Culture Wars:

A culture war is a conflict between two or more groups of people due to conflicting sets of values. The term culture war in the context of American politics was coined by James Davison Hunter, in his book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, in 1991. The book was about a dramatic alignment and rift that had been growing since the 1980's, where both the American public and government have been split along the lines of progressives and conservatives. The term gained prominence during Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republic National Convention, where he gave his famous "culture war" speech, in which he stated, "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 the Cold War itself".

The religious war that Buchanan referenced was a polarization on social issues like abortion and homosexuality that have separated people into two groups, progressives or conservatives, who feel one way or another on an issue. The American culture war is based on issues like this that challenge conventional values and as such create a conflict between Americans. While Buchanan and Hunter only talk about the culture war revolving the social issues in America, the culture wars in more recent years have even spread to economic issues, through conflicts like free enterprise vs. government regulation. Culture wars in America have been described as Gramscians vs. Tocquevillians, those who follow in the wake of Antonio Gramsci and Alexis de Tocqueville. Gramsci was a 20th Century Marxist and Tocqueville was a political thinker who believed in using religious institutions to heal societal woes.
James Davison Hunter's book that coined the term 'culture wars'
James Davison Hunter's book that coined the term 'culture wars'

To best summarize culture wars and their effect on America, it is a conflict between new values and old values. Progressives and conservatives are more divided than ever because of differences in beliefs that put them at odds with each other. The culture war has resulted in a divided electorate, and as a result of that, a divided Congress, as lawmakers must listen to their constituents in order to keep their job. In 2004, Buchanan again spoke out on the issue of culture wars, stating that, "certain groups of Americans no longer live in the same moral universe". Essentially, he was saying that the conflicts in American values have deeply divided the people to the degree that people do not even have even similar morals to one another.

Here are examples of these conflicts.


Abortion has always been a controversial issue between the "pro-life" right and the "pro-choice" left. It was decided in Roe v. Wade (1973) that women had the legal right to a safe abortion, striking down some state laws that prohibited it. Since then, outcries against abortion have come up time and time again. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) the pro-life supporters gained a partial victory because the Supreme Court upheld that if undue burden is not placed upon the woman receiving the abortion, the state had the right to restrict the access to abortions. In 2003, President Bush signed into law a bill passed through Congress that banned abortions. Shortly after it came into being it was shot down by supporters of abortion who took it to the Supreme Court but the controversy rages on. Abortion is still an issue that affects politics today, with Republicans traditionally taking the pro-life side and Democrats taking to pro-choice.

Another social issue that sparks culture war-like controversy is gay marriage. Gay marriage is once again divided into the Democratic left for it and the Republican right against it. It takes a key part in the election of representatives and is one of the main social issues that the candidates focus on. Some people are driven to fight for or against gay marriage. In the New York Times article about Frank Schubert, it is shown that he is one of the people who will go against it at any cost. He was the driving force against Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which prohibits same-sex marriage. Schubert is the driving force behind many campaigns against gay marriage and shows the impact that one person can have.


A key example of an economic culture war is the recently passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was introduced by President Obama in 2010 as a way to provide health coverage for 94% of Americans. Conservatives opposed the bill because of the economical ramifications - it would cost almost 900 billion a year. Even with this cost, Obama was able to instate this act in front of opposition and pass the bill, while still slowly bringing America out of debt. However the debate about the bill was still raging two years after it passed, and it was brought to the Supreme Court. This is shown in current news articles from the New York times, which highlight the issue. The bill was decided to be constitutional in a slim 5 to 4 vote on the issue, but with heavy restrictions on the expansion of Medicare outlined in the bill because the government could not coerce the states into expanding medicare with the threat of loss of federal funding. It was also decided that the law was not legal due to the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, but instead it was the power to levy taxes that legalized the law.


culture war - conflict of values between two or more groups of people
progressives - people who believe that change and forward movement will help solve the problems of society
conservatives - people who believe that returning to founding values and beliefs will solve the problems of society

Section Review Questions:

1. The culture wars in America are best described as a set of conflicts between _ and _?
a. Jews and Muslims
b. Progressives and Conservatives
c. Economists and Priests
d. Rich and Poor

2. The key case in legalizing abortion was:
a. Roe v. Wade
b. Plessy v. Fergussen
c. McCulloch v. Maryland
d. Planned Parenthood v. George

3. The term 'culture wars' was coined by whom?
a. George H.W. Bush
b. Pat Buchanan
c. James Davison Hunter
d. Ronald Reagan

4. These are all positions that a conservative would take on issues EXCEPT:
a. anti gay marriage - gay marriage
b. keeping marijuana banned - marijuana
c. pro-life - abortion
d. more government regulation - stock market regulation

Works Cited:,8599,97659,00.html