“Culture Wars” is a term generally applied to disagreements in America about how our country and our shared culture should work, which direction we are headed, what our models of behavior should be, and where meanings ought to reside. The idea that Americans are involved in a deeply meaningful and highly contentious series of cultural conflicts gained momentum in the 1980s and 90s.

In the 1980s, the battles over government funding of the arts, an activity mostly unfamiliar to the general public, morphed into a larger series of discussions about the separation of church and state, pornography, “homosexual lifestyles,” and the general decline of values and civil behavior. In the 1990s, disagreements about the treatment and meaning of the America flag and the fight over school prayer solidified the poles of disagreement. By the turn of the century, disagreements about the teaching of evolution (and its religious alternative, “intelligent design”) in schools and different views about the reality and ext rent of global warming were added to the mix.

At the 1992 Republican National Convention, political commentator and failed presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan popularized the concept of the culture wars when he stated that, “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.” Since then, the culture wars have been defined by several traditional religious groups as disagreements about abortion, pornography, homosexual behavior, lawlessness, euthanasia, birth control, the break-up of the traditional family, global warming, and evolution. The problem is seen to result from the society’s embrace of “humanism” with its promotion of the concept that man decides what is truth. Its opposite is a strong embrace of religion, especially Christianity, and the solutions found in an acceptance of God’s word as true and infallible and as the source of all decisions.

While the specific battles in the war are not always couched in religious terms, they are generally defined as a struggle between the moral relativism of the secular world and the absolutes of proper behavior and good living that should rule human life. The culture wars sometimes focus on specifically religious disagreements about creation, school prayer, sexuality, the right to life and the right to die., but they also have emerged in less specifically religious areas like patriotism, national symbols, violence in schools, labor unions, and topics in science.

The types of disagreements that make it into the culture wars arena tend to be about one of five different areas: about images and what they stand for (the American flag, Robert Mapplethorpe photos); about the large ideas that govern our laws (immigration, global warming); about beliefs that carry the weight of tradition and the sacred (evolution/creationism, separation of church and state, school prayer); about efforts to control what our physical bodies can or should do (abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research); and about the words we use to express ourselves (English-only efforts, banned books).

The points of contention that show up in the culture wars have three characteristics: they tend to evoke symbolism that addresses what it is to be American; they provide polar opposite stances that can be easily defined; and they utilize simple and concrete everyday examples that show what is important in life.

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