The Next Culture War


The culture war over religion and values that dominated much of the last quarter of the 20th century has ended, mostly in a rout of the right-wing zealots who waged it.

Yet even as this old conflict has receded , a new culture war may be beginning. This one is being launched largely by the religious right's long-time secularist enemies who are now enjoying unprecedented influence over our national politics.

For all the manifest differences between these two groups, these culture warriors have much in common. Each represents an effort by a highly motivated minority to impose a particular vision of life on a population that does not share either their level of conviction or specific policy preferences.

The Christian right saw its mission as using government policy to restore family and faith to a country they saw losing adherence to both. Not content with hometown pieties, they wanted to use government power to regulate areas ranging from abortion and gay marriage to stem cell research, in ways reflecting their values and agenda.

For a while, their agenda also appealed to white ethnics in urban areas, largely Catholics, who recoiled against the crime and disorder in city streets. When they moved en masse to the suburbs, the religious right's social base narrowed further.

One critical weakness of the movement stemmed from the fact that many prominent figures like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms rose from the segregationist South. This limited their appeal outside the white Confederate ethnic enclaves in small towns and some Southern suburbs. They were notably less successful in the fastest-growing, more ethnically and socially diverse communities, where the future of evangelical Christianity now is being shaped.

Many of the goals espoused by Christian political activists are clearly commendable – promoting charity and respect for human life. In some areas, such as abortion, they have made real inroads on influencing broader society's attitudes. But overall, their political attempts to impose a narrow religious agenda has fallen into disrepute even among Republicans.

Today, the locus of the culture war has shifted to the secularist left, whose primary geographic base lies in our densest, most elite cities. This group has evolved into its own version of what the Calvinists would call "the elect" – those chosen to thrive amid a sinful nation. They might also be called "the cognitive elite," since their self-image comes not from religious worship but from a sense of higher intelligence, greater rationality and even superior healthfulness.

Perhaps the most honest description of this largely urban grouping was made in the Seattle alternative paper The Stranger shortly after George Bush's 2004 re-election. Shocked by John Kerry's defeat, The Stranger defined their preferred constituency as "islands of sanity, liberalism and compassion." The red regions, they concluded, were the abode of "people [who] are fatter and slower and dumber."

At the time, The Stranger's solution was to secede in spirit from the red states and build a new America hewing to what they considered humane and scientific values. Yet four years later, the self-proclaimed "islands of sanity" now dominate the government in a manner unprecedented in recent American history.

The rapid ascendancy of the new culture warriors has everything to do with class and caste. The religious right's base lay predominately in the small towns and lower middle class. They may have had more votes than the sophisticated city-dwellers, but in the end they had little influence among Bush-era policy-makers, whose greater allegiance was to Wall Street, energy and other corporate interests.

In sharp contrast, the cognitive elites rise straight from the critical bastions of Obama-era power. They draw strength from the mainstream media, the vast "progressive" non-profit community, the universities, and the professional policy elites. University and think-tank denizens, according to a recent National Journal survey, constitute 37 percent of the top 366 appointees by the Obama administration, far more than under the Bush regime.

One group, not surprisingly far less well-represented, are white Christians, whose number, according to the National Journal, has dropped from 71 percent under Bush to 46 percent. It's not that the Obamites lack faith, just that they lean less to conservative Christianity and more toward the gospel according to Al Gore.

Like their Christian right counterparts, the cognitive elite's agenda does address some important issues. You do not have to embrace the theology of global warming (aka climate change) to favor incentives for reducing energy use and cleaning up pollution. Advocating healthier outcomes through more walking, bike riding and better school lunches also make sense as public goals. And a planning approach that allows for more housing options in suburbs and better access to transit also could be useful.

The problem here, as with the Christian right, lies with overzealousness and intolerance. Whether environmentalism qualifies as a religion or ideology for legal purposes, it is clearly being embraced in a quasi-theological way. As Bjorn Lomborg and others have pointed out, any objection to the Gorite carbon emissions agenda invites scorn and denunciation for, as Paul Krugman recently suggested, "treason against the planet." Even mild skeptics can expect to be treated like a strident atheist at a mega-church – although probably with likely far less compassion or politeness.

Critically, the climate-change zealots likely will be in our faces and wallets far more than the religious fulminators. Although the public is widely skeptical of the whole climate change agenda, they will have to confront a huge new bureaucratic apparatus that could impact millions of businesses and local planning decisions down to the household level.

This desire to micromanage in the public interest also extends well beyond climate change. There is clear desire now to influence everything from how we live to what we eat. You can see the beginnings in everything from ever-higher cigarette taxes to bans on trans-fats at your local hot dog stand.

San Francisco, always ground zero for such intrusive lunacy, now has determined to find ways to shove healthy foods on the plates of city residents, preferably from urban gardens. The city is even taking steps to prevent city workers from ordering donuts for meetings. Now bureaucrats must follow guidelines from the Health Department.

City workers even have to cut bagels into quarters or halves, presumably so that workers may all look as svelte as Mayor Gavin Newsom. "We have an eating and drinking problem in America," declared Newsom, a candidate for governor with an admitted former alcohol problem of his own.

But perhaps the most intrusive changes may come in terms of planning and development. The Obama administration has already declared its desire to "coerce" people out of their cars and discourage sprawl in order to promote its health and carbon-cutting agendas.

This could evolve into a concerted attempt to force more Americans into the high-density housing as opposed to the single family suburban homes they prefer for reasons ranging from cost to privacy and safety. It may be questionable how much these steps will improve health or the environment, but this may not matter much given the current theological consensus.

What we now see is policy enacted in the name of scientific dogma, even though science's essence lies in open inquiry and debate. In the process, agendas are often conflated; reports even mildly contrary to the received wisdom of climate change are ridiculed or ignored. For some urbanists, climate change also provides a convenient excuse to reverse the dispersion to suburbs that they have railed against for decades.

What we need now is not self-interested dogma, but open, wide-ranging debate designed to find the most effective ways to achieve energy efficiency in both cities and suburbs. Amid the worst economic downturn in a half-century, we also might want to weigh the impact of some "green" policies on the employment, income and wealth prospects for middle- and working-class Americans.

The anointed secular clerisy seems destined to become very unpopular. Americans do not like to be preached to by their political leaders about how to manage the details of their lives, particularly when the preachers often fail to follow their own precepts; this was a core problem with those who aligned with the religious right. Environmental and health activists would do better to focus more on suasion as opposed to coercion and to offer incentives rather than dictates to achieve their goals.

They should also learn that problems are addressed most effectively at the local, community and familial levels. The wide access to information through the Internet undermines the very logic for relentlessly centralized solutions; the best "green" policies may be those that evolve organically and fit specific local conditions.

Basically, cultural warfare makes for stupid politics, as the Republicans should have – but likely have not – learned by now. The new culture war now developing could pose similar dangers for the Democrats, if they are not careful.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.

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Not exactly

Mr. Kotkin is correct that the culture war is heating up again, but for the most part it’s not new in its motivations, strategies, or tactics—or who is instigating it. It’s an extension of the old culture war, which was rooted in understandable bewilderment over societal changes and then magnified many times over by political opportunists for their own purposes. Only the targets have shifted. Environmentalists are now in the crosshairs. The right-wing populists (note that I didn’t say conservatives—there is a difference) have seen an opportunity to create a new grievance narrative and they are exploiting it.

Poor environmentalists! The movement was founded on the rather conservative principle of taking care of your surroundings and treading cautiously on the natural world. They were successful in the 1970s in getting bipartisan, common-sense laws passed to control water and air pollution, protect endangered species, and get the federal and state governments to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions (NEPA and the like). Then they had to fight relentless efforts by the Bush II administration to nullify large portions of these laws through abuse of the regulatory process. Far from just saying no to growth and economic development, since the 1990s they have been eager to find solutions and models that will help modern civilization coexist harmoniously with the natural world. That’s what smart growth, clean energy, green building, and sustainable development concepts are all about. These ideas happen to have caught on with politicians from Obama on down to local town councils because they make sense as solutions to problems. Now, as a reward for these services to the larger society, the culture warriors, using their usual toxic mix of revisionist history, misinformation, and ad hominem attacks, accuse environmentalists of being fascists, Marxists, terrorists, pagans, and worse. This verbal brownshirtism has suddenly exploded all over the internet, crowding out civil discourse. Contrary to what Mr. Kotkin implies, I’ve encountered relatively few examples of environmentalist types trying to shout down others like that.

I acknowledge that there are some in the environmental camp who are more militant and therefore controversial (Greenpeace, Earth First, etc.). But these folks aren’t in government. Why would they want to work for the government, for God’s sake? They’re into direct action, not the relatively boring and frustrating world of policymaking. There are also some overzealous people in government, like the San Francisco mayor, who come across as overbearing. No one likes to be micromanaged. But these are normal human failings, not evidence of a movement bent on dictatorship and squelching dissent.

I don’t condone the words of urbanites who foster contemptuous stereotypes of “red state” people. I’m an urbanite, but I’ve also worked in small towns, and know that there are many good things about them, especially the sense of community. It’s just a different lifestyle, maybe with less of a variety of things to do and a little less tolerance of nonconformist thought and behavior. I speak up whenever I hear negative stereotypes about “red staters” being proffered as fact. But I have to say this: it wasn’t urbanites who started the culture war, and it isn’t urbanites who are keeping it going. The appeal of small towns and rural areas (and some suburbs where people erroneously think they are buying into a small-town lifestyle) is the absence of change. So when larger social and economic forces like globalization set to work and force changes you didn’t ask for and don’t want, naturally you start to look for culprits. The secular urban culture, which dominates television and controls a lot of money, provides a convenient scapegoat. Politicians representing urban areas provide another.

Now we find ourselves on the cusp of even more change, which again is coming from impersonal forces—in this case the collapse of the financial markets, conventional energy supplies that are growing tighter, and demographic diversification. To people who don’t react well to change, none of that is good and it must be someone’s fault. Throw in a new biracial president from Hawaii/Chicago and some new ideas about a “green economy,” and you have enough ingredients for a pretty toxic reaction. And Republican politicians out for revenge are happy to provide the catalyst.

So yes, there are some environmentalists and secular urbanites in the Obama administration peddling new ideas, but they’re not the ones who are stoking the culture war. If you want to see who is keeping it going, just look for the usual suspects.

The Age of Environmentalism

I have developing the histories of this new secular religion for some years now and you might enjoy reading the first three of four essays on "The Age of Environmentalism" here:

Go to:

Or for just "The Age of Environmentalism – the American Story" go here to get the pdf without seeing the rest of the Web page:

The original had a surplus full stop after the pdf which killed the link.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.

Dad, you're spilling our apple juice back here

Joel Kotkin's point is that those at the steering wheel appear to be swerving the car back and forth - first right, now left - first extreme religion, now extreme science.

It would be nice if our leadership could take a little from both and navigate the car a little more reasonably.

We elected a centrist; let's get back to the center lane.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL

P.S. Respecting an author by spelling his name correctly is the best way to be taken seriously as a critic.

i agree


i think this is what we hoped for in obama. i am not sure this is what we have gotten. it may take a bit of a setback in the next year to get him back on what we hoped was his original course.


Get Your Story Straight

Maybe if all the academics and scientists with an agenda could keep their story straight, they'd build some credibility. In the late 70s, we were told to fear global cooling, because the sun's rays were being blocked by pollutants. I remember learning about this in my grade school "science" class. Then, just 10 years later, it was global warming that would do us in. I remember being told in 1989 that within 20 years Boston would warm up to the climate that Virginia had then. Yet today, they've got 65 degree summer days and 6 feet of snow in the winter.

After all this nonsense failed to come to light, the "scientists" switched messages again - over to "climate change", which provides enough wiggle room to blame every thunderstorm, wind gust, and sunny day on someone.

A little consistency would make these silly climate stories much more convincing.

re: "all the academics and scientists with an agenda"

There is a big difference between local weather over a period of days or weeks and worldwide climate over a period of years. The northeast has had an unusually cool and rainy summer thus far, but the worldwide average temperature for June was the 2nd highest on record. There is some interesting data here:

There is virtual unanimity among scientists that global warming is both a very real and serious phenomenon, and is caused by human activity. There is no recognized scientific organization that disputes that conclusion.

Proving the Point

There's only unanimity among the type of zealots cited in Mr. Kotkin's article. Hillary Clinton recently appointed a "climate change" ambassador noting how recent cooling and temperature plateaus did not allow for the term "global warming" to be used.

But with the "unanimity" crowd, there is never a discussion of facts, just a bunch of zealots pointing only to the studies they agree with and claiming consensus, when there are plenty of studies reaching different conclusions. And anyone who disagrees is personally attacked, or their motivation gets questioned.

And the problem with constantly shifting terminology and definitions reinforces the concept that this is made up. If you look at other issues like civil rights and right to choose, the basic arguments in favor don't change year to year. Yet with global cooling-global warming-climate change, I'll bet anything within 5-10 years it will have a new name, new alleged culprits, but the same fearful rhetoric.

The Unanimity "Crowd"

Except for the CATO/Heritage and AEI-funded industry hack scientists, there actually IS unanimity among mainstream scientists about global warming. I spent several months interviewing them, and the interesting thing was that they DO disagree on two things: the time table of the carbon-based damage, and the mechanism of damage--will it be mitigateed or amplified by atmospheric columns, atmospheric carrying capacity, etc? Those may well determine the rate of damage. But the ongoing know-nothingism of the carbon skeptics, while entertaining as a kind self-serving circus, will soon be recongized for what it is: the public policy version of creationism.

Completely False Statements

There is zero evidence that supports that 1970s global cooling theory was consensus. In fact, an audit revealed most of the studies back then focused on GHG warming:

At any rate, there have been many profound scientific consensuses that in later years were found to be completely false (orbit of the planets, flat earth, etc.). This does not in anyway debunk any of the scientific knowledge gained before these untrue axioms were proven wrong, nor does it diminish from any specific field of science that produced those untrue notions of the world.

your comment

thank you for your comment

i do not pretend to be a climate scientist- but it seems to me there's more of a debate on the mega-climate issue than is now going on.

my sense is we should work towards sensible goals like reducing use of foreign energy, eliminating pollution and trying to design livable communities - that are livable not to theorists, but to residents.