Britain of having abandoned Australia during World War II (1939–1945). Keating staunchly supported 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 of 10 December 1992 (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.[30] Howard saw an apology as inappropriate as it would imply "intergeneration guilt"; he 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,[31] for the Australian flag and for the monarchy in Australia, while Howard supported these institutions. Unlike fellow Labor leaders and contemporaries, Bob Hawke (Prime Minister 1983–1991) and Kim Beazley (Labor Party leader 2005–2006), Keating never traveled to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day ceremonies. In 2008 he described those who gathered there as "misguided".[32]

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".[citation needed] Also 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".[33]

The defeat of the Howard government in the  Australian Federal election of 2007 and its replacement by the Rudd Labor government altered the dynamic of the debate. Rudd made an  official apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation[34] with bi-partisan support.[35] Like Keating, Rudd supported an Australian republic, but in contrast to Keating, Rudd declared support for the Australian flag and supported the commemoration of ANZAC Day; he also expressed admiration for Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies.[36][37]

Subsequent to the 2007 change of government, and prior to the passage, with support from all parties, of the Parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians, Professor of Australian Studies Richard Nile argued: "the culture and history wars are over and with them should also go the adversarial nature of intellectual debate",[38] a view contested by others, including conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen.[39] The Liberal Party parliamentarian Christopher Pyne indicated[when?] an intention to re-engage in the history wars.[40][failed verification]

See also


  1. ^ "Culture war". Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Culture Wars". Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  3. ^ Spahn, Martin (1910). "Kulturkampf". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 27, 2015.
  4. ^ "Prosecution of priests (Culture War reference) (1874)". Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  5. ^ "What Bismarck could not do (Culture War reference) (1906)". Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  6. ^ ""Culture War" to be theme of talk (1942)". Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  7. ^ "Seminar on the Culture Wars of the 1920s". Fall 2001. Archived from the original on May 27, 2013. Retrieved March 27, 2015.
  8. ^ Dionne, E. J. "Culture Wars: How 2004".
  9. ^ Holt, Douglas; Cameron, Douglas (2010). Cultural Strategy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-958740-7.
  10. ^ a b Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
  11. ^ "Dogs of War". New Donkey. September 2, 2004. Archived from the original on March 8, 2005. Retrieved August 29, 2006. 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.
  12. ^ a b Buchanan, Patrick (August 17, 1992). 1992 Republican National Convention Speech (Speech). Retrieved November 3, 2014.
  13. ^ Buchanan, Patrick. "The Cultural War for the Soul of America".
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World at Google Books
  17. ^ History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past at Google Books
  18. ^ Zafirovski, Milan. "Modern Free Society and Its Nemesis: Liberty Versus Conservatism in the New ...." Google Books. 6 September 2018.
  19. ^ Dionne, E.J., Jr. "Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War." The Atlantic. January/February 2006. 29 April 2019.
  20. ^ Smith, Karl. "The Abortion Debate Is Not Part of the Culture Wars." Bloomberg.
  21. ^ Caplan, Gerald (October 20, 2012). "Culture clash splits Canadians over basic values". The Globe and Mail. Toronto.
  22. ^ "Culture clash splits Canadians over basic values". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. October 20, 2012.
  23. ^ Andrew Coyne (October 2, 2008). "Coyne: This isn't a culture war, it's a good old class war". Macleans.
  24. ^ Manne, Robert (November 2008). "What is Rudd's Agenda?". The Monthly.
  25. ^ Rundle, Guy (June 28, 2007). "1915 and all that: History in a holding pattern". Crikey. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  26. ^ Ferrari, Justine (October 14, 2008). "History curriculum author defies his critics to find bias". The Australian. Archived from the original on October 6, 2009. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  27. ^ Baudrillard J. War porn. Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1, 86–88 (2006) doi: 10.1177/147041290600500107
  28. ^ Langton M. Essay: Trapped in the aboriginal reality show. Griffith Review 2007, 19:Re-imagining Australia.
  29. ^ Mark McKenna (November 10, 1997). "Different Perspectives on Black Armband History". Parliamentary Library: Research Paper 5 1997-98. The Parliament of Australia. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  30. ^ "The History of Apologies Down Under | Thinking Faith". February 21, 2008. Archived from the original on December 2, 2014. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Wright, Tony (October 31, 2008). "A nation reborn at Anzac Cove? Utter nonsense: Keating". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  33. ^ "PM's culture wars a fraud: Rudd - National". The Sydney Morning Herald. October 28, 2006. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  34. ^ "Full text of Australia's apology to Aborigines". CNN. February 12, 2008. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  35. ^ "Brendan Nelson's sorry speech". The Sydney Morning Herald. February 13, 2008. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  36. ^ "Paul Keating 'utterly wrong' to reject Gallipoli identity, says Kevin Rudd". October 31, 2008.
  37. ^ "Is Rudd having a Bob each way? - Opinion". The Sydney Morning Herald. October 28, 2004. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  38. ^ "End of the culture wars | Richard Nile Blog, The Australian". November 28, 2007. Archived from the original on March 9, 2010. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  39. ^ "Orwellian Left quick to unveil totalitarian heart". The Australian. December 12, 2007.
  40. ^ Julia Baird, (April 27, 2013), Don't dismiss nation's blemishes Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, p. 12
  41. ^ 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

External links

United States


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