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Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America. A History of the Culture Wars

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015
Nathalie Massip
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Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America. A History of the Culture Wars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015

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1Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America is a welcome and long overdue analysis of the 1980s and 1990s culture wars, a series of conflicts over gender, race, religion, and education. The phenomenon was first theorized by James Davison Hunter in 1991 (Culture Wars. The Struggle to Define America). It was then decried by Morris Fiorina (Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America), and Alan Wolfe (One Nation After All), among others, who considered that the majority of Americans were moderates and that, therefore, the culture wars were marginal. Hartman’s thorough examination not only proves these culture wars’ debunkers wrong, but in questioning Hunter’s religious-secular dualism, it also offers a new perspective on this debate.

2Hartman sees the 1960s as pivotal in the emergence of the culture wars. The decade “ushered in an intense new form of polarization that hinged on the very question of America and its meaning” (10), and the various liberation movements that arose “shook up normative America” (18). From Black Power to Chicano nationalism, from the American Indian Movement to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Hartman shows how the sixties’ identity-based movements and the reactionary forces that they triggered, planted the seeds of the culture wars.

3Following in the footsteps of James Davison Hunter, who focused on orthodoxy and progressivism as the polarizing impulses at the heart of the culture wars, Hartman devotes a chapter to the religious dimension of the Kulturkampf, assessing the various crusades of the Christian Right. Among other examples, Hartman studies its opposition to the secular curriculum, Phyllis Schlafly’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, and Jerry Falwell’s hostility towards abortion. Yet Hartman, as an intellectual historian, also departs from Hunter, a sociologist of religion, in presenting the ethnic and racial heritage (“the color line”) of the nation as a central element of the culture wars.

4Gender relations played an important role in the culture wars, too, and Hartman endeavors to retrace the various debates over the family, the role of women, and homosexuality from conservatives’ representations of the traditional, normative, family in the 1950s to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, by way of Roe v. Wade and the 1987 Fatal Attraction movie.

5Popular culture as well as art triggered various controversies during the final two decades of the twentieth century. While Vice-President Quayle’s criticism of the Murphy Brown sitcom and his denunciation of the female lead character’s choice to become a single mom may seem ludicrous, the example attests to conservatives’ belief in the power of culture to shape Americans’ minds.

6Yet the most significant battleground remained schools, “the institution most counted on to ensure the reproduction of American norms” (200). Despite the fascinating debates over the teaching of evolution, school prayer, or homeschooling that Hartman reviews, his most interesting contribution rests in his analysis of the heterogeneity of the conservative movement. Agreeing on the state of disarray of American public schools, religious conservatives targeted “the state as an agent of secularism” while neoconservatives “sought to reshape the national curriculum more to their liking from within the hallowed halls of government” (215). These divergent philosophies led to different approaches to school reform (religious conservatives relied on grassroots forces to reclaim local control, while neoconservatives used their positions in the federal government) that did not prevent alliances, however unlikely or precarious these could be. Hence, religious conservatives’ rejection of government’s role in school reform led them as far as to join forces with liberals against neoconservatives. Higher education was also the site of heated debates, whether over affirmative action, the teaching of the Western canon, and relativism. Hartman ends his analysis with the history wars, which he relates to the emergence and development of social history over the previous decades. In arguing about textbooks, national standards, and contentious exhibitions, conservatives and liberals fought for different versions of the past, and the virulence of their debates proved how sensitive the image and teaching of America’s past could be.

7Hartman contends that as Americans have adjusted to the social upheavals brought about by the 1960s, the culture wars are now over. One may question the second part of this assertion, so polarized the American population seems to be today. Even though it is obvious conservatives have lost the battle over gay marriage, the abortion and contraception debates have been given new impetus by the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. Similarly, the disagreements opposing Creationists and Evolutionists, which emerged long before the turbulent 1960s, have proved to be enduring. Therefore, one wishes that Hartman had made forays into the twenty-first century, especially in his assessment of art controversies. Surely the debates over the role of art, public funding, and censorship did not stop with the closing down of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Perfect Moment at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center or with Finley v. NEA. The culture wars of the early twenty-first century may be “more farcical” (285), yet the tricky question of American identity, which was at the heart of the cultural skirmishes of the late twentieth century, is far from being solved.

8A War for the Soul of America is an extremely well-researched and well-written account of the culture wars, and one of its major assets is a strong historical background. Culture wars are often depicted as a series of fights between clear-cut camps: conservatives v. liberals, or orthodox v. secular in the words of James Davison Hunter. Yet one of Hartman’s crucial contributions to the study of the culture wars seems to rest in his ability to show that the lines between the two camps were often blurry. For instance, while Reagan’s nomination of C. Everett Koop as U.S. surgeon general pleased religious conservatives due to Koop’s evangelical and anti-abortion stance, Koop ended up writing a report advocating a revamping of sex education that would include the teaching of condom use, just as the AIDS epidemic was growing exponentially. The report infuriated conservatives, but “Koop became the face of the federal government’s U-turn on AIDS” (159), as he led a reluctant Reagan to finally deliver a speech on the topic in 1987. Almost thirty years later, and at a time of a presidential campaign that has seen the rise to prominence of capitalist and multi-millionaire Donald Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders, alongside more mainstream candidates, the American population seems more polarized than ever, and ideological lines are at least as blurred as they were in the final decades of the twentieth century.

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Nathalie Massip, « Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America. A History of the Culture Wars », L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], Comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2016, consulté le 20 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Massip

Université Nice Sophia Antipolis,

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