Friday, May 8, 2015

Andrew Hartman's "A War for the Soul of America"

Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, and reported the following:
Many have regarded the culture wars as a mere sideshow or as a simple byproduct of deindustrialization, but A War for the Soul of America argues that the culture wars were the very public face of America’s struggle over the unprecedented social changes of the late-twentieth-century United States, as the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American. The hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, homosexuality, and multiculturalism that dominated politics in the period were symptoms of the larger struggle, as conservative Americans slowly began to acknowledge—if initially through rejection—some of the fundamental transformations of American life.

The two paragraphs below from Page 99—which is towards the end of Chapter 3, “Taking God’s Country Back”—nicely represent the book. Ronald Reagan might not have been a member of the grassroots Christian Right but the fact that he committed to the conservative culture wars ensured that religious conservatives would vote for him.

From page 99:
Reagan should hardly have been theologically palatable to white evangelicals: despite dabbling in premillennial dispensationalism, a distinctive Christian fundamentalist eschatology in which adherents sought to decode signs of the coming rapture, he also showed interest in Baha’i, astrology, and the Shroud of Turin. As one Carter supporter bitterly pointed out, Reagan was “a Hollywood libertine, had a child conceived out of wedlock before he and Nancy married, admitted to drug use during his Hollywood years, and according to Henry Steele Commager, was one of the least religious presidents in American history.” Yet Reagan won nearly 75 percent of white evangelical voters in 1980—and this should not have puzzled anyone. By unambiguously aligning himself with Christian Right efforts to take God’s country back, Reagan won over conservative evangelicals less interested in his theology or his personal history than in his politics.

Winning over the Christian Right in 1980 was a big deal. In response to developments that they believed imperiled the nation—secularization, feminism, abortion, gay rights—religious conservatives intensified their involvement in political activism. Evangelical leaders told their congregants that it was their duty to inject their religious beliefs into the political sphere. Falwell, in an apparent reversal of his earlier claim that preachers should not participate in the civil rights movement because it was not the role God had called them to, proclaimed: “This idea of ‘religion and politics don’t mix’ was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” Tapped by well-connected Republican operatives Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips, Falwell founded Moral Majority in 1979 as part of a larger effort to bring religious conservatives into a powerful new political alliance. Falwell justified the need for Moral Majority by arguing that Christian fundamentalists like himself had more in common with similarly orthodox Jews and Catholics “than we ever will with the secularizers of this country. It is time for all religiously committed citizens to unite against our common enemy.”
Learn more about A War for the Soul of America at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue