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The term “culture wars” came to prominence in the early 1990s, referring to conflicts in United States society over abortion, religion in schools, acceptance of homosexuals, pornography, the judiciary, and the arts. Many flashpoints in the culture war derived from competing assumptions about the body and sexuality. Sociologist James Davison Hunter (1991) depicted elite knowledge workers seeking to impose their competing understandings on the rest of society. In the contests over abortion, gay sexuality, and religion in the public sphere Hunter detected a realignment as Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic elites formed new alliances, cutting across old antagonisms.
Below the surface conflicts (liberal vs. conservative), knowledge workers clustered towards two poles of moral authority: the orthodox and the progressives. The orthodox moral universe is based on commitment to an external transcendent Being while the progressive moral universe entails a tendency to recast values and historic faiths in light of prevailing cultural assumptions. While diversity exists between the two poles, an impulse towards polarity occurs.
The orthodox perspective largely militated against gay marriage and abortion rights, seeing progressive efforts as assaults on the family and moral society. Progressives contended that the freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution, and enlightened thinking generally, meant extending full civil rights to gays and lesbians and maintaining a woman’s right to choose in dealing with a pregnancy. Rooted in ultimate concerns, these competing perspectives did not share much common ground.
Three significant criticisms of the culture wars thesis emerged. One, public opinion really is not very polarized; two, the orthodox/progressive dichotomy is too simplistic to account for the diversity of positions in contested culture; three, the metaphor of war” is overstated, sensationalistic and thus inappropriate. However, the 2000 and 2004 US elections and ballot initiatives about gay marriage revived the culture wars thesis.
- Hunter, J. D. (1991) Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Basic Books, New York.
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