Culture Wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'

Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'

Earlier this month, I praised the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of legislation pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights.

In particular, I complimented the fair manner in which the Journal-Constitution reported on a subject that often begets scare quotes and slanted headlines (against the religious freedom side) in mainstream news stories.

I stressed in that post:

Since I don’t read the Atlanta paper regularly, I can’t say if this is typical of how that news organization handles this topic. But this particular story, in my humble opinion, deserves kudos.

I stand by the previous caveat, but I have another example of an equally balanced, nuanced report from the Journal-Constitution that I want to highlight.

Maybe — just maybe — we’ve stumbled upon a positive trend? (I know, I know: We need a third example to make it a real trend.)

The Atlanta paper’s latest culture wars story concerns abortion, a topic on which — as we’ve noted repeatedly — news media bias against pro-life advocates frequently runs rampant.

But once again, the Journal-Constitution treats both sides — all sides, actually, since there aren’t just two sides — in what impresses me as an impartial manner.

The basics from the top of the story:

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Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

When you hear someone start talking about America and our torrid "Culture Wars," what do you think?

You probably think of headlines like this one: "Disney doesn’t want to offend anyone. But it’s getting caught in the culture wars."

Or here is another one from a current search in Google News: "Constitutional fluke gives rural states extra clout in the culture wars."

OK, here's one more captures the legal side of so much of this coverage: "How Due Process Became a New Front in the Culture Wars."

So "Culture Wars" equals political battles over, well, cultural issues, things like abortion, gay rights, textbooks in Texas, sitcoms that mention Donald Trump, "liberals" shutting down free-speech forums and so forth and so on.

The problem is that very few of these "Culture Wars" stories have anything to do with the actual ideas in the classic 1991 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America" by sociologist James Davison Hunter. To be specific, new journalists ever get around to explaining Hunter's definition of this term.

So before we get to this weekend's "think piece" -- a Wall Street Journal (beware, high paywall) piece entitled, "The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’ " -- let's flash back to my 1998 "On Religion" salute to Hunter's book. The key is that Hunter declared that:

... America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

I noted that this has become a fault line that "runs through virtually every set of pews in contemporary religious life." There is way more to this than political conflict:


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God, man, Trump, gender, YouTube, males, the Bible and the omnipresent Jordan Peterson

God, man, Trump, gender, YouTube, males, the Bible and the omnipresent Jordan Peterson

So who is that Jordan Peterson guy and why is he so popular with some people and so controversial for others?

Yes, after weeks of getting emails from people asking when I was going to write something about Peterson, the other day I took a look at a very God-haunted Washington Post Style piece that ran with this headline: "Jordan Peterson is on a crusade to toughen up young men. It’s landed him on our cultural divide." Now, readers can click here and check out the "Crossroads" podcast that digs into some of this.

The cultural divide is easy to spot and to explore. On one side you have people -- millions of them -- who follow Peterson's every move in the digital marketplace of ideas. Some see him as the next C.S. Lewis (or a perfect example of trends that Lewis opposed). Some see him as the new William F. Buckley.

Some like his calm, blunt take on political correctness -- including issues related to free speech, gender wars, etc. It' this old logic: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

On the other side there are those who use similar logic, only they assume that when someone endorses one thing or the other that Peterson has said, that then links the University of Toronto clinical psychologist to that cause, whatever that may be. For example, see this take at The Forward:

Jordan Peterson is a public intellectual adored by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer called Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor-turned-self-help-guru, “The Savior of Western Civilization.” Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent conspiracy theorist for Infowars, has tweeted, “Jordan Peterson for Canadian Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, many who admire Peterson see him as a kind of anti-Donald Trump, a person who is making a case for a culturally conservative approach to life using logic, education and discipline as opposed to, well, America's Tweeter In Chief.

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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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New Pew study: Are Americans feeling warm and fuzzy when they think about religious believers?

New Pew study: Are Americans feeling warm and fuzzy when they think about religious believers?

When you stop and think about religion, politics and the tone of American public life over the past year or two, are the words "warm" and "fuzzy" the first things that come to mind?

Probably not.

Let's make that question more specific, which is what host Todd Wilken and I did in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). When you think about the tone of American debates about issues linked to religious faith -- think LGBTQ rights and religious liberty clashes, or the refugee crisis and terrorism threats linked to the Islamic State -- do you have warm, fuzzy, cheerful feelings about what has been going on and the future?

Probably not. 

Well, in that context you can understand why a blast of new numbers from the Pew Research Center made a few headlines this past week. Click here to see the previous GetReligion post on this topic, including links to the study and some of the coverage.

Once again, the content of that study was summarized in this rather warm and fuzzy double-decker headline at the Pew website:

Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups
Jews, Catholics continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral

The lede at The New York Times took that basic idea and, of course, framed it -- logically enough -- in the context of the bitter 2016 race for the White House.

After an election year that stirred up animosity across racial and religious lines, a new survey has found that Americans are actually feeling warmer toward people in nearly every religious group -- including Muslims -- than they did three years ago.

Now think about this one more time. Go back to the questions at the top of this post. Isn't it logical to ask WHY Americans are feeling warmer and fuzzier feelings about various religious groups right now, when most of the evidence in public discourse -- certainly at the level of headlines and social media -- is suggesting the opposite?

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That political despair among white evangelicals? New York Times nails it

That political despair among white evangelicals? New York Times nails it

This — 100 percent this. And about time.

Perhaps you saw the debate the other night. I caught an hour or so of it — about all I could take. 

For those concerned about culture-war issues, count how many times words such as "abortion," "marriage" and "religious liberty" were uttered in the showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (The answer, in each case, would be zero.)

Thus, tweets such as the ones below appeared in my timeline on debate night (yes, including one from our own tmatt).

Then on Wednesday, I noticed this tweet from James A. Smith Sr., a GetReligion reader, a Southern Baptist minister and vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters.

So back to "This," that link I shared earlier.

It's an in-depth story by Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times' veteran national religion correspondent who just won the Religion News Association's top prize for excellence in religion reporting at large newspapers and wire services.

Here is how an email sent to religion writers by a New York Times public relations guru (who knew newspapers had PR people?) describes today's story:

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So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

It happens almost every time I write a GetReligion post about former New York Times editor Bill Keller and how the great Gray Lady -- the world's most influential newspaper -- handles coverage of controversial events and trends tied to religion, culture and morality.

Someone, either in email, online comments or even in face-to-face chatter, will say that Times people struggle with these topics because (a) elite journalists know that religious people are stupid and deserve to have their beliefs mangled or because (b) the Times newsroom is full of people who, truth be told, hate religion.

Obviously, belief (a) tends to show up among liberal readers (and critics of this here weblog) and belief (b) is popular on the cultural and religious right. Truth be told, both of these beliefs are wrong and fail to explain the patterns seen day after day in the hallowed pages of the Times.

I bring this up because of the recent post that ran with the headline, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends: 'Why Readers See The Times As Liberal'." That post was also the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

During my chat with host Todd Wilken, I mentioned a famous article that is highly relevant to this topic, a PressThink essay by journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

Wilken asked me to take a shot at explaining what that headline means. Actually, it's easier to let Rosen do that.

So let's look at two parts of his essay. First, there is a discussion of "The Journalist's Creed," which references an oath written by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1908-1935. Basically, Rosen argues, we are dealing with a very idealistic form of secular faith. This first statement is, he noted, rather "tame" and points toward some brand of civil religion.

Let us attend.

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